Changing of the guard at Suncor annual meeting

Rick George, president and CEO of Suncor Energy, in Calgary, May 4, 2010.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY - Rick George marks his last day as CEO of Suncor Energy Inc. on Tuesday, a day after Canada's largest energy company reported better-than-expected first-quarter results and hiked its dividend.

After 21 years at the helm, George will hand the reins to chief operating officer Steve Williams at the company's annual general meeting in Calgary.

"It's been an incredible ride and I genuinely believe that the best is yet to come," George told analysts on a conference call to discuss the company's first-quarter results.

Suncor (TSX:SU) announced Monday night it booked first-quarter operating earnings of $1.33 billion, or 85 cents per share — beating the average estimate of 81 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters.

During the same 2011 quarter, Suncor had operating earnings of $1.48 billion, or 94 cents per share.

First-quarter net earnings were $1.46 billion or 93 cents per share, up from $1.03 billion or 65 cents per share in the same period of 2011.

Revenues were $9.76 billion, compared with $9.08 billion a year earlier.

The Calgary-based company also hiked its dividend by 18 per cent to 13 cents per share.

Oilsands production, excluding its share of the Syncrude oilsands mine, contributed an average of 305,700 barrels per day in the first three months of the year, compared to 322,100 barrels a year ago.

In March, Suncor took down one of its upgraders for unplanned repairs for about four weeks. The outage is not expected to affect its annual production targets.

Upgraders process heavy, impure oilsands crude into a type of oil refineries can more easily handle.

Williams said the problems at the upgrader were "certainly disappointing."

"It is important to point out that we were able to identify the issue, implement a controlled shutdown, execute the repairs and return to production in a very safe and disciplined manner," he said on the call.

"And be assured that the learnings from this incident will assist us as we move forward on our operational excellence journey."

One of the biggest milestones of George's tenure was the 2009 takeover of former Crown corporation Petro-Canada, which transformed Suncor into Canada's largest energy company.

George said that deal has paid off. Overhead costs are lower and the refineries in Edmonton and Montreal that Suncor inherited from Petro-Canada have helped cushion the company against volatility in crude prices.

"Mergers are never easy. I would say it's the largest merger done in Canada and I do feel very proud of what we've done," said George.

"It's not over. There's lots of efficiencies to be gained as we go forward here and there's still lots of work to do."

Of the last two decades George spent as CEO, it was only in the final 18 months that Suncor had cash on its balance sheet.

"This company today is very different. It's a very solid company. The cash flows are amazing, and the path forward quite clear," he said.

There's no longer the need to take big risks, like Suncor did when it began using giant trucks and shovels to produce the oilsands in the early days, when it decided to build its Millennium mine when crude prices were US$5 per barrel and when it inked the Petro-Canada deal.

"I think that kind of big bet era is kind of over," George said.

Suncor shares were up 44 cents at $33.07 in midday trading Tuesday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.