W.C. Fields had it right: “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” Still, when the word “Canada” is in your name, it’s really tough to shake off the impression that you’re somehow inextricably linked with a certain country called Canada.
Not that TransCanada Corp., the pipeline company still slogging away at getting Keystone XL up and running, is ashamed of its heritage, you understand. It just wants to change its name to the stateless TC Energy to better reflect its “continental growth into an enterprise with critical assets and employees in Canada, the United States and Mexico.”
Is the new moniker blander than a beige Corolla? Yes. Still, it is rendered relatively painlessly across English, French and Spanish. And at least it isn’t “The We Company” or, more pertinently, the USMCA.
Plus, there’s a rich history of energy companies pulling a Prince. Only recently, the Norwegian company formerly known as Statoil shifted to Equinor ASA to signal it’s down with the whole energy-transition thing (and equality, equilibrium and suchlike, apparently). Beating it to the punch was near-neighbor Ørsted ASA of Denmark, which changed its name from DONG because it had ditched oil and gas for wind energy, and also maybe it was just a good idea anyway.
At the bigger end of things, Exxon Mobil Corp. used to be Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, one of the successors to John D. Rockefeller’s broken-up behemoth. With so many variants of Standard Oil operating around the country, the Jersey boys hit upon the whizz-bang idea of rebranding their products under “Esso” in the 1920s (S-O, see?). Decades of lawsuits ensued as other Standard Oils in different states took umbrage. Possibly, they were jealous they hadn’t thought of Esso first; and, in any case, it probably took a while for the various successor companies to get used to the idea of competing in each others’ territory (a concept never deeply embedded in Standard Oil’s DNA).
Hence, in 1972, the company switched to Exxon. Fittingly for this company, the new name was the last left standing after a process of elimination involving hundreds generated by, what else, a computer (see this short history by Paul Giddens). While the change marked the end of an era, sentimentality has little purchase in this business. A New York Times article at the time quoted one anonymous employee as saying, “I don’t care what they call it just as long as the signature on the check produces money at the bank,” and she sounds like the most Exxon-y Exxon hire ever.
Similarly, BP PLC ditched the old “British Petroleum” when the 20th century drew to a close (the empire that helped spawn it had sputtered out some decades prior to that). Like TransCanada, BP was moving beyond its national identity in part because of expansion in North America. The name changed first to BP Amoco after a merger with the company formerly known as Standard Oil Company of Indiana (in one of those neat historical tie-ups, the first of the Standard Oils to object to that Esso brand, according to Giddens). The Amoco was dropped shortly after, when then-CEO John Browne made his bold and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to have BP break free of not merely its national boundaries but its very business model, with the slogan “Beyond Petroleum”.
It took a while for the shorter name to really embed itself in the collective psyche. I remember well how, during those fraught weeks in the summer of 2010 when oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s ill-fated Macondo well, U.S. politicians on TV seemed to go out of their way to resurrect the name British Petroleum.
The common thread in the Exxon and BP stories is one central to the history of the energy business: expansion. Exxon was frustrated with obstacles to common branding as it muscled into markets across the U.S. BP was planting a new flag in North America, and obscuring its existing flag helped with the process.
The same goes for TransCanada.
Without impugning the company’s patriotism, this is an opportune time to put a little distance between itself and Canada’s energy sector. The business of transporting the country’s oil and gas around has become a lightning rod for multiple political battles spanning the rights of First Nations; the distribution of oil rents and political rivalries between Alberta, other provinces and Ottawa; and the need to address climate change. Tuesday saw protests across the country concerning a natural-gas pipeline project being built by a TransCanada subsidiary in British Columbia, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau forced to relocate a meeting with First Nations representatives after demonstrators burst into the venue in Ottawa.
Meanwhile, Alberta recently took the extraordinary step of imposing OPEC-like supply caps on its oil producers as opposition to new pipelines spawned a glut, leading local barrels to trade for as a little as $13 a couple of months ago (which doesn’t do much for tax revenue). Let’s not forget, either, more than half of TransCanada’s fixed assets at the end of 2017 resided in the U.S., which exhibits a notably more zealous nationalism – and antipathy to its northern neighbor – these days.
With all that excitement at home, emphasizing one’s international credentials makes some sense, even if it risks some blowback from compatriots – who, apart from anything else, should ponder why TransCanada felt the need to take this step. And even if TC Energy isn’t likely to sweep the next ad-land awards gala, it’s important to remember this company builds and runs pipelines. Bland is soothing; bland is safer; bland is good enough.
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Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was editor of the Wall Street Journal’s Heard on the Street column and wrote for the Financial Times’ Lex column. He was also an investment banker.
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