Changing face of AlintaGas

PLENTY has changed at AlintaGas in the past year but not all that’s new would be obvious to the casual observer.

It has been a year this month since the former public utility closed an oversubscribed public offer listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and new auditor Andersen was appointed.

Further change, and perhaps the most influential, was heralded about five months later with the appointment of new chief executive officer, Bob Browning, and a simultaneous announcement of a strategic review of operations focusing on how AlintaGas could best compete in a deregulated market.

Mr Browning came from UtiliCorp, AlintaGas’ 45 per cent shareholder with Australian offshoot United Energy, through WA Gas Holdings.

When he arrived at AlintaGas Mr Browning found plenty that already was changing, including shareholder demands, customer needs, an energy system under review by a new government and talk of full retail contestability within 15 months.

At UtiliCorp Mr Browning’s responsibilities had encompassed change management, strategic planning and business planning, so he had a good general idea of what he had to do to manage the AlintaGas set of changing circumstances.

He viewed leadership as ‘functional’ from an organisational perspective, one that needed to take into account the influences, expectations and perspectives of customers, competitors, government, suppliers and shareholders on the internal business processes of AlintaGas.

Mr Browning first determined the geographical and regulatory environment of the company – including being in a small, isolated community clearly delineated from the rest of Australia – with an entrepreneurial spirit, a quality-of-life orientation, strong union influence and a pervasive government. The new CEO also considered closely the internal environment of the company.

It was comparatively hierarchical, over-staffed for the company’s changing functions, risk-averse, siloed into very separate departments, and managers were not expected to be leaders.

All circumstances pointed to one thing – AlintaGas needed a new set of perspectives. Hence, Mr Browning’s most pressing task was to develop strategies for new financial, growth, customer, employee and internal process perspectives.

Communication and teams seemed the keys to finding those strategies – developing a core leadership team, communicating regularly to an extended leadership team, forming cross-functional teams from different departments and meeting with different employee groups twice monthly to talk of the company’s vision.

Management titles have been removed from internal communiques, managers have been given increased responsibility for communications and change implementation as well as coach-ing in leadership skills and personnel have been employed from cornerstone shareholder companies such as UtiliCorp to provide continuous change initiative support.

Physical support services are to be functionally aligned following a decision for construction and maintenance services to form a joint venture services company with others whose main business involves digging trenches to lay service pipes and cables.

The company will have both the capacity and expertise to service AlintaGas economically as well as provide a range of complementary infrastructure services for businesses from other essential industries.

Coupled with redundancies and other changes, this development will reduce the AlintaGas workforce by 50 per cent from March 2001 levels.

On this count, Mr Browning says he has had to be willing to make the hard calls and recommends that all leaders develop a network of board, relevant regulator, consultant and sister company advisers to help make such informed decisions.

“No leader has all the answers,” Mr Browning explains.

To effectively “walk the talk” of the AlintaGas vision and strategy, Mr Browning has focused on defining and engaging his personal leadership style.

But most of all, his experience has reinforced his view that change and leadership both require regular and consistent communication from and among all levels.

“People must be engaged through all levels, to build commitment rather than compliance,” Mr Browning said.

“This produces the flexibility to move the right talent around, to the right place, and at the right time.”

Mr Browning’s view of leadership and change? “You can’t communicate enough,” he said.

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