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Rick George, former Suncor Energy CEO and pioneer of oilsands industry, dies at 67

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CALGARY — Rick George, former CEO of Suncor Energy and a pioneer of Canada’s oilsands industry, has died at the age of 67 after a battle with acute myeloid leukemia.

George, who died Tuesday, is credited with transforming Suncor from a money-losing oilsands mining company into one of Canada’s largest corporations over a 21-year career before his retirement in 2012.

“Rick’s impact on the oilsands industry, the Canadian business community, and the broader community has been immeasurable,” said Suncor CEO Steve Williams in a statement.

“Rick was very much admired and loved by his Suncor family.”

Williams worked as an executive with George for 10 years at Suncor before assuming the helm of the company.

George joined the company that would become Suncor in 1991 and brought in changes that upset traditional mining practices but boosted production and profitability.

“He had the fortitude and the vision to change the model and he … reinvented the model to allow oilsands to reach its potential in a way that we’re all benefiting from today,” said Tim McMillan, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

George oversaw Suncor’s $19-billion merger with Petro-Canada in 2009, creating a company with oilsands production, refineries, retail outlets, offshore and conventional oil and gas assets throughout the country.

Suncor’s shares are now worth about $68 billion.

In a statement on Wednesday, his family asked for privacy.

“With heavy hearts, we are determined to embrace challenges and adventure with the same rigour that he demonstrated every day,” the statement said.

“A brilliant businessman, a loyal friend, and a loving husband, father and grandfather, he will be greatly missed.”

His immediate family includes his wife Julie, sons Matthew and Zachary, and daughter Emily.

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George was born in the small ranching community of Brush, Colo., and earned science and law degrees in the United States.

He served as managing director of Sun Oil Britain Ltd. before moving to Canada in 1991, later adopting Canadian citizenship.

Mike O’Brien, a current member of the Suncor board who retired as chief financial officer in 2002, said George’s drive was balanced by a folksy charm that helped him win converts to his point of view.

“He’s a hell of a nice guy. Everyone wants to help him get it done,” said O’Brien.

George was appointed an officer of the order of Canada in 2007 in recognition of his business acumen and commitment to Aboriginal communities and sustainable development.

“He was on the environmental file before anyone else was. He was on the Aboriginal file,” said O’Brien. “He just felt those things were priorities and he saw the big picture.”

George wrote a biography after retiring called Sun Rise: Suncor, the Oil Sands and the Future of Energy, in which he staunchly defended the environmental record of the oilsands and its interactions with Aboriginals while decrying delays in approving export oil pipelines such as the Keystone XL.

He recently served on the boards of Osum Oil Sands Corp., RBC and Anadarko Petroleum, and as a partner at Novo Investment Group.

George was chairman of Penn West Petroleum and officiated over the annual meeting in June in downtown Calgary where the company’s name was changed to Obsidian Energy.

Follow @HealingSlowly on Twitter.

Dan Healing, The Canadian Press

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