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October 11. 2012 10:38PM

Irving Oil president speaks to executives at UNH forum

DURHAM — Irving Oil’s president visited the University of New Hampshire on Thursday to talk to local executives about his company’s role in an ever-changing international energy landscape.

Irving Oil is based in Canada, but Portsmouth hosts its United States headquarters.

Mike Ashar talked about an increase in supply of oil and gas in the U.S. and Canada spurred by entrepreneurial technologies that are allowing energy companies to capitalize on shale gas deposits in states like North Dakota, which has quickly become an important player in the continent’s search for energy.

Irving Oil’s New Brunswick refinery is the largest refinery on the Eastern Seaboard and the sixth largest on North America and is designed to serve New England, where there is no oil refinery.

The company operates a total of 900 retail sites, including 107 sites in New Hampshire.

Ashar said although gas is a continental market, the oil market is truly international, meaning Irving has to compete and look at what is happening in Europe and Asia.

He said this competition benefits consumers, but also hurts refiners. In the past 12 months, seven oil refineries on the Eastern Seaboard have shut down operations as a result of international competition.

He said oil prices are also higher on the East Coast than in the Midwest, although he said consumers at the pump are still getting a good deal.

It is a different problem than the one facing the Midwest, where supply is high, but networks are unavailable to transport oil, or shale gas, to areas that need it, like the populated Eastern Seaboard.

“The key message here is we have great assets, great people, but the wrong geography,” Ashar said. He said they are trying to balance this by using railcars instead of ships to transport oil products.

Ashar said the company’s focus is not on research and development but on adapting to a changing energy landscape.

What makes Irving Oil unique, Ashar said, is its commitment to its people.

He pointed to a program established by the company three years ago in partnership with the University of New Brunswick to provide employees, from engineers to marketing executives to accountants, the opportunity to obtain a master’s degree in business administration.

“We cannot out-compete the Exxons of the world, but where we believe we can compete is investing in people,” Ashar said.

The company has set a goal of having 50 employees enrolled in an executive MBA program each year and to have 300 of its 500 professional staff obtain those degrees.

“It changes the nature of the conversation,” Ashar said, when people in marketing and refining and other areas talk about business and how it applies to Irving Oil.

Employees in the Portsmouth office are also participating in the courses online.

Dan Innis, dean of the Whittemore School, said it is encouraging to hear about Irving’s relationship with a local university, as the Whittemore School continues to work with businesses to help them develop specific programs for their employees.

“We are always looking for opportunities to expand that reach,” Innis said.

Ashar made his presentation during a UNH CEO forum, an outreach program of the Whittemore School of Business and Economics created to serve CEOs, presidents and senior managers of companies in Northern New England.

The forum provides its members with opportunities to meet and exchange ideas with their peers in business and industry in an informal setting.

The forum did see a handful of protesters outside from the Student Environmental Action Coalition.

UNH senior Ben Trolio said their goal is to see UNH divest from oil companies.

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