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Ghosh remaking Husky one text message at a time

More than three years into his job as CEO, it is looking like Asim Ghosh has Husky Energy Inc. living up to its promise – and he's doing it one text message at a time.

For Mr. Ghosh, the former cellular-phone company chief, texting is the preferred method of communication with his executives at the oil producer and refiner. He also favours phone calls and the face-to-face approach.

So why not e-mail? As one staffer says, it's got "built-in lag time," and that's something that Mr. Ghosh, 66, has sought to extricate Husky from as it expands in Western Canada, the East Coast offshore and southeast Asia. He intends to remain in the loop.

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Before his arrival at the 8th Ave. S.W. headquarters in Calgary, Husky, part of Hong Kong-based tycoon Li Ka-shing's empire, had been a chronic underperformer, despite its dominant position in heavy oil production and processing. It was slow to make decisions. Morale was notoriously low.

Following several quarters of financial and operating results that have met forecasts, some recent exploration wins and the coming startup of two multibillion-dollar projects, it's hard to argue with his methods.

"Asim is very much a texting guy," said Husky spokesman Mel Duval. "It's fair to say the executive team has had to adjust to his desire for immediate communication."

The company posted fourth-quarter numbers on Wednesday, and again, there were no big disappointments. Production, at 308,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day, was broadly in line with what the Street had expected. Cash flow per share was perhaps a hair lower than the average estimate.

More importantly for the future, Mr. Ghosh reported that the massive Liwan gas project in the South China Sea is on track to start producing by the end of March, despite a long and severe 2013 typhoon season. Its partner in the $6.5-billion development is China's CNOOC Ltd.

Husky came close to passing up on some or all of the $850-million of estimated annual cash flow that project will generate, thanks to gas prices that are far higher than those on this side of the Pacific.

Just before he took the helm, the company, under former CEO John Lau, was running the numbers on a split-off of the Asian assets, the idea being that proceeds from a public offering would fund the development.

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One of Mr. Ghosh's first tasks was scrapping that plan, re-emphasizing the importance of Husky's diversified assets.

The next big startup is the $2.7-billion Sunrise oil sands project, which is 85-per-cent complete with first oil expected in the second half of this year. It is a joint venture with BP PLC, as is the company's refinery in Toledo, Ohio. Output from Sunrise will be fed into the U.S. plant.

Husky also won big in the exploration arena as a partner in the top oil discovery of 2013, the Bay du Nord find on the Flemish Pass off the Newfoundland coast. Reserves there could be as high as 600 million barrels, enough to elicit an OMG from any oil-industry texter. Husky and partner Statoil ASA plan more work there later this year.

A fascinating part of the story is that Mr. Ghosh did not get to Husky armed with a long oil-patch background, but through telecommunications and consumer products. Born in New Delhi, he began his career with Procter & Gamble, then Carling O'Keefe in Canada, before becoming founding CEO for Pepsi Foods' operations in India.

He then joined Mr. Li's Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. conglomerate. In 1998, he became the boss at what would become Vodafone India Ltd., now one of world's top mobile phone companies by subscribers.

Companies controlled by Mr. Li own more than 70 per cent of Husky shares, which is a size of block that can hamper a company's stock price because of the scarcer number of shares available to buy and sell than more widely held names.

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That hasn't been the case with Husky. In the past three years, the shares are up 20 per cent. Compare that to a 20-per-cent decline in the TSX energy group.

The latest move to catch the market's attention is Husky's sale of a million barrels of oil from the White Rose field offshore Newfoundland to a major Indian refiner, a test run that paves the way for increased Canadian exports.

It makes Husky an early mover into an immense market that Mr. Ghosh knows well, and a new opportunity to text home about.

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