Now hear this: Lorenzo Donadeo, CEO and president, Vermilion Energy Trust

On the matter of public trust, business fares poorly. The CEO of Vermilion Energy Trust says it doesn't have to be that way and that private profit should also be made to serve the public good.

Canadian businesses now rank below even the government when it comes to public trust, according to the latest Edelmen Trust Barometer. Part of the solution is for business to start acting in the public interest as well as its own. Lorenzo Donadeo, CEO and president of Vermilion Energy Trust of Calgary, tells Andy Holloway it can be done.

I really believe that the companies that have strong social missions will outperform companies that don’t, because they will be able to attract the top talent. There will be a payback for the investor who wants an extra penny. He won’t get the penny, but he will gain by virtue of the fact that the top talent will deliver superior rewards over the longer term in total return.

I’ve got a real strong personal belief that businesses have a responsibility to help create opportunities for those who have the potential to excel but are lacking the resources to do so. A testament to that is our three-year commitment in the Vermilion/YWCA Skills Training Centre. We’ve committed $2.5 million, and Vermilion’s founders, directors and employees also contributed an additional $1.5 million. In the centre, we’re trying to help women gain the tools they need to break the cycle of poverty and gain marketable skills for a career in Calgary’s construction industry. Homelessness and poverty don’t just go away on their own. And they are issues that get exacerbated in economic slowdowns like we’re experiencing right now, and so we think that if you equip the right people with the right tools and give them support, you have a much better chance of breaking the cycle of poverty.

The other area where we get sort of a payback, if you want to call it that, is that we’ve got really strong corporate values that we try to live and breathe every day. They’re centred around excellence, trust, respect and responsibility, but to reinforce those in our employees, we need to consistently demonstrate them in our day-to-day behaviours. Investing in the Vermilion/YWCA training centre and following through on the commitment during this economic downturn is one of the many ways we live and breathe our core values. We recognize that our unitholder’s investment is only as good as our investment in our people, so we make it a priority to attract and retain people who are more than just technically strong; they’re bold, disciplined and caring. Giving back to the community is an important part of our collective value system.

When oil is down below $40, you may not be able to give as much as you can when oil is at $100, but we’ve made a three-year commitment to this facility, and we plan on honouring it. It’s important that companies like Vermilion that have the financial fortitude to come out of this maybe stronger than they were going into this downturn recognize they need to continue to demonstrate leadership in the community by supporting causes they believe will bring sustainable change to the cities and the communities we work in. Companies need to continue to give to the extent that they can. From both a corporate perspective and a personal perspective, Calgarians have a pretty positive history of being fairly generous philanthropists. During tougher times, they may not be generous, but we’re using this as an opportunity to show some leadership and follow through on the commitments that we have made.

If you want to attract and retain good people, it all starts with a strong corporate culture, and a strong corporate culture starts with strong corporate values. People want to work for companies who are socially responsible, and that is becoming more of an issue as we start to hire more of these Generation X and Y employees who are the future. Vermilion considers itself a responsible energy producer, and as a responsible energy producer we’re a company committed to the care of our people and the environment, and we also like to ensure that we enrich the communities in which we live and work in. Not just when times are good, but also in economically uncertain times like the ones we’re currently experiencing. It’s a sense of personal responsibility that drives our community investment program.

The hard part is that there are so many causes to support. We wanted to focus on causes around homelessness and poverty, and we wanted one in which we could take more of a leadership role. We’re an extremely hands-on company, so it’s not like we’re just writing a cheque. We’re really working in an active partnership with the YWCA to take it way beyond chequebook philanthropy. We wanted something where we could influence the process and ensure there was a high degree of discipline and ensure that the program is successful. And we also wanted a cause in which we could take a leadership position and demonstrate to other people in the community what type of change can be caused by being involved and contributing.

We have employees who work with the YWCA. I’ve met some of the senior people at the YWCA, and we’ve sort of guided them toward building five-year business plans for the facility and how it’s going to be funded, take our business experience and apply it to philanthropy. We created a partnership that relies on their skills for running those types of facilities and funding them, and our skills from a business perspective, and joining them to come up with a better product that is going to be successful over the longer term.

We also have employees who participate in what we call “days of caring,” where they will go out to different YWCA facilities and help in different areas, whether it’s cleaning up in the fall, or painting, or refurbishing some of the different parts of the facility. The feedback we get from our employees is pretty heartwarming. They are very proud of what Vermilion is doing here, and they’re really proud to be a part of the company. It’s kind of fun, because we make a day of it. It’s a bit of team-building; everybody goes out, and we have a barbecue there, and some guys will be painting, some will be cutting the grass, some will be doing some construction work or building playhouses for the kids. It engages everyone, reinforces our core values and builds that sense of community. It shows Vermilion isn’t just a company. We’re a responsible producer, and we care about the communities we work in. It’s not just lip service.