Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Executive success: Career switch pays off

Accountant's focus is now on electricity customers
Electricity is 'almost the ultimate commodity' says Meridian's Neal Barclay. Photo / Doug Sherring
Electricity is 'almost the ultimate commodity' says Meridian's Neal Barclay. Photo / Doug Sherring

When Telecom shuttered its Wellington HQ in favour of Auckland, Neal Barclay resisted the move north.

After 13 years Barclay, an accountant by trade, waved goodbye to his role as head of Telecom's shared services, leading a team of 800 overseeing the billing and service activation side of the business.

But when one door closes, another door opens.

The welcome mat was laid out at Meridian Energy, where Barclay took over as chief financial officer in 2008.

Barclay, 51, says it was probably the best career switch he's made. Not only did he get to stay in Wellington, a place he loves, but he got to work at an organisation he says has a great culture and values.

Within a year Barclay had shifted executive seats to run the generation and wholesale trading role, which played to his finance background.

"There's a high degree of financial risk you have to manage to be a generator - and a retailer - in this industry, to be honest."

When an opportunity opened up this year to run the retail side of the business, Barclay grabbed the chance to move from an internal facing, risk focused role to one that had customers at its heart.

"Plus, it brings together my fundamental understanding of the business and how we make money and what's important."

In a competitive market - there are now about 30 retail electricity brands - Barclay is focusing on keeping those customers the firm has for the long term.

"Competition is great but I don't want to leave behind the guys that have actually been loyal to us," he says. "I want to actually build on that loyalty and give them more reasons to actually want to stay."

"We are a long term company, we have got strong values rooted in sustainability and the like, we want to make sure our customers feel supported, feel valued, feel like they're getting a fair deal and we give them absolutely no reason to leave."

Barclay is overseeing a programme of work, scheduled to take three years and costing about $25 million, aimed at sorting out the company's billing, customer management systems and processes.

The next step is focused on providing innovative ways to help customers manage their power costs more efficiently and effectively over time, he says.

"Because at the end of the day we're selling what is almost the ultimate commodity.

Competition is great but I don't want to leave behind the guys that have actually been loyal to us.

"It takes a helluva lot to get that switch to work when you turn it on at home, but at the end of the day it is just power to most people, and rightly so."

With 100 per cent of Meridian's power generated from renewable resources - 90 per cent from hydro, with the balance from windfarms - the company's brand is built around sustainability.

Barclay says this country's high level of sustainable generation gives it a competitive advantage over the rest of the world and the use of technology such as electric cars provides a huge opportunity to decarbonise the transport sector.

Meridian is gradually replacing its own company fleet with electric cars, although it still isn't able to source an alternative to the utes needed by staff managing the company's hydro dams and windfarms.

Creating the strategy to manage a way through the industry's changing dynamics is not a solo effort, says Barclay.

If you get everybody understanding the context and buying into it, you get everyone engaged and an engaged workforce delivers a far better result than a non-engaged workforce.

"In any of the leadership roles I've ever been in, it's been a team effort and you've got to have expertise all inputting into the process to develop strategy.

"The key role of a leader to a large degree is to ensure that your people understand the context for the decisions you're making and the strategic direction you're taking."

If you've got everybody understanding the context, there is no right or wrong strategy - generally there are lots of different options, says Barclay.

"If you get everybody understanding the context and buying into it, you get everyone engaged and an engaged workforce delivers a far better result than a non-engaged workforce."

Life at Meridian has not been without its challenges.

Barclay says that in 2012, the South Island hydro catchment recorded its driest 12 months the firm had seen.

With little water in the lakes, not only was Meridian's generation hit, but it was also open to financial risk through having to rely more on the wholesale market.

"Working through that process took a lot of mental strength because we were facing a quite poor financial outcome as a company but we were able to manage that, keep working the problem, manage hydrology as best we could, work with competitors to get hedge arrangements in place and work with the aluminium smelter to back off a bit."

Barclay credits keeping the team positive and focused on solutions for getting through the rough patch.

It was a tough three or four month period, he says, with results $100 million below budget but was "massively better than where it could have gone if we'd got it wrong".

- NZ Herald

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