Anne Marie Toutant’s solid math and science skills led her to study engineering at the University of Alberta, but the decision to join the minerals crowd was a no-brainer: “They threw the best parties,” says Toutant. That mix of intellectual challenge and social engagement is still as potent as ever for Toutant, who graduated from the mining engineering program in 1987 and has been a member of the industry ever since, active in operations, as well as with associations committed to advancing mining in Canada.
In fall 2011, after an eight-year term as vice-president of Suncor’s mining operations, Toutant took the helm of the company’s newly formed oil sands optimization and integration division. Her new role, she explains, was designed to make the most of the potential for improvement at and between all stages of production, with the end goal of getting the finished products to the consumers as efficiently as possible. “Historically, we had organized around business areas – mining, extraction, upgrading – and focused on excellence in those particular fields,” she explains. “But we realized that there is tremendous value in expanding the bridges between the different technologies and different parts of the processing chain.”
To illustrate, she uses the example of “hot-shifting,” a strategy Suncor’s mining operations have adopted to limit interruptions on the bitumen extraction process caused by truck operator shift changes. By analyzing data from the existing dispatch system and adjusting the timing and location of operator changes, the strategy improved throughput during shift change without additional expense. In essence, the drivers now come to the trucks instead of the other way around.
The task of refining such processes and sharing those lessons is one of four core responsibilities of the optimization and integration group. Toutant’s mandate also includes production planning and logistics of the movement of the resource from mine face to market, management of capital and operating expenses and learning, and capabilities development. It is that last role that she particularly relishes, given the current labour shortage in Alberta.
“The reason I have stayed in mining is because it is a people-centred business,” she says. “You are working with people and their beliefs, and you need to be conscious of what motivates them and you need to be able to capture both their hearts and minds, and that speaks directly to what I am doing now.” It is, Toutant believes, one step closer to her ideal job of chief talent officer, one who “creates an environment and a company that people want to stay in and want to be a part of.”