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Eric Patrick Newell


Although Eric Newell’s first major contact with Alberta’s massive oilsands deposits came when he was seconded to Syncrude Canada as vice-president of finance in 1986, it didn’t take long for bitumen to get in his blood as he led Canada’s second oilsands mining development through two decades of trial, tribulation and triumph.


Even after his retirement in 2003, Eric’s passions for the oilsands and community involvement continue to burn as bright as ever. To this day, his legacy of seeing opportunity and growth where others see only problems continues to place even the highest executives in awe.


A current officer of the Order of Canada and chair of the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC), Eric’s lifelong balance of business and community has earned him a rightful spot among the industry’s most influential individuals. In short, there are few in the industry who don’t recognize and admire the man behind the name Eric Newell.


Born on Dec. 16, 1944, in an era when it was not uncommon to work a lifetime with one company, Eric dedicated the first 20 years of his career to Imperial Oil. During this time, he moved through postings in 15 different cities with his wife and eventually, his three children.


Finally, a temporary vice-president of finance assignment with Syncrude in 1986 brought the Newell family to Fort McMurray, Alberta, where they would settle until Eric’s retirement in 2003.


In 1989, Eric resigned from Imperial Oil to become chief executive officer of Syncrude; marking the beginning of his 14-year legacy with the company.


From the moment he began at Syncrude, Eric tirelessly promoted the benefits of the oilsands both for business and for local communities.


Charles Ruigrok, Eric’s co-worker and Syncrude successor, says Eric had the ability to see what others did not.


“He recognized the untapped economic potential that the oilsands represented,” Ruigrok writes.


Under Eric’s leadership, Syncrude’s production capacity grew from 200,000 barrels per day to more than 350,000 barrels per day today.


Eric’s strong leadership of Syncrude in a time of rapid growth and change is exemplified by such projects as the 1995 National Oil Sands Task Force report, the driving force behind the rapid industry expansion of the late 1990s.


Although business was booming, Eric’s greatest achievements were made beyond the confines of the boardrooms and office spaces. He continued to promote the community benefits of the oilsands and put local community profit ahead of big business.


He placed particular emphasis on the aboriginal communities, who had lived in the area since before the days of prospectors and pumpjacks. Once again, Eric tapped into the benefits of an unused natural resource, this time in the form of labour.


Within a few short years, Eric made Syncrude the largest industrial employer of Aboriginals in Canada. In addition, he created training and entrepreneurial programs for aboriginals and youth to later have their companies bid for Syncrude contracts.


Today, Syncrude has contracts with aboriginal companies valued at more than $100 million, and is receiving competitive supplies and services from some of the same operations it nurtured.


“It’s a win-win situation,” Eric says.


So where does this sense of community awareness and involvement stem from? Eric credits two important individuals in his life: his father and Jim Gray.


Heading a family of 12 children, in the time of the Great Depression, Eric’s father became a banker who, after moving to Victoria, B.C., became manager of foreign exchange for the Royal Bank of Canada where he helped immigrant families manage their money.


“[This was] at a time when bankers became part of the community and didn’t move around,” Eric says.


From his father he absorbed this importance of community; from Gray, the iconic co-founder of Canadian Hunter Exploration, who wanted his own managers to become involved in volunteer activities in their communities, this value was reinforced.


Through his father’s dedication to helping his community and Gray’s management strategies, Eric says the values of community were drilled into him throughout his life. He brought these values with him to Syncrude through such various programs as Careers: The Next Generation, an organization dedicated to the career development of Alberta’s youth. Since 1997, the program has helped over 100,000 young Albertans develop their career paths and find internships.


In retirement, Eric continues to play an active role throughout Alberta, not just in Fort McMurray. As a member of the CCEMC, he continues Syncrude’s reputation of having high environmental awareness. He also served as chancellor of the University of Alberta in 2004 after serving on the University of Alberta Board of governors six years prior. In 2003, Eric was named Energy Person of the Year by the Energy Council of Canada and the following year was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence.


His other community chairs include, but are certainly not limited to honourary chair for the Centre for Family Literacy, and policy advisor to The Learning Partnership.


Today, Eric shows little signs of slowing. He is a rare gem among the rocks, a man who has gone above and beyond what was asked of him, and someone who’s commitment is to not only the company but to the community at large.


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