Roger Thomas continues to make a difference, from the office towers of Calgary to the plains of Saskatchewan. Named an honorary member of APEGGA in 2008, his philosophy is simple: if you want to make a difference, get to work
BY GAIL HELGASON
Thanks in part to the initiative and leadership of Roger Thomas, Alberta has cleaner air and an action plan to address critical labour challenges. Then there’s that matter of bison roaming freely on restored grasslands in southwest Saskatchewan.
These are a few of the varied contributions to society made by Mr. Thomas, the executive vice-president, North America, of Nexen Inc. in Calgary. APEGGA recognized his vision and leadership in 2008 with an Honorary Membership Award.
“We will have a better society if we roll up our sleeves and get to work,” says Mr. Thomas. “Everybody has something to contribute.”
Born in Ontario to a dairy farming family, Mr. Thomas moved to Toronto at age 12. He studied history and economics at the University of Toronto, and considered becoming a history teacher. However, a poor employment outlook led to a summer job at Benjamin Moore Co. That spun out to a sales job and later a position with Canadian Occidental Petroleum Limited, which became Nexen.
Even today, Mr. Thomas sometimes finds it strange that he has worked with technical people all his life yet doesn’t have a technical background.
In Calgary, Mr. Thomas worked his way up to senior vice-president, Canadian oil and gas, from 1998 to 2007. It was a time of tremendous growth for the company and the industry. Initiatives included development of the world’s first steam-assisted gravity drainage project at Long Lake in the Athabasca oilsands. In 2007 Mr. Thomas was appointed to his current position.
Throughout this stellar career, Mr. Thomas has devoted energy, time and leadership to key industry and community issues, from climate change to adult learning. He is, to name a few positions, past-president of the Alberta Chamber of Resources, past-chair of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, and division chair of the Calgary United Way Engineering, Energy Services Supply Division. He’s even a director of Careers: The Next Generation, an industry-driven partnership of industry and the public dedicated to the career development of Alberta youth.
Mr. Thomas has often accomplished what less optimistic people would think impossible — bringing the highest levels of government and industry to the table to work together.
“Ninety per cent of the people who wish that an issue would get solved never get involved,” he says. “So that’s the first rule of the game: get involved.”
The Power of Perspectives
A corollary is to get solution-minded people working together, even though they may not share your views. “The breadth of ideas and perspectives you get from pulling people together from disparate areas is extraordinary.”
As president of the Alberta Chamber of Resources, he talked with colleagues about the growing labour shortage.
“We knew this was a big issue and no one was coordinating it. So we started out by saying, ‘Let’s get everybody together.’ ”
Meetings followed with the Alberta and federal governments, then broadened to include other provinces. These resulted in the province’s Energy Sub-Sector Labour Strategy, as well as a number of other initiatives.
“One of the things I am fairly passionate about is tackling an issue head-on,” says Mr. Thomas. “You need to get out in front of an issue.” The Clean Air Strategic Alliance, for example, helped reduce industry’s per-unit carbon dioxide emissions.
Advances in the Oilsands
As an advocate of best-in-class engineering, Mr. Thomas says the technology and processes developed at the pioneering Long Lake bitumen extraction site have raised the profession’s level of excellence.
The project, a joint venture with OPTI Canada Ltd., produces a premium, synthetic crude oil from recovered bitumen , and it’s expected to result in significant cost advantages over 40 years. “We’re doing some things there that have never been done before.”
Mr. Thomas’s ethic of service extends well beyond industry, though, to broad environmental and community concerns. A past chair of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Saskatchewan Region, he helped lead a unique initiative to bring bison back to Saskatchewan. A partnership that included Nexen, the Saskatchewan Government and landowners Peter and Sharon Butala led to the creation of the 5,300-hectare Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area.
Plains bison now roam on mixed grassland donated in perpetuity by the ranch couple. “It’s a shining example of what the Nature Conservancy does,” Mr. Thomas says.
Expect more great accomplishments, because Mr. Thomas has other roles on his list. He was recently, for example, appointed volunteer chair of the board of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce for 2008-09.
Not all actions need national titles or huge goals to pay meaningful dividends. Mr. Thomas notes that, at least in part, his ethic of community service came from benefiting as a boy from Kiwanis Club scholarships.
“I have the small-chunk philosophy. You don’t have to go very far to see where you can make a difference. When you can, make someone’s life better.”