I didn’t always know I wanted to work in the energy and utilities sector. I left grammar school at 16 with two GCSE’s, or O Levels as they were called back then, and all I knew was that I wanted to work outside – I’ve never been enamoured with the idea of sitting behind a desk all day.
A chance to be hands-on
I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to work with my hands in a physical role of some sort. I applied for lots of different jobs and it was almost by accident that I fell into an apprenticeship with the North Eastern Electricity Board. Someone had turned the job down, so they offered it to me. Years later I found out that my test scores had been really high, much higher than the average!
At the end of my four-year apprenticeship as craft apprentice cable jointer I was appointed to the role of electrical craftsman and then an enhanced craftsman, which meant retraining into a multi-discipline position. By this time, I’d gained a strong technical grounding and had learnt a great deal about different processes and how things work.
My first supervisory role was working as a foreman. A typical day would involve me supervising the day to day operations, planning future work, and ensuring that the right materials were available for my team.
My next opportunity was as a technical staff trainee – a really varied role which covered all aspects of the business and provided a great chance to learn. From here, I became a construction engineer working on construction projects throughout the business. Eventually I was promoted and became the youngest senior engineer in the business with overall responsibility for 150 people.
Working my way up
When the sector became privatised I was given the opportunity to work on a business reengineering project to redesign the core business processes, with the aim of achieving dramatic improvements in quality of service and productivity. I was invited to present my ideas to the Chairman and then I was asked to come back in to put together a detailed business plan. This marked a crucial point in my career, where I moved away from day to day operations and into a more leadership focused role.
By 2003, 28 years after I’d started my career as an apprentice, I was made CEO of CE Electric in the UK (which is now Northern Powergrid). In 2006 I took up the position of Strategy and Central Programmes Director at Scottish Power and in 2010 became a Partner with EC Harris, an international built asset consultancy. Then, in 2011, I was offered the role of CEO for the North of England’s gas distributor, Northern Gas Networks.
From apprentice to CEO
Nowadays as CEO my days look very different, but the focus is still on the operation of the business – offering an exceptional, value for money service to every customer. I start a typical day by looking at how many of our customers are off gas and working with my team to see what we can do to help. It’s our job to ensure that customers can enjoy a warm home, hot food and hot water. When something goes wrong, we do everything we can to put things right quickly and provide appropriate support.
According to our industry regulator, Ofgem, we’re the best performing gas distribution network for customer satisfaction, and I’m proud of our award-winning customer service, but we can never rest on our laurels. We’re always looking at how we can do things better.
One of the first things I instigated when I joined NGN was a faster resolution to customer complaints. After all, if we can respond to a gas leak within an hour, why can’t we seek a resolution to a complaint within the same timeframe? I came up with 60 in 60, an initiative to seek a resolution to 60% of all complaints within 60 minutes. This target was quickly reached, and we soon upped the ante to 90%. Today we’re performing consistently around this figure.
The other key part of my role is about looking towards the future – both short and long term – to ensure that we continue to deliver energy in a way that gives the best possible deal for our customers. This includes looking at how we can use our infrastructure to transport and store new forms of energy, such as hydrogen, a gas which could help us to meet the carbon challenge of 2050 whilst keeping costs down for our customers. Another exciting area that we’re exploring right now is how we can use gas to power transport and the role that our network could play as part of that. There’s a huge amount of opportunity in this area and an exciting time for the industry as we work together shape a sustainable and affordable energy future.
An open door policy
One of the most valuable things that I have learnt in my career is to be open, honest and accessible to your team. My door is always open and colleagues throughout the business can come up to me at any time and ask me a question. The benefits of this are huge – it builds trust with colleagues, encourages effective communication and ensures that you stay in touch with real business issues.
At NGN we have a workforce of over 2,000 colleagues, covering a vast geographical area. It’s not possible to see everyone all the time, so I introduced a regular business call where all colleagues are invited to dial in and hear me share important business news. I do the call from a different location in the network each time. One month I might be in one of our depots, or another time I could be at our Head Office. Colleagues are encouraged to ask questions which I always endeavour to answer honestly and openly.
The time is now
There are so many opportunities for young people in the sector now. You can see this at NGN where over half of our colleagues are now 40 or under, a statistic that has flipped on its head over the last few years.
We’re at a crucial point in the history of energy and now is the perfect time for someone considering their career, or even a career change, to look at the gas industry. Technology is moving at such a rapid place. Set this against the challenging political climate, and not only the gas industry, but the sector as a whole, is a very interesting and dynamic place to work.
Moving up from an apprenticeship role to a CEO position takes tenacity, but it makes the job easier once you get there because you’re carrying vast experience with you. Starting at the bottom means you learn every aspect of a business. It really changes you as an individual. Not only do you carry that knowledge with you from step to step, but you’ll also get to meet a lot of amazing people on your journey.
Encouraging my daughter to get an apprenticeship
I’m encouraging one of my daughters to get an apprenticeship because I think it’s a great way to get a head start in the field that you want to work in. Even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, the on the job training will give you transferable skills that you’ll find invaluable throughout your career. Today, there’s a wide range of opportunities including practical as well as office based roles. For example, last year, as well as taking on several talented operational apprentices, we also recruited office based apprenticeships – from business management to communications.
There’s so much investment going into the apprenticeship program, it’s a great way for young people to get into an organisation, show what they can do and progress from there. I wanted to be a general foreman by the time I was 40 and actually by that point I was managing director.
You can achieve anything in life if you put your mind to it.