Between the rabbit meatballs and the lamb-melt sandwiches, the talk of pipelines and stock exchanges, George Gosbee drops a juicy morsel on the table.
He has a tattoo. A maple leaf. Somewhere on his body.
'At 18, I was a proud Canadian,' he explains with a mischievous smile. Now 42, after two decades of investment banking in Calgary, having sold one firm and started another, he can afford to laugh at his youthful indiscretion.
Mr. Gosbee's home turf is nine blocks of downtown Calgary, but he has roamed far beyond that – as a director, until recently, of a restructuring Chrysler; as an economic panelist advising Finance Minister Jim Flaherty; and now as the man carrying the investment banking dreams of Alberta Treasury Branches, a province-owned conventional bank with an ambition to be much more.
The teenage exuberance has scarcely diminished, although the nationalism has evolved beyond a skin-deep maple leaf to a deeply held belief that Canada's prosperity and the future of Alberta and its energy economy are tightly intertwined.
That means his total commitment to the Keystone XL pipeline, which he is confident will be built after the 2012 U.S. presidential election has slid off the agenda. It also means advocacy of a made-in-Canada stock exchange model, embodied by the Maple Group's bid for TMX Group Inc. that is now the focus of regulatory hearings.
Mr. Gosbee's patriotism is buttressed by the conviction that Calgary is emerging as an energy finance and head office capital – while tempered with regret that, in the process, city and province may be losing their vaunted entrepreneurial spirit.
"This is a real big worry of mine, that the [Western Canada Sedimentary]Basin is changing, and it is becoming a big-company game," says Mr. Gosbee, chief executive officer of AltaCorp Capital Inc., an investment bank he owns in concert with ATB Financial, the storefront brand of Alberta Treasury Branches.
We are lunching at a big-company kind of place – Divino, a smart bistro on Calgary's Stephen Avenue. His offices are a stone's throw away and he is well known to the wait staff. Much of the food is locally grown, and we share the appetizer of rabbit meatballs, and he endorses the lamb melt as a main course.
Mr. Gosbee has just returned from Toronto, Canada's major capital markets centre, where he opened a branch of AltaCorp. "I'm proud that our headquarters is in Calgary and the satellite office is in Toronto," he teases, playing on the love-hate relationship that permeates Calgary's psyche.
More seriously, he resents Toronto's stereotyping of Calgary as a fenced-off enclosure of parochial cowboys. He tells of an Ontario marketing specialist who pitched a branding strategy for the business school at University of Calgary, where Mr. Gosbee sits on the advisory council. The big idea? The school would be an academy for "entrepreneurial mavericks."
"I sat back and bit my tongue," he says, still angry. "If I hear those words one more time … ," he says, his voice trailing away in the lunchtime chatter.
In fact, Calgary is the most global city in the country, he argues, reflected in the horizons of its companies. "Those companies aren't hiring entrepreneurial mavericks – they are hiring people who want to build careers with them."
The graduates want to stay in Calgary "because of the excitement of the city – the global nature, the transaction environment." Mr. Gosbee likes to talk about "deal velocity," which he says captures the addictive pace of the city.
Yet he feels nostalgia for a disappearing Calgary, where you would start, build, merge and sell several companies in a lifetime – where you could raise cash from friends and associates, and start a business with $5-million. Now it costs $5-million for one oil well, he muses.
Only the majors have enough capital to play that game, to amass deep inventories of land, with clear access to new drilling technology and oil-field service companies that tend to overlook the smaller operators now. Faced with barriers of cost and capital, fewer owners of small enterprises feel they can set out and build something bigger again.
Yet the West's challenges are relatively benign, even after the Obama administration put the Keystone XL pipeline on the shelf, he says. "Politics is getting in the way of good public policy," he says, contending the pipeline will ultimately be built. Meanwhile, the decision bodes well for alternative projects, such as the Northern Gateway pipeline to the Pacific, because it heightens awareness of the dangers of being overly dependent on the United States.
Even so, Mr. Gosbee paints a trying short-term picture for Alberta, as it copes with low natural gas prices and a more tepid outlook for conventional production. That will squeeze royalties, raising the likelihood the province will have to cut costs drastically or – God forbid – impose a sales tax. Given the appetite for public services, he predicts the latter, thus deviating from Alberta orthodoxy.
Mr. Gosbee was born in Kingston, where his father studied at Queen's University before bundling up the young family to drive west for medical school. Young George grew up as a finance junkie, and on university graduation, joined investment bank Peters & Co., a hothouse of finance talent that had spawned local legends Murray Edwards and Ron Mathison. In time, he founded his own firm, Tristone, which he sold in 2009 – reluctantly, he says, at the urging of other shareholders.
During a hiatus from investment banking, he took big roles on the board of Alberta Investment Management Corp., the province's $72-billion wealth manager, and as a Chrysler Group LLC director working with one of the smartest people he has ever met – Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.
He started talking with David Mowat, CEO of ATB, about the potential for an Alberta full-service financial institution that offers corporate finance, commercial and retail banking. The focus of Mr. Gosbee's new AltaCorp would be on energy and agriculture, plus the related technologies to feed Alberta's prosperity over the next two to three decades.
Mr. Gosbee's friends say he tends to be a scatter-gun thinker, his attention hopping from one idea to another. Mr. Mowat, in fact, likes that trait in a partner. "Sometimes George doesn't know what he can't do," Mr. Mowat says. Like a good hunting dog, he believes "he can tree any size of animal."
So Mr. Gosbee was appalled when he first heard that TMX Group Inc., which owns the Toronto Stock Exchange, was partnering up with the London Stock Exchange. He had spent time in London's financial district, setting up a Tristone office, and concluded London has "one of the most archaic financial jurisdictions in the world in regard to rules and regulations and the treatment of capital markets." And then there was the issue of where the British economy was going. "I said: 'That's our partner?'" he recalls.
He joined the resistance to the London merger because, in his view, any partner to the Canadian stock exchanges would have to recognize what Canada, and Calgary, had to offer as a global finance centre. That wasn't the London way. "Our little country is very proficient at raising capital outside our boundaries, and yet, we were about to hand over the keys."
So it was natural he would support financial institution-led Maple Group Acquisition Corp., which sent the London exchange packing, but still faces concerns from regulators, including the federal Competition Bureau.
Even if Maple fails, there will still be that maple leaf tattoo which, Mr. Gosbee later disclosed in a phone conversation, is on his lower leg. The location sums up its owner quite well – making a statement, but not too outrageous.
Born Aug. 30, 1969 in Kingston.
Father John is a Calgary doctor
He and wife Karen have three children
Bachelor of Commerce, University of Calgary, 1991
Runs, hikes and skis in his spare time
On advisory council of University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business
Adviser to U of C's school of public policy
A director of National Ballet School Foundation
Former chairman of Alberta College of Art and Design
Six years with Peters & Co.
Worked three years for Newcrest Capital
Founded Tristone Capital in 2000; sold it to Macquarie Bank in 2009
Founded AltaCorp in 2010, with Alberta Treasury Branches as minority partner
Was one of five senior executives left on an Alberta mountaintop to raise money for an air-rescue non-profit
Armed with smartphones, they had to stay till they raised $100,000 each
Fellow campers included Bill McCaffrey of MEG Energy and Kevin Neveu of Precision Drilling
Raised $1.3-million in five hours