Garth George: Another shocking episode in the Vector soap opera

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That hundreds of residents of a sophisticated 21st-century metropolis such as Auckland are left without electricity for five days or longer after a bit of wind and rain is an absolute disgrace.

It wouldn't be so bad, perhaps, if this were an isolated incident, but it is just the latest of a procession of instances of incompetence and inefficiency in the reticulation and supply of our power.

And the culprit in all cases is the mostly publicly-owned monopoly lines company Vector, which in the past decade has stumbled from one crisis to the next.

The biggest and most damaging of course, was the disastrous failure of the main feed to downtown Auckland City back in 1998, which left the powerhouse of the national economy without electricity for nearly a month.

One would have thought that would have been a wake-up call to the company to get its act together but obviously the lesson had been forgotten by January this year when a poorly maintained piece of equipment broke free in a bit of a breeze and cut off power to most of urban Auckland for between four and eight hours.

And this past week we have seen once again that Vector is not up to the task for which it is responsible - the maintenance, under any and all circumstances, of the electricity supply to its consumers.

I know we can't hold Vector responsible for trees falling on power lines or cars hitting power poles, but what we can expect - in fact are fully entitled to expect - is that such incidents will be dealt with promptly.

And by promptly I mean in a matter of hours, not days.

You have to wonder at the extent to which the internal shenanigans which have been going on in the company for 12 months or more have affected, and continue to affect, its performance. I'd say plenty.

They all seem to have come about since Michael Stiassny was appointed Vector's chairman. He is, for those who take no interest in business matters, a bachelor of commerce and of law, a chartered accountant and senior partner of Ferrier Hodgson in Auckland.

His main area of expertise has been in insolvency, investigating accountant work, company restructuring and due diligence and he is a director of several companies.

How that qualifies him to run an electricity lines company I don't know, but then I don't take much interest in business, either.

In December three highly respected businessmen - Tony Gibbs, Greg Muir and John Goulter - resigned as independent directors of Vector's board and made it pretty plain they were bailing out because they couldn't get on with Mr Stiassny and didn't like the dictatorial way in which he was operating.

A few months later the company's chief financial officer, Peter Fredricson, decided he'd had enough and left in a hurry; and just last week the chief executive, Mark Franklin, handed in his cards.

These two executives have been pretty circumspect about their decisions, and you can't blame them for that because if they want to eat they have to find other jobs. But the word from those who know about these things is that both men could no longer put up with the interfering micro-management antics of the chairman.

Now I can understand one senior player in a company bugging out because he couldn't get on with the boss, but when five do it one has to wonder, doesn't one?

Then there was the run-in last year with the Commerce Commission which in the end became so annoyed with Vector's money-grubbing that it threatened to take control of the company's pricing. Vector backed down.

And in the background of all this controversy is the Auckland Energy Consumers Trust, which holds over 70 per cent of the shares in Vector on our behalf, and the presence on the Vector board of directors of two trustees.

I may be wrong, but are not the jobs of a trustee and of a director quite different? For someone to do both is surely a bit like a lawyer representing both sides in a very large and expensive business deal.

It seems to me that in trying to run like a big private business - buying up competitors, moving into new areas and sponsoring a stadium - Vector has lost its raison d'etre, which is to ensure the reliable, constant supply of electricity.

In December, that most perceptive of commentators, Fran O'Sullivan, wrote that the departure of the trio of independent directors was "the first episode in what threatens to be one of this country's longest-running corporate soap operas".

How right she was. Dallas New Zealand-style, perhaps? Starring one Michael Stiassny.

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