A Powerful Life

I suppose that viewing it now, my childhood home wouldn’t seem a very salubrious dwelling to many. But I thought it was wonderful!

A hundred metres or so to the east ran the train line. But it didn’t worry us much because the trains were pretty infrequent. On the southern side was the station master’s residence. A rail siding ran behind that which accessed a massive stockpile of logs which were used on the rail bridges which were then all wooden. Every now and then a gang of men would appear to dress the logs to be suitable to rest on the rail bridge trestles. When they were finished we would go over with bags to collect the slivers of timber which they had removed with their adzes. That would become fuel for the chip heater that provided us with hot water for bathing.

But about 300 metres to the west was the diesel power station. We got used to the continuous throb of the diesel generators and they hardly worried us at all. In fact I used to wake up at night if for some reason the diesels stopped and we had a power outage.

My eldest brother got an apprenticeship with the local electricity supplier and duly became an electrician. That started a trend in the family. A little later on our electricity supply became the responsibility of the local Regional Electricity Board and the diesel station was shut down.(See later.) At that time my younger brother was accepted as an apprentice fitter mechanic for the Regional Electricity Board and I gained a cadetship to study as an engineer with their sponsorship.

I suspect my experience in landing a career was not much different to that of many in those days. In my final year of high school the career guidance people assessed me and then called for a meeting with my parents and myself. After considering the results from their barrage of tests they informed us that the most suitable careers for me would be either as a bank manager or as an engineer.

Now of course neither I nor my parents had any clue about career options or what talents and personality traits might dispose a person to be suitable for what professions. But sitting where I do now, with much experience in that particular field, I can’t begin to understand what might have been the common criteria in those two professions except an ability to count!

On completion of my grade twelve year (Senior, as it was called in those days), understanding that whatever I wanted to do would require a university degree (which was previously unheard of in my family) I immediately began applying for scholarships and cadetships to provide the wherewithal to attend university. Although my parents were very supportive, they didn’t have the means to send me to university so I knew I had to secure the means myself.

This was in the mid-sixties which was still a very fortunate time as far as job opportunities were concerned.  That, combined with my final school results, ensured I got a number of offers. Eventually, I chose the Electricity Board cadetship. I can’t remember why I did so, but I suspect it was the most generous offer from a monetary point of view which would ensure my university education would not be too great a burden on my parents.

So there I was commencing university studies. Again, because of the career guidance I had been given I started with the notion I would do a degree in mechanical engineering. But, thankfully, electrical and mechanical engineering students did the same initial two years before they had to make a choice between the two options. When I had to make the decision, I opted to select electrical engineering. I have always rationalised that decision by asserting I failed uncouthness in second year and I was therefore ineligible to be a mechanical engineer!

But my cadetship was gradually ensconcing me into the electricity industry. The Regional Electricity Board, as part of my cadetship, provided employment for me during the university vacations. I was very grateful for this, largely because I needed the money! The cadetship, whilst comparatively generous, fell far short of my financial requirements. Consequently, I would build up a little nest egg each vacation period only to see it whittle down to nothing at the end of each university semester. And because I was determined not to have to go to my parents for financial support, there was nothing to it but to work in all the breaks.

There was however a positive side to this. It helped me to begin to understand what the electricity industry was all about. I worked with crews in substations, with those constructing new transmission lines, with System Control who regulated the generation despatch from the various power stations and in the little local coal-fired power station. Well, of course it only seems little in retrospect. In those days it supplied most of the consumers in the regional area and was held in awe by the blue-collar workforce that maintained it.

But even more importantly for my later management career, because of my lowly status as a cadet, I got to work with a lot of blue collar people which I enjoyed. I really admired their skills to repair and make things far beyond my capacity to do so. They were occasionally crude but often caring and amusing. And just occasionally, because of my continuing education I could explain technical things to them that they didn’t understand.

Without my even being aware of it I was being slowly seduced into the world of electric power.

When I graduated I was put into a “junior engineer program” which deliberately confronted me with most of the functions and the skills required in the industry.

One of my early assignments was with the transmission department. It surprised me how passionate they were. One of the engineers in charge would stand in front of a transmission tower and revere it like it was a church. It seemed to him just as beautiful as a painting in the Louvre or a landscape of the Blue Mountains.

Well, most of you could probably understand that, but then they taught me the equations that determined the sag of the transmission line between towers which was mathematics they absolutely revered. If you were a transmission engineer I am sure you would have felt that was a greater discovery than the double helix of DNA!

Soon after, after a few other assignments, I was told I had to go and act as Power Station Manager at the local power station. We were under some scrutiny from the local politician. The smoke stacks were quite short and the emissions quite dirty. When the wind blew from the wrong direction the power station plume fell on a few houses on the crest of a nearby hill and fouled the washing as it flapped in the breeze on a typical North Queensland clothesline strung between a few posts and held aloft by a few clothes props.

