Elliott calls for Suncor strategic review, board changes

The Suncor Energy logo is seen at their head office in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

April 28 (Reuters) - Activist investment firm Elliott Management is pushing Canada's Suncor Energy Inc (SU.TO) to add new board directors, overhaul management and begin a strategic review, arguing that its shares have lagged even as crude prices surged to multi-year highs.

U.S.-headquartered Elliott, which owns 3.4% of Suncor, called the company a leader in the Canadian energy industry but said performance has declined in recent years and noted it faces operational challenges and safety issues. Twelve employees and contractors have died in fatal accidents since 2014.

"Suncor's status quo is not working," Elliott partner John Pike and portfolio manager Mike Tomkins wrote to the board on Thursday. "Our goal is to restore Suncor to what it once was: the leader of the Canadian energy industry," the letter said.

The company said it will study Elliott's recommendations and looks forward to engaging with the firm but added that it is "confident" in its strategy and "will continue to execute" on it.

Suncor's stock price jumped 9.5% on the news and is now up 40% since January. Rivals Cenovus Energy (CVE.TO) and Canadian Natural Resources (CNQ.TO) posted bigger gains since January. Over the past three years, Suncor's share price has trailed Canadian Natural Resources by 137% and its oil sands peers by an average of 91%, Elliott said. The company is valued at $52 billion.

Elliott, which invests $51.1 billion in assets, blamed "a slow-moving, overly bureaucratic corporate culture" for Suncor's problems and said it believes the share price could surge to $60 from $36.01 now, marking a 50% increase in shareholder value.

The investment firm is pushing for Suncor to add five new directors with expertise in the Canadian energy industry to the 11-member board and to boost capital returns after capital expenditures and dividends to more than 80% of discretionary cash flow from 50% now.

Elliott also wants a review of top executives to get the "right management" in place. Suncor promoted Mark Little to chief executive in 2019 after Steve Williams retired.

Elliott last year launched 17 campaigns marking its most active year since 2018, data from Lazard show. It targeted companies including Twitter, Duke Energy, Citrix and Willis Towers Watson.

Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston with additional reporting by Rithika Krishna in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D'Silva and Chizu Nomiyama

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.