Live & Learn: Clay Riddell

The oil and gas CEO on geology and the restaurant biz.

Every summer in high school and university, I worked in northern Canada. We mapped the outcrops, the rocks. Even after I joined Chevron in 1959, for the next seven or eight years I went away every summer to northern Canada to do mapping. It was nice—you only had one job to do at a time. Of course, you're outdoors and it's good experience.

I studied geology at the University of Manitoba and graduated with an honours degree. We had a very small geology class. We had seven students. It wasn't a real popular venue back then.

I started as a junior geologist for Chevron. When I left the company 10 years later to start my own business, I had the title of geologist, so I was really progressing up the corporate ladder at a great rate.

A convention a couple years ago invited one of the extremely successful independents from the U.S. and myself to describe how to build a successful independent oil company. He got to speak first, and I was amazed at how good a plan he had, because when I started I had no plan.

I once got a letter from a shareholder, well, sort of a letter—it was written on a brown paper bag. He told me I had the perfect formula for going broke.

In the late '90s and off and on through 2004, we had a more or less continuous battle with the Alberta utilities board and major oilsands producers. Ultimately, they managed to shut in a considerable amount of our gas production up there, albeit we managed to persuade the Alberta government to compensate us—at least in part—for the shut-in gas.

In order to go to the hearings with the utilities board, we had to develop bitumen maps. We had the best bitumen maps of anybody in the industry. So while we were in the midst of fighting to keep the gas on, we started to acquire bitumen leases, as well. If you can't beat them, we decided to join them. It's a big part of the value of the company now.

Throughout my career the price of oil has gone up steadily, but not in a straight line. It makes it a very difficult way to do business, but it's the way the market works.

I certainly had no idea Paramount would grow nearly as big as it has. We just moved from day-to-day and took advantage of whatever was out there.

We've probably seen the worst of low gas prices. It's had the effect of reducing supply, and eventually, perhaps this summer, or certainly next winter, the reduction in supply will cause prices to increase.

Any portfolio manager would tell you I have the worst portfolio imaginable because it's so concentrated in energy. They tell me it's crazy, but it seems to be OK. It works.

The government's new tax regime for income trusts was incredibly ill-advised. Whether Mr. Flaherty's numbers are correct or incorrect, whether there's a loss of half-a-billion dollars a year to the treasury or a billion dollars, the economy lost $25 billion to $30 billion overnight. It just evaporated. It just disappeared. The whole thing actually makes no economic sense.

So far I've made no money in restaurants, but it hasn't cost me any money, either. It just helps to get a reservation Saturday night. It gives me a little bit of diversity, not financial diversity, but it just takes your mind off the rest of the world.

I don't have any regrets. I could have done a lot of things a lot better. I could have done a lot of things a lot worse, too. It's very difficult to start a very, very tiny company and have a real plan of where it's going in 30 years.

Clay Riddell


Born July 13, 1937, in a farmhouse in Manitoba

CEO of Paramount Resources, restaurateur


Starts as a junior geologist for Chevron. Later runs own energy consultancy, and some junior oil and gas companies.


Takes Paramount Resources, a petroleum and natural gas company, public; sells 40% of Paramount for $5 million.


Spins out Paramount Energy Trust, focusing on northeast Alberta fields. Also becomes part owner of the Calgary Flames.


Spins out Trilogy Energy Trust, focusing on central Alberta fields. Riddell's son, Jim, becomes CEO of the trust.


Starts another spinoff, MGM Energy Corp., with oil and gas interests in the Mackenzie Delta and Mackenzie Valley.