N. Murray Edwards, the grandson of immigrants, was born in 1959 in Regina, which is in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. His father’s parents came from England, and his mother’s parents came from Wales. One grandfather was a farmer; the other was a blacksmith. “My grandparents were homesteaders,” says Edwards. “They came to a place where there were no basic necessities of life, so they had to be entrepreneurial to get established. They had to depend on neighbors, which gave them a sense of collaboration as they progressed. I think I have a sense of those traits—entrepreneurism and collaboration.”
His father eventually became an accountant; his mother was a primary-school teacher. Edwards, the middle of three siblings, was raised simply and modestly in a home that emphasized the importance of education. “My mother would give us workbooks for phonics and language and math, even before we started school,” says Edwards. “She was always teaching us kids, and she gave us a real desire to learn. My father was more the taskmaster. He challenged us to succeed and achieve.”
Saskatchewan’s winters are long and cold, and like most Canadians, Edwards grew up playing hockey. He and his friends made an outdoor skating rink at the end of his street. “Sometimes it gets to minus 20 degrees in Regina,” says Edwards. “We just had to pour water on the rink, and it would be ready for skating the next morning. I joke today that my hockey skills peaked when I was nine years old. I was one of the top scorers in the city then, but I lost my scoring touch after that. Most players lose their touch in their 30s. It’s a bit of a joke today because I own the Calgary Flames hockey team.”
As a child, Edwards was curious, adventurous, and passionate about learning—but that did not always translate into being a model student. “I frustrated my teachers, I think,” he says. “I wasn’t always a diligent student or attentive in my classes. I did well academically, but I was always looking for something more challenging or interesting. I asked questions and read a lot, trying to understand a concept. I pushed the limits and tried to go outside the four walls around me.”
For a long time, Edwards had wanted to be a politician when he grew up. In high school, he attended conferences about government affairs and policy. To earn money, he worked throughout high school as a hockey referee, which took him all over the city four nights a week. Upon his graduation, he was a junior member of the garbage crew at a summer resort; the job provided Edwards with strong motivation to succeed in college.
Edwards first attended the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Commerce. He had several academic scholarships and took out a few loans to pay for his college education. Each summer he worked, and he fondly remembers one summer job at a beer factory, which offered him unlimited beer during his breaks. “The novelty of that soon wore off, though,” Edwards says.
He surprised himself, after taking a few business courses, at how quickly he fell in love with the concept of markets and their effect on world affairs. He had always wanted to go to law school, but his political aspirations waned, and his interests turned to business. He also got involved in campus politics and became a student representative.
Edwards graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a bachelor of commerce degree with great distinction. He also received the President’s Medal as the most distinguished graduate. In addition, he won the Xerox Canada prize as the most distinguished graduate from the College of Commerce, which—following a major donation by Edwards—was renamed the Edwards School of Business.
Next, Edwards attended the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, where he continued his strong academic success. “I don’t think I was the most hardworking student or among the more diligent,” he says. “I just have a gift for solving problems. I think that is a result of my excellent education. I learned how to think on my feet. To go to the university and simply churn out exams is not the best result you want from a college.”
Edwards graduated from the University of Toronto with honors in 1983. The day after his graduation ceremony, he drove 30 hours over three days to start work at a Calgary law firm called Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer. “I worked hard right from the start,” he says. “I was competing with a dozen ardent associates for permanent slots that would go to only a quarter of us. I worked long hours, but I enjoyed it. It was a learning process for me—and one thing I was quickly learning was that law is a client-driven business that leaves you little time for a life of your own.”
His hard work quickly paid off, and Edwards became a partner within four years. That’s when one of his best friends became ill. “My friend developed a cancerous brain tumor,” he says. “In one year, I saw him undergo six operations and struggle to live through his treatments. But through it all, he continued to do the things he was passionate about, which for him was investment banking. As my friend lay dying, I promised him I would always pursue my passions. For me, the practice of law had good things about it that I enjoyed, but I didn’t feel passionate about it. My friend’s death and my promise to him made me ask myself if this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That’s when I decided at the age of 28 to leave the practice of law and pursue business.”
Edwards and some of his former colleagues launched a merchant bank, each one putting up $100,000—which for Edwards was all he had saved since becoming an attorney. They began by looking for investments in oil and natural gas. “Looking back on it, I guess you could say I was taking a big risk with my savings. But I was very excited about business and investment, and I told myself if I failed, I could always return to practicing law. I believed then—and still do—that it’s better to try something and fail at it, than to not try at all.”
Over time, Edwards has become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Canadian history, with a wide range of business interests including oil and natural gas, energy services, mining, aerospace, ski resorts, and the National Hockey League—as a co-owner of the Calgary Flames. He founded FirstEnergy Capital Corp., a leading investment and banking firm. As chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., he became a leader in Canada’s energy industry.
In a speech to his alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan, Edwards told the students he owes his success to three things. “The first is to have a good team of people,” he says. “An organization with a CEO that has everything functioning up and down from this one person is an outdated management style. Today, it’s more like working in rectangular boxes where a team of people has different skills sets. If you put them in a room together and coordinate those skill sets, you can achieve far more as a whole than as an individual. My particular skill set is being a leader, a challenger, and a motivator.”
The second thing Edwards believes is necessary for success is to have a plan or a process. “You need a strong vision, a strategic plan, and a budget process,” he says. “And the third thing you need is passion for what you do. Those three things—people, plan, and passion, along with a lot of hard work and a little luck—will get you to success.”
When Edwards started his first business, he and his partners had $2 million in the bank. Their first venture was drilling a planned natural gas well, which cost them $1 million and came up dry. “We’d already spent half our money,” he says. “We had to change our approach after that. Instead of the huge risk of drilling another well, we began doing acquisitions of assets with existing production. Fortunately, that turned out very well for us. We invested a few million dollars and within a few years, those assets were worth $200 million. It was a big win. But it showed me that in business you have to be committed to your path, you have to be flexible, and you have to always be on the lookout for other options and opportunities.”
Edward adds, “I love what I do. There is a line from the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, that says, ‘Happiest is the man who has his vocation for his hobby.’ What I do every day is my hobby, and most days I love it. I think that makes me a very fortunate man.”
Edwards has provided energy policy advice to three Canadian prime ministers: Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper. His commitment to public policy development has included membership on the boards of the Canada West Foundation, the CD Howe Institute, the Banff Centre, and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
One of Calgary’s leading philanthropists, Edwards supports—among other causes—the Calgary Children’s Initiative, the Alberta Children’s Hospital, the United Way of Calgary, the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, and the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business.
In 1999, Time magazine named Edwards one of Canada’s leaders for the 21st century. In 2007, Edwards—a member of the Order of Canada—was included in a list of the University of Saskatchewan’s “100 Alumni of Influence.”
“My parents always ingrained in me that we were a part of a bigger society, which implied a commitment or obligation to give back—especially when you’ve had financial success,” says Edwards. “I believe education is the great equalizer, and so that is where I focus much of my philanthropy. But I also believe that another way to give back is through public service and helping to shape public policy. In North America, we have been blessed on the whole with good government, which is why we have such a high quality of life here. I think we are very lucky to live here.”