“I’m never afraid to listen to other people’s opinions. Always listen to what other people have to say. At the same time, don’t be afraid to express your own opinions. If you believe strongly in something, don’t be deterred from saying so.”
Bob Brawn is an oilman, entrepreneur and philanthropist who has devoted his life to building Alberta. Bob’s ventures such as Turbo Resources, Merland Exploration and Danoil Energy helped grow the Canadian resource sector. His generosity, individually and through the Brawn Family Foundation, extends from the Olympic organizing committee to Rotary International to Alberta’s universities, creating opportunities for all Albertans.
Robert G. M. Brawn was born in Calgary on September 24, 1936, to Gerry Brawn, a respected editor at the Calgary Herald, and Daisy Mamini, the daughter of early Italian settlers. Born in the depths of the Great Depression and raised during the Second World War, Bob learned the virtues of hard work and community involvement at an early age from his father. Gerry, despite working six days per week, was an active-duty reservist, volunteered with the Boy Scouts and served as the Herald’s unofficial historian, documenting the paper’s early days.
As he grew up, Bob followed suit by staying busy with the Scouts and then high school football, while holding down jobs as a Herald delivery boy and construction labourer. He graduated from Central High School in 1954. Interested in science, he graduated from chemical engineering at the University of Alberta and quickly landed a job in the burgeoning oil industry with Mobil Oil Canada.
Bob began his career with Mobil Oil before jumping to International Drilling Fluids (IDF), gaining considerable research and development experience at every stage. In 1965, he struck out on his own, borrowing $40,000 to buy a struggling oil recycling plant in Edmonton with the idea to use the recycled oil as an oil base for drilling mud.
Long before recycling entered the mainstream, Bob collected waste oil from service stations and chemically processed it for reuse as lubricant. In 1970, after realizing there weren’t enough businesses recycling, he merged his plant with a chain of discount service stations to create Turbo. At its peak, the red-and-black Turbo brand would spread to hundreds of stations across Western Canada, fueled by Bob’s success in buying gasoline at a discount from refineries during their periods of oversupply.
Drawing on his education and professional expertise, Bob grew Turbo into a diversified business, expanding across the energy industry by selling gasoline, recycling waste oil, manufacturing chemicals for drilling fluids and researching oil-based products. In the early 1970s, after joining forces with an investor from IDF, Bob became President of Turbo Resources. Bob’s focus was acquisitions, buying up more stations and expanding into petroleum transport, oil well drilling, and oil and gas exploration. Under his leadership, Turbo’s sales grew astronomically, from $1 million to $500 million annually.
Turbo Resources continued to thrive throughout the ‘70s, diversifying into exploration and a rig oil well drilling outfit, Challenger International Services, which built and operated rigs worldwide. Determined to wean the company off its reliance on oil majors for gasoline supplies, Bob’s long-cherished dream of opening a refinery came true in 1980 when the Province approved plans for a 30,000 barrel-a-day refinery near Calgary. Turbo was becoming the first fully integrated, Canadian-owned independent oil and gas company, doing business from the wellhead to the gas pump.
However, when it was introduced, the National Energy Program (NEP) dampened Turbo’s prospects, and Bob left Turbo to become President and CEO of two subsidiary companies, Merland and Bankeno Mines, staying with them for four years until 1984.
Always a strong advocate for the business community and the energy sector, Bob also found time to lead professional organizations. In 1981, he was elected President of the Independent Petroleum Association to lead the fight against the NEP. In 1984, he took over the top job at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and led the push for economic recovery in close cooperation with the city.
After Calgary’s bid for the 1988 Winter Olympics was approved, Bob accepted directorship of the organizing committee. His responsibility was to keep a watchful eye on the budget. Canada was haunted by the $1.1 billion deficit left after the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics and a repeat would not be acceptable. The Calgary Games, described by the IOC President as “the best Olympic Winter Games ever organized,” closed with a $150 million surplus, which was used for continued operation of Canada Olympic Park.
With the ’80s winding down, Bob resumed his leadership roles in the energy sector, taking over as President of OMV, the Canadian subsidiary of Austria’s state-owned oil company. He also created a private holding company, Danoil Energy, which invested in underperforming resource companies and used his managerial acumen to turn them around. Bob would go on to build Danoil/Acclaim Energy Trust into one of Canada’s largest energy income trusts. In the early 21st century, he would rely on these same abilities to rescue the bankrupt Smoky River Coal by helping to form Grande Cache Coal, which went on to reopen the mine at Grande Cache.
Even as he achieved financial success, Bob could not forget his duty to pay his good fortune forward. In 1980, he and his wife Carole founded what is now the Brawn Family Foundation. They and their children began reaching out to the community to fund institutions, sports facilities and causes they believe in, with a focus on health, education, sports and recreation.
The foundation has had a profound impact on the lives of countless Albertans. Foundation funding has allowed oil and gas workers to learn new skills at the Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Centre in Devon. It’s supported research into therapeutics for diabetes and awarded scholarships to agricultural students at Olds College, funded students at the University of Calgary, and provided scholarships to students at the University of Lethbridge to study worldwide by way of the Semester at Sea program. It’s paid for new facilities at the Springbank Park for All Seasons, built the Douglas Fir Trail at Edworthy Park and endowed a chair in biomechanics at the University of Alberta.
The Brawn Family Foundation’s generosity has also helped the Calgary Zoo remain a world-class facility by sponsoring the Panda exhibits in 1988 and 2016; covering the costs of renovating Dinny the Brontosaurus, preserving one of the zoo’s most beloved icons; and building Bugtopia, a play space for kids to learn about the importance of insects. Further gifts from the foundation helped launch Heritage Park’s Innovation Crossing, showcasing the history of the Alberta resource sector.
Bob has continued to lend his time and talents to the community throughout his life. He served as Honorary Lieutenant Colonel of 746 (Calgary) Communication Squadron for six years, and has completed stints as a volunteer executive with the Calgary Airport Authority, the Van Horne Institute and the Calgary Winter Festival Foundation. He is a past president and longstanding member of the Rotary Club of Calgary at Stampede Park.
He has also been deeply involved with both the Calgary and Alberta Economic Development Authorities, promoting the province as an investment destination and joining trade missions to Scotland, Mexico and Russia.
In 2009, while Bob was serving as Chair of the Alberta Economic Development Authority, former Premier Ed Stelmach appointed him to a 12-member panel to advise the government on economic strategy. The next year, Stelmach invited Bob to join him as co-chair of a competitiveness council to assess Alberta’s competitiveness in crucial markets and identify room for improvement. The council’s recommendations would help spur Ottawa to upgrade the temporary foreign worker program, bringing additional skilled workers into the province.
Uninterested in retirement, Bob stays busy as president of a private investment corporation and with the Brawn Family Foundation.
With such a long list of achievements, Bob has a list of distinctions to match. These include APEGA’s Community Service Award, the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Business Leader Award, the Kay Pringle Memorial Award from the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, and the Canadian Commemorative Award from the Government of Canada. In 2008, he was inducted into the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame and in 2013, the Calgary Business Hall of Fame. In 2019, Bob was awarded the Top 7 over 70 in Calgary. In 2022, he will receive the Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Medal (Alberta).
He has served as a director on the boards of many publicly traded corporations, including the Forzani Group, ATB Financial, Black Diamond Group, Penn West Energy Trust and Parkland Fuel.
Bob lives in Calgary with Carole, his wife of 64 years, and they have four children and nine grandchildren.