THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW Ralph Craven – The power behind Transpower

It’s hard to find fault with Ralph Craven – unless, of course, he’s plonking whopping big pylons on your Waikato farmland. Then it’s bit personal. Meet him face to face and he’s surprisingly endearing.
No brash Australian bluster. No snappiness at having to go over, once again, the reasons why as Transpower’s chief executive, he sees fit to run 400kV transmission lines through people’s lives.
We’re talking in his hotel suite in Auckland the morning after his grilling on Sky News’ Williams Up Front show. Craven has already munched his way through an early breakfast meeting and sandwiches me in before racing off to another meeting and an appointment with plane back to home base in Wellington.
Even when Hyatt staffer pops in to check his mini bar account, this eavesdropping writer learns he’s touched nothing stronger than mineral water. That’s after rough going over by Larry Williams on the telly the night before and for which lesser mortals could be forgiven for knocking back the odd whisky or seven.
The interview was, Craven admits, “a little bit scary”. Williams, well known for his aggressive and confrontational line of questioning, was trying to push Craven into blaming his predecessor Bob Thomson for neglecting grid maintenance. Williams charged in with phrases such as “dodgy lines”, “negligence” and “too late”. Craven countered with “not dodgy” and “appropriate time”. Both dug in.
Off air during one of the breaks, Craven tells me later, he said to Williams that he could keep asking those questions “but we won’t go there because I’m not going to be critical of the previous management or board because that doesn’t help anybody”. Except Williams and his ratings, perhaps.
It made for good TV and shifted the argument from where it has stalled for many months centring around why the pylons should be there at all. Why not, as numerous public submissions to the Electricity Commission suggested, opt for “wind power in Auckland”, “build nuclear power plant” or “put barges in the harbour”?
On air, Craven sees his role as getting the “real message” across. It is, he admits, “always difficult with soundbite to get across something which is quite technical and quite difficult for the layperson to understand. And it’s emotional because what we’re doing is impacting on people’s and communities’ lives.”
He’s been made well aware that having “infrastructure like that, kind of polluting lovely pristine view is anathema to people – whether it’s near them or it’s just the thought of it for people who don’t even live anywhere near”.
The bigger picture, says Craven, is to explain what the national grid is all about: how it provides lifeline for the whole of the New Zealand economy. It’s point that will come across in Transpower’s next annual report which is “changing tack” to talk about “the grid not being the wires and pylons but about joining communities”, says Craven. “It’s about providing the underpinning of the economy.”
Traditionally, he notes, businesses such as Transpower keep their heads down. They provide service and they do it in the background. “It’s only when you step forward and try to do the types of things we’re doing with the 400kV line that it impacts and people notice you.”
If nothing else, the 400kV North Island proposal has acted as one almighty catalyst for deeper and more widespread debate across New Zealand about energy supply. It embodies, as Craven sees it, the whole question about which fuels are going to be available and in what quantities going forward.
In any case, while the lines across the Waikato may be slap bang in the middle of public awareness right now, Craven says they are only the first cab off the rank in number of company initiatives which include an upgrade of the all-important high voltage direct current (HVDC) line between the North and South Islands.
This particular cab has, of course, drawn huge public outcry. And while Craven’s strong track record in the power business means he’s been dealing with infrastructure projects impacting on the public “in some way, shape or form” in just about everything he’s done to date, he describes reactions to the Whakamaru to Otahuhu line as “some of the most robust and vehement” of the lot.
Having to play the bad guy role was inevitable, he concedes, both for the company and personally. “People think the Electricity Commission is going to be their saviour… It’ll make [the problem] go away… We were always going to be the bad guy, if you want to put it in that light, because we’re causing the problem. If we weren’t there, it wouldn’t be there. We were always going to be in no-win situation.”
Inhouse, he says, the company has now moved past the stage of feeling like it’s “doing something dastardly and ought to feel sad and sorry about it. We’ve got to point where we’re the show in town that could actually make difference.”
As part of the inhouse process, Craven seized every opportunity to talk with staff, updating them on progress, commenting on media coverage and telling them that, as company, they were going to get through it. key message: We believe we’re right in what we’re doing and we’re just going to keep going. “You need to do that,” he says. “Hopefully we’re in better headspace than we were when it all started.”
That contrasts with his public role where consultation team, rather than Craven himself, fronted the numerous day-long public sessions, progress meetings, drop-in opportunities, appointments and hui in the affected areas.
Why didn’t Craven bowl up in person? Mainly, it was matter of time and availability. Right from the start, Craven reasoned that if he went to one meeting he would have to go to them all and the time pressures would preclude him hand-ling other activities. While the project is undoubtedly big deal in the minds of the public, it is, after all, only 400kV line and as such is “only very small portion of what Transpower is on about on day to day basis”. Secondly, his efforts would be better placed in talking with other groups such as mayoral fora and the media.
In hindsight, he says, his decision not to attend was good one because people weren’t in listening mode at that time. “They were in angry mode and when CEOs go out and stand up, every word that they say is taken almost literally.
“We made the decision that the group should be able to manage it without my having to be there… It would have been nice to have been there. But it was absolutely about [making] the best use of my time.”
Later in our talk he swings back to the topic of teams, noting that the idea of the CEO fronting up in person is more prevalent in New Zealand than in other places where he has worked. (See box story ‘Craven in brief’ which shows stints in places as far flung as Switzerland, Canada and Australia.) Here, it seems, we like to make our business more personal.
Time will tell if Craven’s punt on the Waikato transmission line is right. So far, he reckons it’s already proven valuable as catalyst for more serious discussion about energy policy. “That’s been really positive. And if we keep going with our plans to bring about that across the country then that’s really positive.”
So, in 10 or 20 years’ time, will they say ‘thank God for that Dr Craven. Good job he thought about those things’?
“Hopefully. We’re trying to set up path for the national grid and Transpower. We’ve got plan for the next 20 and 40 years and how it will blend in with whatever else comes about and new generation of whatever fuels there are. We’re working to it and hopefully people will say it was good idea.”
“I guess the corollary to that is that if you didn’t do it, then in 20 years’ time your name might not be remembered.”
“He came and didn’t do anything?”
“Exactly. That man.”
“Whoever he was.”


First class honours in electrical engineering, University of Queensland.
PhD in electrical engineering, University of New South Wales.

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