Varcoe: He helped build one of the city's first tech unicorns. Now, Manuj Nikhanj is set to lead a global energy firm — from Calgary

‘We’re a growing business, so we will continue to be adding people in all of our regions — including Calgary’

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As an executive who helped build up one of Calgary’s first $1-billion tech sector unicorns, Manuj Nikhanj could have headed off to chase other pursuits.

Instead, the former co-CEO of RS Energy Group is about to become the head of the U.S. company that acquired it four years ago.

On Wednesday, energy analytics firm Enverus announced that Nikhanj, a 45-year-old Calgarian who is currently the company’s president, will become its chief executive in July.

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Based in Austin, Texas, Enverus has more than 1,700 employees worldwide. Its largest office is in Calgary, with almost 300 people — including its incoming CEO, who will continue to operate in the city.

In some ways, its growth and trajectory underscores the intersection of two critical areas of growth and development for Calgary’s economy: energy and technology.

“I’ve been with this business or some iteration of this business for my entire career,” Nikhanj said in an interview.

“I am passionate about the energy industry. I think what we do is so important to the world that it’s very easy to get up in the morning and be passionate about what you do. To me, this has never felt like a job . . . I never considered walking away from it because my DNA has been a part of all forms of this business.”

Nikhanj, who obtained a commerce degree at the University of Calgary, started in the energy sector more than two decades ago and joined Ross Smith Energy Group in 2001.

The small firm used publicly available energy data to generate research and insights for institutional investors.

Mike Smith, who established the business with partner Allan Ross in 1998, remembers the company hired Jim Jarrell and later Nikhanj, realizing the ability they brought to the fledgling firm as it looked to grow.

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“Manuj, right from the beginning, was a very bright and enthusiastic guy, a very hard worker and we recognized that quickly,” Smith said Wednesday, noting the four soon became partners in the company.

“He was very young but mature beyond his years, skilled at the technical side of the business, but also skilled at managing people.”

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The company grew and evolved, and was acquired by a U.S. brokerage in 2011. It was later bought by equity firm Warburg Pincus and renamed RS Energy Group, led by Nikhanj and Jarrell, who operated as co-CEOs in downtown Calgary.

“He was a force of nature, he had that much purpose and vision and capability,” said Jarrell.

The company’s vision was to expand beyond its research and build out its technological capabilities, Nikhanj said.

Its technical abilities, software and analytics on the industry expanded rapidly — as did its staff, from about 40 in 2015 to 300. It was acquired by Enverus in 2000 for a reported $1 billion.

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The transaction also made it one of Calgary’s first tech-sector unicorns, joining the ranks of firms such as Benevity, Neo Financial and Solium Capital in an elite group over the past five years.

And it came at a critical time, as the fledgling tech sector began gaining traction in the city.

“It was one of the first harbingers of success in the community that (we) really had a chance to believe in ourselves . . . that there’s an opportunity for things like this to happen in our city,” said Calgary Economic Development CEO Brad Parry.

“What we see is that technology was always at the root of part of the growth in the energy sector. They were forced to go in and figure out new ways to optimize the business.”

Brad Parry Calgary Economic Development
Brad Parry, president and CEO at Calgary Economic Development and Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund, speaks at the Telus Convention Centre in downtown Calgary on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia file

The city has also seen a number of other emerging companies and leaders spin out of the traditional oil and gas sector.

Today, the rapid evolution of the industry is sweeping across major energy centres in the world, presenting new opportunities for innovators.

“The pandemic taught us you don’t necessarily need to be in the same spot to work on innovation. And what’s emerging in North America is a collection of like-minded energy innovation hubs,” said Kevin Krausert, CEO of Avatar Innovations, which operates a clean energy accelerator and training program in Calgary.

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“Every industry is going to need to incorporate technology faster and be nimbler to be able to drive their competitive advantage in the future.”

Nikhanj said that RS Energy grew its annual revenues to almost US$100 million before it was acquired. Enverus is approaching US$600 million in reoccurring revenues.

Enverus, an energy-focused software-as-a-service firm, uses data across various segments of the industry to provide analysis and insights and it’s aggressively growing its AI-related business. More than 250 employees are focused on power, renewables and the energy transition business, he noted.

It has offices in Austin, Denver, Houston, Chicago, New York, Dallas and London, and the company also operates in several other countries, including Spain and India.

Jarrell said Nikhanj is a natural choice to lead Enverus.

“We have yet to find the limitations of his capabilities. He’s an incredible action-oriented, visionary leader,” he said.

Downtown Calgary skyline
The downtown Calgary skyline as seen from the Glenmore Reservoir Dam on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Brent Calver/Postmedia

Nikhanj expects the company to continue expanding as energy demand increases, and given the size and scale of the market, he anticipates seeing revenues reach $1 billion in the future.

“My view is that the demand for almost all types of energy is only going to increase,” he added.

“We’re a growing business, so we will continue to be adding people in all of our regions — including Calgary.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

[email protected]

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