George Fink is a man who likes to go against the grain. “My whole life I’ve been contrarian,” says the chairman and CEO of Bonterra Energy. “When everyone is selling we tend to buy, and when everyone is buying we tend to sell.” Fink might be contrarian but he’s also highly effective, particularly in his role as chairman. In fact, Fink is the chairman not only of Bonterra – a light oil-weighted company that produced approximately 12,400 boe/d during the first six months of 2015 – but natural gas producer Pine Cliff Energy too. Despite a climate where many junior companies are in distress, Bonterra and Pine Cliff are doing fine.
That’s due in no small part to Fink and the leadership he provides for both companies. During a career in the resource extraction business spanning four decades, Fink has founded gold producer Comaplex Minerals in the 1980s (it was bought by Agnico Eagle in 2010), Bonterra in the 1990s and Pine Cliff in 2007. And during that time he’s developed a reputation as a visionary whose companies are successful in large part because they use their capital wisely. Fink needed all of his talents during the dark days of 2015, a period he says is “tied for second” as the worst industry downturn he’s ever experienced.
But while other juniors spent the year swimming in red ink and fighting for survival, Bonterra reported a loss of only $4.6 million during the first two quarters of 2015, and still managed to continue paying a monthly dividend of 15 cents per share. As its CEO, Fink must focus on the day-today operations of Bonterra. The chairman’s role, on the other hand, requires a different mindset. The chair of a company’s board of directors must be many things – a big-picture thinker, a mentor, a networker and a critical mind who is willing to challenge management if necessary.
As a mentor, Fink was responsible for bringing Pine Cliff CEO Phil Hodge into the fold in 2012. Hodge has praised Fink’s work ethic, business acumen and low-key leadership style as Pine Cliff has continued to grow production from unloved assets in Western Canada, mostly dry natural gas in its core Carrot Creek area in Alberta. Fink has plenty to do as CEO and chairman of Bonterra, but he still works closely with Hodge on Pine Cliff’s business. “He and I spend on average an hour together every day talking about things,” Fink says. “There would not be a day that would go by that we would not speak.”
Challenging management on its strategic decisions, a key responsibility of any board chair, might seem like a difficult thing to achieve at Bonterra given that Fink is both chairman and CEO. It’s an arrangement that’s frowned upon by some institutional investors, but Fink says 70 per cent of the company’s shares are owned by retail investors who have been with the company for over 20 years, and they want him holding both roles. He believes having senior management so invested at the board level can be a big plus for a company. “I’d invest in other companies if the CEO was heavily involved in the board and not just a person who is going to take advice from the board,” Fink says. “It may not be what the street wants us to do, but it seems to work for us.”
Indeed, it does. Production volumes were flat in 2015, but Bonterra managed to do that despite slashing capital spending by nearly $60 million during the first six months of the year compared to the same period in 2014. The company saw its well costs drop from an average of between $2.8 million and $3 million per well, to $2 million. And Fink continued with his contrarian ways. In February of 2015, Bonterra announced a $172-million deal to acquire oil and gas assets from Enerplus in the Pembina Cardium oil field at a time when most juniors were laying low or selling off assets.