FACE TO FACE : Keith Turner – Energy for life

You get the impression that the more personal power and influence that accrues to his role as CEO of Meridian Energy and to him personally, the more Keith Turner wants to stress his ‘ordinary’ Kiwi blokeishness. And he is kind of ordinary – in the rather extraordinary way Kiwi achievers can be.
In other words, he just quietly gets things done.
The reality is that not too many people build themselves 38-foot steel yacht in their 20s (though there’s probably no shortage of projects-in-progress scattered around Kiwi backyards), or have their PhDs converted into globally competitive commercial products – or get to head company whose performance last year earned the highest accolade at the Deloitte/Management magazine Top 200 awards, New Zealand’s top business awards.
But Turner has the strong streak of egalitarianism that has traditionally thrived in the Kiwi psyche. It’s helped fashion both his values and his management style. He likes to work alongside people rather than tell them what they should be doing and reckons he’s learned lot from this.
“It’s made me aware of how good people’s intentions are – how they really want to do good job but how in many management or hierarchical organisational structures, there are impediments to that. People do love to use their talents… they don’t deliberately set out to do things wrong. And if you can give them scope and freedom to extend themselves, they’ll take it.
“Sure there are few bad nuts and you need to sense and quarantine them bit – but most people really want to do good job. And I learned that out in the field amongst the technicians and guys with spanners and overalls…”
Some of that learning came in his early days with the then NZ Electricity Department when he “got the DC job” – which involved overseeing set up of reverse flow down the HVDC cable link that carries power between the South and North Islands.
“It was considered tough job partly because it involved working with people considered pretty tough guys – the field technicians. I found them to be fantastic people – once you won their confidence. I actually went along and worked with them – as professional engineer in overalls wiring up panels in the DC control room. I think that earned me degree of respect.”
He also learned lot about the system, which perhaps highlights another useful leadership trait – his natural curiosity.
“After working on the DC I’d go back at night and get to know the guys doing overhauls on the big generators – crawling around under these big machines asking questions. I do have passion for understanding and I guess that works at personal as well as engineering level. I think it’s helped give me an empathy for people.”
Turner admits to some trip ups along the way.
“There are plenty of times when I’ve made assumptions about other people’s motivations or attitudes that were wrong. But I think my management style is to encourage and collude and challenge. I think my enthusiasm is challenge to others.”
Plus he’s got jump start on most when it comes to industry knowledge – his immersion in New Zealand’s energy sector goes back long way. People know he knows lot and that in itself is both discipline and stimulus for his team.
The easy rapport with people goes back further – being the “baby” in family of six had certain advantages.
“I think you get lot of attention and lot of freedom that the older siblings never had and I rapidly discovered how to stay out of trouble.”
He and his siblings grew up in Rotorua which for Turner, meant heading out on pig hunting expeditions at 3am, spending the wee hours of Sunday morning trout fishing, or “mucking around” with cars.
After leaving Rotorua Boys’ High, he kicked off his career by joining the government as an engineering cadet at the end of 1958. That led to an engineering degree at Canterbury University where he graduated with Bachelor of Honours and then Master’s degree. Holidays were spent working for the NZ Electricity Department at various power stations – Twizel, Manapouri, Wairakei – and his first post-graduation work was in the NZED’s Dunedin office which, back then, was hive of activity.
“Manapouri was just finished, the Upper Waitaki was under construction, there was already talk of the Clyde and Clutha development and the Lower Waitaki. While there I got involved in some fascinating projects.”
And built yacht in his spare time.
“That was fantastic experience. I was flatting with another fellow who wanted to build boat – so we built shed together and he worked on his wooden boat on one side of it while I built the steel boat on the other. We kept each other going through the ups and downs of the projects which was real psychological boost.”
The finished boat was destined to do plenty of trips up and down New Zealand’s East Coast and across Cook Strait into the Marlborough Sounds as Turner moved first to Christchurch and later to Wellington. That was before young family and new project – building 2500 square foot replica colonial house on three-acre block in Pukerua Bay – left no time for sailing.
Meantime, his career path took an academic turn when he was given the opportunity to study for PhD fulltime and on full salary.
“That was quite rare and big privilege – it was also bold move on NZED’s part because two previous fellowships had failed to be written up.”
Turner’s thesis (it’s less-than-catchy title is “The Transient Stability of Integrated AP and BP Power Systems”) proved very practical because the software written for it by Turner and colleagues Doug Heffernan (now CEO of Mighty River Power) and Bruce Harker (Infratil) was picked up by major power system manufacturing company in the United Kingdom.
“I packaged it up while in England on scholarship in 1981/82 and what was PhD project actually beat off all the other international tenders to become the core analysis tool GEC used for its AC/DC power system analysis.”
It also earned tidy sum of money that went back to the University of Canterbury for research work.
Back in New Zealand in the early 1980s, Turner took on the role of ‘power development engineer’ which put him right in the middle of the infrastructure transformation strategy during the era of corporatisation.
“Basically it involved planning the whole development of this country’s power system which carried on when NZED became ECNZ [the Electricity Corporation of NZ] under Rod Deane.”
After nearly decade of exposure to what he describes as “tremendous database” of the country’s various energy resources, Turner was sent off to do an advanced management programme at Stanford. This provided him with what he rates as one of the most useful bits of management insight he’s gained in his career.
“It was where I got exposed to wide range of views on single issue, because Stanford had wide range of different people from lot of different countries. And it taught me to listen to range of perspectives before making up my mind.
“That was reinforced when I was at INSEAD [world business school in France] last year on programme with 20 CEOs from around the world. The range of perspectives provided an incredibly rich debate and inevitably influenced the first view I had. So that listening to range of views is very instructive.”
Post Stanford, Turner was appointed managing director of consultancy company called Designpower and, after turning around its dismal performance, left to become chief operating officer at ECNZ. Two years later, he left to set up Contact Energy but after missing out on the top job there, opted to set up his own energy consultancy.
“It was time when the market was absolutely demanding knowledge about electricity markets because there was so much change going on. Having been on the production and monopoly side of the business, consulting gave me great exposure to the other side of the fence – the consumers.”
He was also working half the hours for twice the money he’d earned while in charge of 1200 staff at NZED and gai

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