The one thing I did not like about that posting was that my younger brother still worked there, now as a tradesman. On the weekends he and I were very close. We played football together went fishing and camping and I thoroughly enjoyed his company (and I still do). One day walking through the workshop he was at one of the machine tools making something, but he wasn’t wearing his safety goggles. That presented a great dilemma for me. Should I walk by and pretend I hadn’t noticed or should I remind him of the requirement to don the goggles. Well, of course, I gritted my teeth and opted for the latter. He, rather sullenly it seemed to me, reluctantly donned the goggles that were hanging on a hook nearby and went back to work.

I didn’t know whether I should broach the issue with him after work (we flatted together), but without encouragement he did so himself. He said in his usual matter of fact way, “I was glad you chipped me today. The worst thing you could do would be to show me favouritism just because you’re my brother. The blokes in the workshop would have taken the mickey out of me.” I breathed a sigh of relief and I don’t think it was ever mentioned again!

My exposure to the complaints of the local politician was an early lesson that as valuable as electricity was to modern society it had some undesirable side effects. That was the cause of a little consternation because even though I and my colleagues were passionate in our endeavours believing we were performing a valuable public service in ensuring a reliable supply of electricity to those in our region we needed to be cognisant of the broader community impacts. But as my career progressed I had to contend more and more with such issues.

The Regional Electricity Board was impacted by state-wide reorganisation of the various functions of the industry and as a result I found myself working for a generation authority which still had responsibility for the major transmission system. I must confess I had no great ambitions other than to pursue my engineering career even though it was readily apparent to me that there were many of my colleagues who were far better engineers than I was.

But being in my mid-twenties I was a very idealistic young man. Before it was fashionable to be so I had become very environmentally sensitive. Consequently when career opportunities presented themselves I would naively weigh up the environmental impacts. Eventually, after stepping around a couple of unattractive options, I opted to assume the role of the manager of a hydroelectric power station.  That seemed to tick all the environmental boxes, and besides the fishing in the local river was good!

It provided a salutary lesson for me in my subsequent career. As a manager, being an engineer helped solve but few problems that mattered to me. Most of the issues I had to relate to, involved people, and my engineering degree provided little help in dealing with those. And so I embarked on what has proved to be a life-long journey  in trying to understand the nature of the human condition.

But that is another story.

I went on to manage quite a few power stations. Whilst I worked in an organisation dominated by engineers, in truth very little of my management career could be attributed to my engineering qualifications.

Despite some of my disparaging remarks, I like engineers. They are practical and grounded people whose efforts have made a large contribution to the standard of living that we enjoy – but in truth they are not very imaginative. (But backcasting on my career guidance history, I suspect the same could be said of bank managers!)

Quite early in my career I came to the conclusion that I had little in common with most of the engineers I knew. In a fit of exasperation I then did a degree in economics only to find that economists were, on average, (and economists are keen on averages and statistics in general), no more inspiring than engineers.

But I don’t regret for the least my career in the electricity industry. One has only to stand under an electricity pylon and hear the crackle of the corona to appreciate that there is something special there.

I experienced a great deal of change in my career. Early on most towns had their own diesel generators just as my home town did. But little by little the web of transmission lines snaked out and pulled such towns into the fold of the grid. By the time I had become a hydropower station manager, there were three grids based on North Queensland, Central Queensland and Southern Queensland. This inevitably caused the older diesel stations to be shut down and we became increasingly reliant on bigger centralised generating units.

But as well as the changes associated with the extension of the grid, there were also huge changes in the technology. A lot of the productivity gains I was able to put in place in power stations resulted from work redesign enabling the technology to deliver its full potential. In other power stations even though the technology allowed work to be reconstrued very differently the workforce continued to do things the way they always did.

At this time Queensland commenced a major expansion of its power generation capacity. Three major stations (Tarong, Callide “B” and Stanwell Power Stations) were built in a relatively short time, greatly increasing the generating capacity. I was appointed the foundation manager at Callide “B” and shifted to Stanwell when it was completed to commence the operation of that power station.

[As an aside, before competing for the Callide “B” manager’s role, I had never had to go through a selection process. In the past, I had just been anointed! And to my enduring gratitude, the senior executive had sought fit to include a psychologist in the selection panel for that appointment. And guess who that was – the good Dr Phil! And thus started a relationship that changed my life! He was instrumental in some of the interventions we implemented at both Callide and Stanwell. And he has guided my quest for the understanding of the human condition ever since.]

The Queensland grid was finally interconnected resulting in sprawling north-south system of major transmission lines which enabled the major power stations to supply most of the state. The commissioning of these new, more efficient, power stations resulted again in the closure of many of the power stations which had served a previous generation.

