FACE TO FACE: Wielding the Power – A Measured Approach

One of the first things Patrick Strange did when he became chief executive of national electricity grid operator Transpower in November 2007 was move team of engineers on to his executive floor.
He followed this swiftly by removing the labyrinth of office walls and doors – including those to his own work area.
The moves were as much symbolic as they were practical.
“It struck me in my first week here that we had some very good people working for us,” Strange says. “We were an engineering company with some great engineers, but they were bit buried in the organisation. They had realistic view of our capabilities; people’s ethics were very good, but in wandering around talking to our engineers, it was clear that they didn’t feel empowered.
“I felt strongly that we had to remember that we were an engineering company first and foremost and that we needed to listen to what our engineers were saying. I said anyone could come and see me – and after we took out all the doors, it was quite interesting watching them searching for door post to knock on.”
With background in farming, PhD in engineering and an executive career in the electricity industry stretching back 20 years, Strange quickly sought to flatten Transpower’s structure and encourage free communication of ideas across the organisation so it could better meet its customers’ needs.
“My message was don’t moan about things. They are your problems to fix, so come up with solutions.
“Transpower had made some good steps forward in its core business of operating the grid that keeps the country’s lights on. But as perceived by others in the industry, it was sometimes seen as insular and defensive. There was perception of arrogance and being very bound by process.”
The affable Strange, in his trademark open-neck shirt, admits that he dislikes titles and formality. After making cup of coffee in small kitchen open to the entire floor of Transpower’s central Wellington head office, he chats to few staff before strolling to his open plan corner of the office.
He quickly insists that he does not particularly like talking about himself or taking high profile in the media. He prefers actions to words.
Strange’s management style is equally straightforward: set the direction, empower staff and let them get on with it.
“The job of the chief executive and senior executive team is all about setting the vision and direction, putting the right people in the right positions, making sure they understand their role and then standing back and letting them make the decisions to do their job.
“At Transpower we have bright, well-paid and smart people. If you keep pushing decisions higher and higher up the organisation, then they will understand the organisation’s problems and challenges even less.
“So I’ve been very keen to ensure we have flat organisation, where our people can feel confident about having an input.”
He draws on farming analogy to illustrate the point.
“Good sheep dogs instinctively know what to do. Sometimes, the dog’s instincts are better than the shepherd’s. Sometimes, we just have to let them get on with it.”
Before Strange’s arrival, state-owned Transpower had endured number of very public battles, including clashes with Waikato property owners over plans for pylons to feed Auckland’s increasing thirst for electricity, sub-station outage that threatened the power supply into Auckland in 2006, and pervasive struggle to maintain New Zealand’s aging transmission system.
Transpower and the entire electricity industry was again in the spotlight last winter, when South Island hydro lake levels fell precariously low, forcing nationwide power savings campaign which Strange chaired as convenor of the Winter Power Group of electricity and other sector interests.
In that role, he was the media face of the savings campaign – translating technical data about hydro lake storage levels, electricity demand and meteorological forecasts into simple messages about the need to save power so the lights would stay on. He was the man for the job.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Strange did not put his hand up for the top job at Transpower when former boss Ralph Craven stepped down toward the end of 2007.
He was working his sheep and beef farm near Gisborne – about as far as you can get from the cut and thrust of the electricity industry – when he received call to become CEO.
“I initially said I wasn’t interested. I was having great time on the farm.”
But never one to walk away from challenge, Strange eventually agreed.
“I’m great believer that career is bit of random walk. It’s enjoyable… I work at something because I want to, not because I have to. You’ll never find me doing nine-to-five job.
“Personal challenges are great. I grew up on farm and there were always many better farmers than me, but I enjoyed the challenge of getting better at it.”
Strange had the academic and career pedigree required to lead Transpower and steer it through its myriad challenges. He had been director of Contact Energy and Mighty River Power, and chairman of the Advisory Board for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Auckland University.
After gaining his PhD in engineering from Auckland University, he worked in London and the United States as an engineer, an analyst and in computer start-up businesses.
On returning to New Zealand in the early 1990s, he got his first taste of the electricity industry as general manager of power generation for Fletcher Challenge’s energy business. After few years consulting in the energy sector, Strange joined Mercury Energy, becoming chief executive in 1998, and then went on to lead Vector.
“Soon after I joined Mercury, the lights went out in central Auckland,” he says, recalling the debilitating failure of the electricity infrastructure feeding central Auckland. The entire central business district came to standstill, with no traffic lights, burglar alarms, air conditioning or electronic banking transactions.
“That was crisis, very big crisis. But in many ways, when you are in the crisis, that’s the easy part. We were holding press conferences twice day, briefings with all of the authorities and getting on to fix it.
“The difficult part is what happens afterwards. It’s bit like with armies, who only really fight when there’s burning bridge behind them and they have no retreat.
“The Auckland CBD crisis was huge shock. For people who had worked for the company for long time, everything they stood for was being brought into question.
“Moving forward, we needed to turn it all around and focus on our 250,000 customers. Everything needed to be about servicing those customers and focusing on what they wanted from us. They just wanted their lights to stay on, so that’s what we focused on.
“We trained our contractors in how to deal with our customers and we gave them $250 delegated authority to fix customer problem if it came up, which sent strong message to our people. Interestingly, the authority wasn’t used very often at all.”
Strange believes firmly that all the marketing and public relations budgets companies throw at crisis situations count for nothing unless they take action to deliver concrete results.
“You just can’t market pig and say that it’s something else.”
Fast forward to the extremely low hydro lake levels of mid-2007 – Strange does not call it crisis – and the same strategic considerations were put into practice.
“Anything which puts the supply of electricity at risk is massive and the cost to the community and the economy is huge. Look at electricity system collapses around the world: the lights only have to be out for one day and it lives on in infamy.
“So we need to be very risk averse in our industry. When the Electricity Commission started to use figures of one in 15 chance of shortages o

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