For an Albertan and an engineer, there is nothing unusual about being in the oil game. But for Bud Norris, P.Eng. “game” is the operative word. This enterprising 53-year-old Red Deer resident markets the Oilman Game, a board game that lets players savour the risk and rewards of the oil patch as pretend petroleum tycoons.
When the game’s Alberta inventor hit a dry legal and financial hole, the rights were acquired by Norris, who is no stranger to business and once worked for the federal Counselling Assistance for Small Enterprises (CASE) program.
“I enjoy the enthusiasm and tremendous heart that’s brought by small business,” explains the civil engineer, whose entrepreneurial appetite even led him into the pizza business for a while. As for the Oilman Game, with 15,000 copies sold over seven years, it’s a modest play rather than a gusher. It is also a popular promotional vehicle with oil companies, who can have their logo printed on the box.
Norris plans to do some promotion himself by having a booth at the February New York Toy and Game Show, an event he’s already frequented as the owner of Rec Room Games, a Red Deer games store he’s owned since 1990.
That year is also about when he launched a master franchise for a 44-outlet windshield repair business (later sold) and EXH Engineering Services. The latter opened in 1991 with Bob McDaniel and Brian Osthust, P.Eng., two former co-workers of Norris at Alberta Transportation, as partners. There are now more than 50 EXH employee-shareholders and 230 employees.
EXH hit the road when the province shifted various highway responsibilities to municipalities, many of which lacked in-house engineering expertise. EXH filled the void — first in transportation, later with municipal infrastructure, materials testing, bridge design and, most recently, structural services.
EXH has 16 offices throughout Alberta. The firm’s growth is largely credited to its “heading out” when many existing consulting firms were pulling in their horns and centralizing in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge.
“We take our business to where the business is. We don’t drag it all the way back to Edmonton,” says Norris, who believes a local presence and cost-savings through reduced travel are appreciated by local politicians.
Politics is another of Norris’s preoccupations. A few years ago, he attracted media attention by his repeated attendance at some standing committee meetings of the Alberta Legislature. Initially lured by issues impacting EXH, Norris soon became fascinated by the budgetary and legislative review process. Alongside MLAs, bureaucrats, reporters and lobbyists, he was usually a lone “unpaid” presence.
With EXH’s growth, the three-hour Red Deer-Edmonton return trips became less frequent. A recently acquired 320-acre farm in the Peace River country also demands time, as does his advisory role in a firm his daughter and son-in-law formed after developing a software package (PARCS) for campground registration and administration. However, Norris still attends three or four legislative committee meetings a year.
Having sat at ringside, Norris has an appreciation of politicians and the pressures they face.
“Too often it is presented that our politicians are more bad than good,” he says. “I believe that most politicians are more good than bad.”
To some, politics may be a game, but Bud Norris realizes it’s a tough business. Business, by contrast, for him can be a game.Nordahl Flakstad