Doug Suttles’s whirlwind year is paying off.
Encana Corp. is up 33 percent since the Texan became chief executive officer in June and his makeover of Canada’s largest gas producer is going faster than planned.
Since taking over, the former BP Plc executive announced the sale of $2.3 billion of gas properties, the purchase of $3.1 billion of oil lands, planned a royalty spinoff and paid down debt. Suttles is shifting production toward more valuable oil and gas liquids to buffer Encana from the wave of North American supply unlocked by modern drilling techniques that reduced gas prices about 60 percent in the past six years.
“He’s done a better job than what I was originally anticipating,” Kyle Preston, an analyst at National Bank Financial in Calgary, said in a May 15 phone interview. “My original view, and it was probably shared by much of the market, was that Encana was this beast of a gas-focused company and it was going to be hard to turn that ship around.”
In November, Suttles laid out plans to fire almost 1,000 people, or about 20 percent of Encana’s workforce, and lower its dividend 35 percent to cut costs and boost profits.
“He took the hard medicine up front” and the company is now on a “good path,” Craig Bethune, a vice president and portfolio manager at TD Asset Management Inc. in Toronto who holds Encana shares, said in a May 15 phone interview. “The stock’s done well so that’s probably your biggest evidence.”
The four-year plan also includes narrowing Encana’s focus to five areas across North America where it can expand into oil and liquids. In a single acquisition of Texas shale lands from Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. set to close by the end of June, Encana will double its crude output, adding a sixth primary operating region.
“The company’s new strategy is taking shape,” Matthew Kolodzie, a credit analyst at RBC Capital Markets in Toronto, said in a May 13 note, pointing to the acquisition that will immediately deliver cash to Encana, as well as the repayment of maturing bonds earlier this year.
Encana’s plans for an initial public offering this month of as much as C$861 million ($792 million) for lands that generate royalties in Alberta have added about C$4 to its share price, according to Preston’s estimates.
Known as the executive who oversaw BP’s response to the Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, Suttles moved quickly to make his plans for Encana clear and to act on them, Bethune said. He’s also had help from the weather, he said.
Encana took advantage of a winter gas price surge after demand for the heating fuel soared on record cold temperatures in North America. The company sold volumes from its Deep Panuke project off Canada’s East Coast into New England at premium spot prices, helping it beat analysts’ estimates for first-quarter adjusted earnings per share by 32 percent.
“I hope we can have three more quarters that look like the first one,” Suttles said in a May 15 phone interview, adding the company is advancing its plan faster than he anticipated. “I wouldn’t declare victory at this point but I would say, great progress.”
Encana has 10 buy, 13 hold and two sell recommendations from analysts tracked by Bloomberg. The stock rose 0.9 percent to C$24.83 at the close in Toronto. It’s up 29 percent this year, compared with a 7.6 percent gain for gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Suttles may need to make another property acquisition to boost crude and liquids output and after that, Encana has to prove it can drill to expand production like its U.S. peer EOG Resources Inc., which transitioned away from gas earlier, Bethune said.
“They definitely now need to start showing the organic liquids growth,” Preston said. “Individual well results are good but until you can actually put together a capital program and execute on it and deliver the growth, I think that will be the next step.”