FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Michael Binnion
June 21, 2016
His mantra? “A desire to change the world, because you think you know a better way. Too many people confuse entrepreneurship with small business. I’m an entrepreneur …”
We had a few scheduling challenges … each of us, so this interview soon became one I thought might not happen – but we each persevered, and one afternoon recently we met at his office, awash in art, art books, books, technical papers and the accoutrements of a CEO with souvenirs and hobbies … he needs a big office!
My assumption was that Michael Binnion was a transplanted easterner. One of his fans, someone I know well, met him when they were young-bucks making their way in Toronto, and I know his company Questerre Energy is very active in Quebec. Each time I make assumptions I learn – don’t make assumptions!
Writer (he blogs), peer-reviewed papers on shale gas development, business man/oil man, bon-vivant, bean-counter, son-of-a-bean counter, proud, stubborn – opinionated. I’d not heard those words about him, but they are all true. What I’d heard about him impressed me – not facts, but impressions others had of him. I set out to ‘meet and learn’. I did …
Born in Calgary, fifth generation Calgarian!
He’s not loud, but he’s proud. He/his home, a flood survivor …
Mom, he describes as a serial-entrepreneur. Dad, a CA. He has a younger sister. His parents divorced and each remarried. He picked up two half-sisters in that transaction. His early influences included two dynamic grandfathers (Sharp Shop owner, Fire Marshall @ #1FireHall). Our discussion was wide-roaming – too much to capture here – but very interesting. Dad’s accounting career took the family to Edmonton, employment with Imperial Oil, then Thorne Riddell – doing some pioneering in the data-centre biz long before that term was common, and Michael got exposed to that field early. His dad wanted him to pursue a career in law. While Michael thought about that – and perhaps he still does – he felt accounting was a first-step/foundation which might leave more options open.
Michael graduated from Ross Sheppard High in Edmonton, did his B.Comm. (Finance) degree at University of Alberta and articled with Clarkson Gordon. His career path zigged and zagged and was influenced by Trudeaumania – he hung on those words of Pierre Trudeau telling Canadians we "needed to be more than hewers of wood and drawers of water" (he now believes Trudeau was really wrong), so he wanted a business career but ‘not in oil & gas’ because that industry wasn’t going anywhere (who knew?).
His path took the direction of high-tech, data, tax, Toronto, Clarkson (now E&Y). Then, at 28, he left the safety of partner-track to join a client’s business – real estate, retailing; “it was a fantastic situation – I had daily phone calls with the owner, but I had impact – I was working through work-out difficulties, involved in import/export businesses and got involved in Nevada Bobs, which we fixed and sold.” His wife (they have two children) wanted to move to Calgary, an opportunity with Trans-Dominion Energy arrived – and the desire not to be working for someone else presented ...
As he bought and sold assets, re-worked that company, a partition manufacturing business venture on the books seemed promising. Life-Space, partnership with Mogens Smed and successful businesses were built. His tax/finance background and association with Bruce Edgelow helped him with establishing and financing some Limited Partnerships. Oil & gas investments in Ukraine, Georgia, NWT, Quebec … his adventures have wandered all over the map – culminating in the startup of Questerre Energy in 1998.
He discussed, at some length and with much praise, the influence of Russ Hammond – a friend and geologist whose thinking influenced him to consider ‘the right geology’ and looking for ‘different kinds of rock’ where others had looked before – which got Questerre focused on hydro-thermal dolomites and shale in Quebec. That ‘looking where everyone has looked but seeing something nobody else has seen’ thinking paid off. Successes have been stymied by Quebec politics and public sentiment. Michael, undeterred, set out to learn French and influence the process. He’s been successful at both – and last week’s announcement of new hydro-carbon legislation in Quebec is the proof …
Other things he’s done - invested in many businesses, divorced in 2011, remarried to Maria Binnion (picked up three step-children in that transaction), a recently retired accountant/colleague, founded a foundation for disabled athletes, Chairman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and he recently bought a fly-in lodge in BC (exclusive heli-skiing, fishing).
Why are you successful? “by taking chances. I’ve failed at more things than I’ve succeeded at. My C.A., tax training – and survival skills.”
What has held you back? “I’ve been a terrible stock-picker. I’ve been challenged by good people doing things badly because they didn’t understand something. I’ve too often assumed other people wanted what I want.”
How do you see your business – oil & gas business – going forward over the next quarter?
… balance sheet perceptions, and problems. Firms who are rebuilding their balance sheets might make it through.
And over the next five years?
… institutional change. We’re seeing the end of 125 years of supply management. This isn’t just about oil. It’s about disruptive technologies (ie: SAGD, most shale fracking). Too many people are of the view the future will look like the past – but it isn’t. For sure, it’s not the same. We are on a new supply line … there will be spikes in prices before supply catches up. Greater reliance on hedging.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… people who can be trusted on their word. I don’t like people who forget what they promised. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I believe in finding people you can trust – and then trust them.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Michael Binnion, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I find it inexplicable that anyone doesn’t! People buy-in to my vision. I’ve had extraordinary successes with difficult projects.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I manage by objectives – meaning I manage their objectives, not the manner in which they get to do their work. I’m best at encouraging people to do whatever it takes to do what others thought impossible …
… I object to the term! It’s such a negative term – a lot of things are important in happiness, and work is an important part of that …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… the decline of my fortunes in this downturn! My acquisition of Silver Tip Lodge – a heli-skiing operation in the Caribou Mountains.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… Trudeau’s quote (now debunked)! Russ Hammond – he wanted to find a great field. Tom Vukovich who got me to Calgary, to Trans-Dominion, he got me to realize “it's all about the people”.
… golf (17 handicap), scuba diving, travel – a lot, personal trips mixed with business trips. I have a talent for organizing things, events … and I like doing that.
What do you read?
… books (no Kindle), mostly non-fiction, social sciences – sociology, psychology. Love Malcolm Gladwell, especially Tipping Point. Books that deal with ‘how do you get people to change their mind’.
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