During this period of rapid development we worked under the direction of Neil Galwey, an inspirational leader who set the industry the task of ensuring that electricity prices never increased at a rate more than half the consumer price index. As a result for many years in Queensland we experienced a reduction in the real price of electricity which meant our power costs were some of the lowest in the world. This of course was a great facilitator of economic growth. I enjoyed being a part of that challenge and strived in my own way to ensure high productivity and low costs. It was gratifying to know our efforts were making a difference in our communities. (Neil must now be very irked by the huge increases in the cost of electricity which has served as a disincentive to economic development in our state. How we now long for an inspirational leader that had his foresight and dedication. )

After this, the industry was disaggregated in anticipation of the establishment of the electricity market. Under this new scenario Stanwell Corporation was established as one of the three government owned corporations formed to contest competitively in the newly formed electricity market. I was then confirmed as the CEO of Stanwell Corporation and we were the best performed generator in the new electricity market for most of the years under my stewardship until I opted to resign.

But it is hard to escape the allure of the electricity industry. I drive along a road and pass under a major transmission line and I wonder where has the energy emanated from? Which power stations outputs are coursing down this line? Feeding in to this network are coal fired power stations, gas fired power stations, hydropower station, windfarms and various others. They enable us to cook our food, cool our houses, and light our roads. They power our hospitals, our factories, our schools, our traffic lights, our TV stations. So when I look back on my career, it is not something of little consequence to have been part of all that.

It is possibly a measure of the smallness of my mind that electricity (its generation, distribution and use) continues to amaze me. As the philosopher Alain De Botton has pointed out, most technologies once established are viewed largely with indifference. It is some three quarters of a century since electricity became ubiquitous in our society. The novelty of having electric light has probably worn off. But to me it still seems a magnificent testimony to human ingenuity.

But inevitably as I look back with some satisfaction regarding my career in the electricity industry, it is not the power stations that I remember but the people. How fortunate I was to have been able to recruit people who were prepared to challenge the orthodoxy and try a different way of managing. And how fortunate was I to have had people like Neil Galwey and Bernie Stein (my chairman at Stanwell Corporation) who were prepared to stand behind me when I dared to take a different stance to my management peers. But even more, how blessed was I to have people about me who were prepared to question traditional thinking and in having a workforce who could be convinced that there were better ways of doing things.

So there are no regrets from me for not succumbing to the career guidance advisers and not becoming a bank manager. A career in the electricity industry has provided fulfilment and challenge and consoled me with the fact I was doing something useful for my community.

4 Replies to “A Powerful Life”

  1. I am glad you departed from your normal topics and wrote on this one as I enjoyed your reminisces. You certainly can be satisfied about your career in the electricity industry. With regard to your career choices, there was a previous major bank CEO who was an engineer so you had taken that option you probably would have changed the banking industry for the better just as you did for the electricity industry. So perhaps your career advisor was right and your skills are transferable.

  2. Well done Ted, not unlike myself – except fr 3 things:

    1. I enrolled as a electrical engineering cadet with SEAQ in 65 but soon found out at that the UQ electrical students used to actually GO to lectures , whereas the Mechanical guys went to the Coast. So I became Mechanical.

    2. I had so much after the 1985 SEQEB dispute, after being the only near-at-hand experienced ops man in Brisbane so spending most of my time in Government strategy meetings and in the very centre of trouble every day – but then ran the Simulator training program that resulted in Stanwell being the first full computer controlled staff-less PF fired run up in the world! And was still the only one in the world when I retired in 02.

    3.I fell into Marketing during restructuring, which turned out to be very suitable for me, and I revelled in this Marketing and Green Power role for nearly 10 years when green power was in it’s heyday!

    What a great job it was, and what an important job it was, in power!


  3. Great piece Ted. No doubt like most of your other engineer readers I enjoyed the reminiscing very much. I disagree with your conclusions in only a couple of areas.

    First, engineers can be creative and imaginative although I agree they are in the minority and sadly today creativity in engineering is discouraged. Engineers are now drilled in risk control which usually means risk minimisation. You can’t be imaginative without taking some risks.

    Second, you seriously underestimate your engineering credentials. I remember getting plenty of challenging questions to technical proposals I put forward all those years ago at Stanwell. All the questions were worth answering as I recall as well. Since that time I have had plenty of questions I was not sure how to answer without insulting the questioner. You don’t have to be an engineer to be a good manager or leader but in a technical industry it sure helps if you understand the basic physics of the process you are ultimately responsible for.

    I’ve worked for CEOs who were Arts graduates, Accountants and Engineers and as I think back about them it was not their area of speciality that stands out. It was their humanity. Their integrity. Their consistency. Their love for the business but more importantly their love for the people around them. In this aspect you stand out head and shoulders above the pack and I know I am not alone in saying this.

    Thanks Ted.

  4. Thank you, Larry, Jack and Greg. It was lovely to hear from some of my old colleagues who certainly added spice to my “fortunate career”!

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