Sunday, November 30, 2008

CEO of the Year: Harold (Hal) Kvisle

It was a scene straight out of Hollywood last week, as taxis and stretch limousines pulled up to red carpet at the Calgary Fairmount Palliser Hotel. Corporate and media executives, dressed in tuxedoes or dripping with diamonds, poured into the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom for the 19th annual CEO of the Year Award gala. Hal Kvisle, president and CEO of TransCanada, was this year’s honouree.

Full sized provincial flags and velvet rope separated ordinary hotel guests from the gala ticket holders. A champagne reception allowed many to commiserate and congratulate, while post-dinner liqueurs in the Oval Room saw guests linger late into the night. Senator Marie Poulin provided a bilingual grace before the three-course meal. The menu included oven roasted prawns and seared scallops with candied parsnip risotto, Alberta prime rib, and a velvety chocolate delight with raspberry coulis. Guests paid $895 per plate. Musicians and a contortionist performed on small stages around the ballroom during the meal.

Overall, the mood was jovial, and guests had good reason to be giddy. Earlier in the day a discounted royalty rate for new oil sands projects had been announced, making it more affordable for energy companies to invest in the region. It was certainly the most common topic of conversation, but hardly unrivaled. Rajeev Aggerwal and his colleagues at SNC-Lavalin extolled the virtues of carbon capture and storage technology, and marveled over the Masdar Initiative, a bold international foray into sustainable technologies based in Abu Dhabi. Gail Asper was passionate and persuasive about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, captivating many guests with great charm and leaving them with a star-shaped pin signifying her cause.

Prestigious guests included the honourable Peter Lougheed, publisher of National Post Gordon Fisher, Alberta’s minister of finance Iris Evans, Alberta’s minister of energy Mel Knight, deputy premier of Alberta Ron Stevens, partner of Caldwell Partners International Anne Fawcett, managing partner of Deloitte Alan MacGibbon, executive vice-president of SNC-Lavalin Jean Beaudoin, vice chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Murray Edwards, chairman of Royal Bank and EnCana David O’Brien, industry executive advisor at Kern Partners Ltd. Dave Pearce, vice-president exploration of Cinch Energy Brian McBeath, and Gail Asper, director of CanWest Global Communications. Ten business students from across the country were also present; each the recipient of a Futures Fund Scholarship, worth $5,000.

A video presentation highlighted his leadership qualities as a consummate deal-maker, good communicator, and visionary. Barry Jackson, chair of TransCanada and director of Nexen, said he is responsible for “one of the most remarkable turnarounds of any organization in the energy sector,” growing assets from 19 billion to 30 billion dollars since 2001. He’s also served as chairman for Mount Royal College, and currently sits on the board of the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Bank of Montreal.

Mr. Kvisle delivered an amiable, pragmatic speech. He thanked his family, including his two daughters in attendance, his board members, and the former CEOs of TransCanada.

Published in National Post, November 29 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fun and fashion celebrate AGC

Beauty hung on walls and dripped off shoulders at the Art Gallery of Calgary [AGC] last week. An exhibit of George Webber’s photography, curated by newcomer Marianne Elder, provided the backdrop for a cocktail reception prior to ArtWear, the sixth annual fashion runway show organized by the AGC.

The affair delighted every sense. Striding down a red carpet, VIPs were overwhelmed by “paparazzi” snapping photos and shouting provocations. Inside, taste buds were tickled – but not exactly inspired - by Chef David Ly, who served his usual shrimp and scallop canapés, as well as beef tataki and teensy-tiny potato skins covered in cheese. Crisp mojitos flowed freely.

Artist and educator Dee Fontans showcased a gorgeous, daring collection of ‘wearable art’, produced by seventeen of her students from the Alberta College of Art and Design. The collection focused on the relationships between objects, audiences, and the body. There were some stunning garments, and the students gave an energetic, confident performance. Chelsa Mossing, a fourth year student, modeled a dress made out of Barbie dolls. She describes the piece as “addressing natural curiosities – and manufactured answers – about gender roles.” Others were inspired by the natural environment, with replicas of birds, salamanders, and woodland creatures as part of their outfits.

Recently criticized in local media for its role as hipster party venue rather than respectable institute, the gallery is trying hard to prove itself to the artistic community, and donors. Decisions like hiring Elder and new president Valerie Cooper seem to be doing just that.

“Valerie is an amazing force for this gallery,” said one member of the AGC board, “She’s got the artistic intuition and the business training to bring us forward."

After two hours of cocktails and gossip, the party moved to Hotel Arts. There, 400 additional guests joined in watching hot new styles on the runway and bidding in a silent auction. The ballroom was crowded but, happily, VIPs were given priority seating and complimentary bottles of Moët et Chandon.

