FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Neil Camarta
July 2, 2019
We all meet interesting people ~ those "hi, how are you? … nice to meet you" connections. Most are just that, except some turn out to be extraordinary. This is one of those.
I met Neil Camarata recently, he was a guest presenter at my breakfast club. I had heard of him and knew he was a legend in oilsands but that was all I knew. I was blown away by his presentation and wasted little time asking for this interview which Neil graciously granted. Yes, he’s a legend in oilsands, he’s in the Petroleum Hall of Fame, but that’s a very small part of his fascinating and inspiring story …
His beginnings are in Italy. His grandfather wanted to go to the United States to farm but upon arrival was steered to hard rock mining in Minnesota which didn’t satisfy. He came to Canada for free land which he found to his liking west of Edmonton. Securing land near Edson he farmed - timber, cattle and hay. His family produced six children. Neil’s dad was one of those six – he died in 2018 at 104½.
Neil grew up on that farm, eldest of four. Life on the farm involved lots of chores, selling fish and turkeys door-to-door and school. Neil admits to being not much of an athlete, more nerdy, so being class valedictorian was no surprise. The route off the farm was education and he ventured to the University of Alberta in Edmonton. His best friend went too. The best friend’s brother was studying chemical engineering – that seemed interesting, so he signed up for that. School was funded by scholarships. Summers helping on the farm, then yes, top of his class, Bachelor of Chemical Engineering with Distinction. Further schooling came later, in Advanced Chemical Engineering at University of Calgary and an MBA from Northwestern.
Job interviews on campus led to job offers from Syncrude and Shell. May 5, 1975 was his start date at Syncrude but that was stopped by a hiring freeze. Well, Shell it was instead – and a 30 year career there followed. His career at Shell involved moves, training and advancement – work in Alberta gas fields, fun in Houston, operations in Waterton, project management and business management responsibilities, Toronto, back to Calgary (Canadian HQ had moved from Toronto), then to London and the Hague. Liaison between business units of Shell, then running Shell Africa in Johannesburg, then back to Calgary in 1996. (Along this meteoric rise – marriage, three children, divorce, remarriage, three step-children and four grandchildren.) Neil’s explanation about each step in his career, “they kept rewarding me with more work”.
When he returned to Calgary in 1996 ~ fortuitous collision of several ingredients: he reported to the new CEO Chuck Wilson, and headed a planning group (“I hated it”), the Alberta government was about to pull Shell’s oilsand’s lease after 47 years of inaction, Royal Dutch Shell's executives in The Hague didn’t want to lose a 5.0 billion barrel reserve and Neil was given the hurculean task to bring it off ~ so he struck a deal with then Energy Minister Pat Nelson(Black) to commence development within three years, which he did. Bitumen mine, pipeline, upgrader at Scotford, partnering with BHP who pulled out, then partnering with Chevron/20%, Athabasca Oil Sands/20% (former BHP wise guys + Guy Turcotte), a budget of $4.0 billion, a diluent plant explosion and fire, cost overruns to $6.0 billion and some painful expensive lessons in logistics ~ which produced upon completion 155,000 bbl/day which, together with rising oil prices, payback was achieved within 18 months. Then phase two. In 2005, with 30 years at Shell, Neil was offered a position in The Hague. He declined – retired at 55, took his stock options and pension.
But he got bored.
Ron Brenneman recruited him to join him for a 5 yr. gig which included the 2008 downturn and led to the merger of Suncor and Petro Canada. Neil retired again.
He got bored again, turned 60, joined Guy Turcotte as a partner in Western Hydrogen. Together they've started another venture called Field Upgrading – “it’s me, Guy and about 40 of our friends”, with a goal to pull sulphur out of heavy oil – their market is wide but the primary target is four million bbl/day consumed by shipping. They're plan, to get sulphur out of Bunker C oil. As Neil explains it seems like a high school chemistry lab experiment, but clearly it’s not that simple. A pilot plant is working. To make it all possible ~ a sequay to Boulder, Colorado. It seems in the evolution of Coors beer, the Coors family set up a bottle making plant. That plant over time became a leading edge producer of ceramics. Imagine a giant battery, with specialized ceramic plates – the process rolls off Neil’s tongue and I got lost … but suffice to say they bought the ceramic plant and 300 patents that come with it …
Along the way through this conversation, Neil explained he has Muscular Dystrophy – a kind that manifests in eye muscle issues (surfaced in his 20s), loss of upper body strength that impacts in your 50s. His variation is FSHD. Two of his three children have the gene. Along with his wife Katherine and Craig Kelley and others with FSHD they established the FSHD Canada Foundation. They are funding research being conducted in Germany. They’ve partnered with Evo-Tech to test ‘existing approved drugs for many other things’ on FSHD subjects. First in the lab, they got over 300 ‘hits’ of things that might work. They’ve narrowed that number and are looking for a ‘low dose/high impact’ solution. Mice are trying it now and human trials will follow soon.
Amazing what a clever hard working extraordinary fellow can do when he gets bored …
Why are you successful? “Fear of failure. I got this from mom and dad, and from my grandparents – starts by working hard and being good at school, bringing home good report cards. Not wanting to let anyone down.”
What has held you back? “Nothing”.
How do you see your business – “we take the dirty out of dirty oil” – going forward over the next quarter?
… we are at the show-and-tell stage, we have a pilot plant and development of our demonstration plant underway.
And over the next five years?
… plants operational using our technology – at or near refineries and ports (i.e., Houston, Singapore, Rotterdam)
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… they have something I want. I’m not a price guy – I want to know people are smart, fair, honest and nice to deal with.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Neil, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I have a strong record of getting results and doing larger projects. And I’m not hard to get along with.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… my 3 P’s; passion, purpose, people. You have to be a cheerleader. You need to be articulate and be a dreamer. You don’t have to love people, but you have to really like them.
… I’ve never really separated the two.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… not much. Sometimes, when I’m wrestling with a technical issue – asking myself how am I going to makes this work?
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my friend’s brother’s influence that got me to pick chemical engineering; that I never got to Fort Mac with Syncrude – ending up in Calgary with Shell who kept giving me jobs where I could fail and I didn’t fail; getting remarried … some elements of change not unlike the oilsands project problems, you learn a lot about yourself.
… the work I do. I’m not a strong skier or good golfer – but I try. I like to build things. I like to hang out with people who are smart and nice.
What do you read?
… on e-readers, lots of stuff! Lots of history, currently reading Endeavor about Captain Cook’s adventures. I listen to podcasts and news – BBC, coffee and 45 minutes on the treadmill every day.
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