By BARRIE MCKENNA
Saturday, November 11, 2017
OTTAWA -- Imagine a $55-billion Canadian energy giant called Ventiv or Convergent.
As corporate names go, they suggest little about what business that company might be in, or where it's from. And that just might be the point for the venerable TransCanada Corp., which has filed these and other names as part of a batch of recent trademark applications that would erase "Canada" from its corporate moniker. The company declined to comment on "rumours and speculation" it might change the name it's had for more than six decades.
"TransCanada is the company's name," spokesman Mark Cooper said in an e-mail. "It is not uncommon for a company of our size to protect trademarks in order to keep future options open for various projects or entities." And yet a name-change and an image overhaul makes a lot of sense. TransCanada has already remade itself into a largely U.S. company in recent years. Nearly 60 per cent of its 2016 revenue came from U.S. operations thanks in large part to the $10-billion (U.S.) acquisition of Columbia Pipeline Group, which has natural gas pipelines stretching from New York to the Gulf of Mexico.
The company's Canadian roots have proven to be a liability in its long battle to win U.S. approval of Keystone XL.
The nationality of Keystone XL, the pipeline which would carry Alberta crude through the U.S. Midwest to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, was apparently no advantage in getting the now-scrapped Energy East pipeline off the ground.
But there may be a broader theme here. The Canadian brand doesn't have the same cachet as it did in 2006, when then prime minister Stephen Harper hailed the country's emergence as "a new energy superpower." Canada, Mr. Harper boasted, was ready to play the foil to bad actors such as Russia and Venezuela.
It would be an energy do-gooder, selling its energy "based on competitive market principles, not self-serving monopolistic strategies."
Much has happened in the intervening years. Canada's production of oil has continued to rise, nearly doubling since 2000.
But the industry's future is now clouded by a host of setbacks, including the oil price collapse, the cancellation of billions of dollars' worth of oil patch investments and the continued failure to build pipeline capacity to get Canadian crude to markets in the United States and offshore.
Canada has likewise failed to counter the global image propagated by environmental groups that it is a producer of high-cost "dirty oil."
Meanwhile, Canada's status as a safe and reliable source of energy for the U.S. has been eroded by the dramatic increase in U.S. production of shale oil and gas. The United States is still a net importer, but it has begun exporting both oil and natural gas. That means Canada's No. 1 energy customer will likely need less of what we produce in the future.
Then there is the Trump administration's overtly protectionist "America First" stance on trade. Canadians are now lumped in with the cast of bad actors in U.S. President Donald Trump's view of the world.
Waving the Maple Leaf in front of Americans could be toxic in a postNAFTA world.
Surprisingly few large, export focused companies have iterations of "Canada" in their name. The holdouts include several of the big banks, Air Canada, Canadian National Railway, Canadian Tire, Canfor and Canadian Pacific Railway. In the energy sector, there is TransCanada, Encana and Canadian Natural Resources. And of course, there are federal Crown corporations and subsidiaries of foreign multinationals, such as Wal-Mart Canada and Ford Motor Co. of Canada.
TransCanada may be on to something by registering nebulous trademarks such as Ventiv, Convergent, Northbow and TCE. Air Canada could buy Porter and adopt its more generic handle. CIBC could drop the first "C" and call itself the Imperial Bank of Commerce. CN might opt for Gulf Coast Rail, obscuring its Canadian heritage and emphasizing the southern end of its vast rail network. Forest products company Canfor, which is caught up in the Canada-U.S. lumber dispute, could rename itself SouthFor to reflect the dozen mills it owns in the U.S. South.
Canadians are accustomed to passing themselves off as stealth Americans when they travel in the United States.
Canadian companies might just as easily obscure their heritage, for the sake of the business.