On display were fashion-forward pieces, available at Renfrew Furs, Blu’s, Boutik, Primitive, and many other retailers. The show was coordinated by Marie Louise Kapp, and (in true boom-town style) focused on boutiques over brands. One special guest, however, was all about the labels. Wensa imports designer handbags, some of which are sold through Renfrew Furs. Versace, Dior, and Prada have a space in her closet.

Not often billed as a fashion capital, nor recognized for its staggering talent in female executives, Calgary proved to be much more than cowboy meets couture that night. Stylish and sophisticated guests included: Kelsey Schiavon of Holt Renfrew, Terri MacLeod of Suncor, Charlene Dorey of EnCana, Claire Fern of Long View Systems, new mom Tiffany Yip, jet-setting fashion maven Linda Amelia Hearst, Jelena Molnar of Canadian Natural Resources, Colleen Gray, AGC board of directors, Phyllis Groten of RBC, and Naomi Lacey.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Junior Achievement has major benefit

It was business unusual for many of Calgary’s top executives this month, at a gala dinner to support Junior Achievement. The evening focused on the legacy of three visionary leaders: Edward Galvin, James Palmer, and Donald Taylor, all of whom were inducted into the Calgary Business Hall of Fame that night. CBC’s Peter Mansbridge flew in from Toronto to act as master of ceremonies.

A cocktail reception preceded the dinner and induction ceremony, which took place in the Hyatt’s Imperial Ballroom. Prominent figures included Arlene Dickinson, president of Venture Communications, Richard George, president of Suncor, Michael Mezei, president of Mawer Investment, and Gretchen Bell-Dinning, daughter of past laureate Max Bell.

The evening held a number of surprises. Our national anthem was sung beautifully by Connie Gibbens (performed a capella when the background music unexpectedly failed); earnest teenagers made up a significant portion of the evening’s guests; there were four delicious courses rather than the standard three; Jim Palmer revealed himself to be a “flaming and fervent Liberal”; and Peter Mansbridge was very funny.

“When you come from a have-not province,” Mansbridge began, “The opportunity for a free meal is very exciting. Think about it – you have the Rockies, we have not. You have an abundance of oil, we have not. You have a hockey team, and we have not.”

Each honouree was given a video tribute before making a speech, and then sitting off stage for a one-on-one with Mansbridge, complete with armchairs and faux bookshelves. The brief interview was projected onto large screens around the room.

Edward Galvin, who passed away in 2005, is remembered for his beloved Lamborghini, and building two successful oil companies: Poco Petroleum, which was sold for $4.5 billion dollars in 2000, and Norcen Energy Resources, worth $1.5 billion per year at the time of its sale. Galvin’s legacy lives on through his contributions to United Way and Calgary Foundation. Don Taylor is the former president of Engineered Air, which boasts current sales exceeding $2 billion. He has also been active in the real estate market, holding 65% ownership of Three Sisters development in Canmore until recently. Jim Palmer helped to build one of the country’s leading corporate law firms: Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP. There is a public policy lecture series in his name at the University of Calgary. He has chaired the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, and supports many charitable organizations, including Calgary Homeless Foundation.

Much was heard of Junior Achievement’s efforts to mentor young people, and the number of fresh faces in conservative business attire was a testament to their success. High school teachers spoke of the valuable education their students receive from JA. One teacher said there was an increase in bathroom breaks among her grade nine students, who were found to be running into the library to check their virtual stock portfolios.

Guests enjoyed a Caprese salad, roasted tomato bisque, espresso-rubbed beef tenderloin with polenta, and lemon-vanilla Panna Cotta. With networking, inspiration, and a well-balanced meal, the Junior Achievers of Calgary are well prepared – and eager – to tackle the financial world of tomorrow.

Published in National Post, November 15 2008

Sunday, November 9, 2008

'McCain let chances pass him by'

That other election, south of the border and looming large in our imaginations, is the topic of this year’s Teatro Speaker Series. Each month, pundits and provocateurs from the United States draw a good-sized crowd of Canadian cultured intelligentsia, eager to sink their claws into the weighty topics of tomorrow. October’s speaker was Michael Barone, alumnus of Yale Law School, former V.P. of polling firm Peter D. Hart Research Associates, author of four books on American politics, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, and on-air anchor for the Fox News Channel.

A champagne reception and three-course meal preceded Barone’s speech. Guests dined on autumn pumpkin soup and short rib ravioli, paired with a dry red wine, the Bruno Rocca Dolcetto d’Alba. The dinner was hosted by Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP and David Bissett. Investment firm Gluskin Sheff hosted the reception. National Post, Global Public Affairs, Bennett Jones LLP, Enbridge, Vendemmia Wines, and Fieldstone Capital are regular sponsors of the event.

Jim Palmer, a well known philanthropist and lawyer who is set to receive an induction into the Calgary Business Hall of Fame this month, was among the prominent guests in attendance. Others included academics Dr. Barry Cooper, who provided the keynote’s introduction, and Dr. Tom Flanagan, both from the University of Calgary, Bill and Sharon Siebens, Randy Pettipas, president of Global Public Affairs, Ben Brunnen of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Margo Helper, national executive director of The Seeds Foundation, and Elizabeth Cordeau-Chatelain of Total E&P Canada.

Campaign strategy, financial turmoil, racial politics, and generation gaps were high on Barone’s list of talking points. He also touched on subjects closer to Canadian pocketbooks, namely NAFTA and the future of cross-border energy imports. Much of his talk, though, was devoted to why and how McCain bungled his chances at becoming the next President. Economic distress plays heavily, according to Barone.

“Affluent voters tend to punish the Republic party when there is wealth destruction under a Republican president,” he said, citing George H. W. Bush’s decline in California and New Hampshire when housing prices dropped considerably there in the late 1980s.

The demographics have changed since then as well, he noted. The United States is witnessing the first presidential nominee born outside the social confines of segregation. Obama’s youthful charisma and nuanced views on race endear him to voters and present a stark contrast to the current administration.

Despite these obstacles for John McCain, his success could have been clinched early, Barone argued, given the Democrat’s soft record on mortgage giants Fannie May and Freddie Mac. The protracted struggle between Obama and Clinton in the primaries was another chance for Republicans to further divide (and conquer) their opposition.

While the polls thus far indicate an Obama victory, a twenty-five year career in research, and a life-long love affair with numbers give Barone a nuanced view.

“It’s an art not a science. Tolstoy knew people better in War and Peace than a pollster could ever know”

Published in National Post, November 8 2008
Photo by Adrian Shellard, for National Post

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Gangsters 'n' ghosts come out to howl

It is the best party of the year, according to a skeleton, two pirates, Ghandi and a rag doll. Apes, angels, queens, and dinosaurs agreed. The assortment of sensational figures came together for Calgary Opera’s Grave Gala, a yearly costume fundraising gala. Many guests said they attend every year, attracted by the costumes, food, and music.

The scene was set in Hotel Arts and its Raw Bar, a trendy spot nestled south of the downtown core. A small room swathed in white linens and filled with swirling fog provided the entrance. Pink-haired “muses of sin” lounged on plush sofas and enticed guests with seductive looks and gestures. Beyond this gateway were further temptations in the form of delicious canapés and an immense throbbing dance floor, complete with cage dancers. Catering was provided by Hotel Arts and included mini beef burgers, spring rolls, chicken bruschetta, and lobster salad crostini. Although no one seemed to need the encouragement, several cash bars were available to dispel any lingering inhibitions. Further along a corridor, linking the hotel’s ballroom to its lounge, was the VIP reception. Along the way, large glass walls provided a view of the outside courtyard, where costumed guests sipped cocktails and smoked around a grand steaming hot tub.

Mingling in the VIP area were Kristine Eidsvik, chair of Alberta Ballet's board of directors and Justice of the Queen’s Bench, Bev Foy, chartered accountant with Collins Barrow Calgary LLP and past chair of the Calgary Opera board of directors, Duncan Ly, executive chef of Raw Bar and Saint Germain restaurant, Sean Halliday, president of Imagine eDock Systems, Bart Hribar, president of City Core Commercial Contracting, Christopher Mayell, an emerging artist with the Calgary Opera, Andrea Obermeier of Skyservice Airline, Shawn Calafatsi of Twin Butte Energy, Mark Pierson of Penn West Energy Trust, Brad MacDonald of EnCana, Ryan McCrae of Calvalley Petroleum Inc., and lawyer John Roggeveen.

Talking about her double duty as provincial judge and ballet jury, Eidsvik was rueful.

“You never know, some of these people could end up in my courtroom tomorrow!” she said, surveying the buoyant crowd.

Costumes and conversations followed the night’s theme – seven deadly sins. A seductive but vengeful Madusa, other wise known as managing optician Trudi Flagler of Eye-Q on Kensington, won the prize for best female costume. The elaborate headdress, sequined bikini top and flowing skirt were hand-made by her mother.

The Grave Gala sells out every year, with a maximum of 700 tickets available at $90 each. Its production of Faust begins Saturday, November 8 and runs a mere two weeks.

Published in National Post, November 1 2008