06 July 2015

Ruth Beran

Profile: Alison Andrew

Alison Andrew

This article was originally published in Engineering Insight ​July/August 2015.

The Chief Executive of Transpower, Alison Andrew, is quick to admit she is biased towards engineers.

She’s an engineer herself, her husband is an engineer and their two sons, aged 18 and 20, are studying engineering.

“I think an engineering training is a brilliant first step. It’s great training that can lead to all sorts of different types of careers and opportunities,” Alison says. “But I do recognise I’m very biased.”

Alison studied chemical and process engineering at the University of Auckland, and worked overseas as an engineer. After four years, she decided to go back to university to get an MBA from Warwick Business School. “That was just a completely different type of learning experience, a real broadening, giving you the skills to balance a whole lot of different types of work and volumes of work and breadth of issues,” she says.

She believes it was important to study engineering first. “I’m programmed to think like an engineer. You think logically, you problem solve, you problem structure – but it’s also important to add in and learn those other skills, because they’re equally important.”

Alison has held numerous positions in management, most recently as Global Head of Chemicals at Orica, and in diverse industries from energy, forestry, pulp and paper, dairying and chemicals. She joined Transpower as its Chief Executive Officer over a year ago and in this engineering-oriented organisation, says her first degree has given her credibility. Just as important though, is her ability to understand and relate to people in the business.

“I think to be a good leader the most important skill is to be good with people, because that’s what drives your business,” she says.

Transpower’s business relates to the national electricity grid, which it owns, operates and maintains. The organisation’s purpose is to connect New Zealanders to their power system, through safe, smart solutions for today and tomorrow. For Alison, this boils down to one simple phrase: “keeping the lights on for New Zealanders at the lowest cost”.

It’s also about reliability. Alison knows that people want reliable power at a price point they feel comfortable with. To do this, Transpower needs to run its business as efficiently as possible, while still making sure that power is there when people need it.

This throws up a number of challenges for the company. First, there is uncertainty around the future outlook for electricity demand. Major industrial sites like Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter have indicated they may close, which would be a big drop in demand. Energy efficiency is on the rise, as are things like solar power and distributed energy. Planning in an environment of softening to falling demand is tricky. “How do we make sure we have more optionality and flexibility, so we don’t build too late, which would be costly for the economy?” Alison asks. “But by the same token don’t build too early, which again would put more costs on consumers.”

Another challenge at Transpower’s core is safety. “Electricity is inherently dangerous,” Alison says. A key focus, therefore, is keeping people safe: both the public and people working for Transpower.

Managing legacy assets is another issue. With 26,000 kilometres of transmission lines and 178 substations, the national grid is large. However, many of the assets in the grid were built over 60 years ago when standards and practices were quite different. Assets need to be refurbished and replaced but it’s unaffordable to bring everything up to today’s standard at the same time. “We often do the work to lift things up to modern standards when we do a new work or refurbishment,” Alison comments.

Finally there’s the problem of when lights do go off for whatever reason. Transpower has to try and minimise the impacts of that.

Given all of these challenges, Alison is enjoying her role as Chief Executive Officer and feels privileged to lead Transpower. She says she was really lucky to come into a company where nothing was fundamentally broken. “Transpower is in really good heart, with good people,” she says.

There are two women on the Executive at Transpower and Alison acknowledges that there is room for more but the company is on a journey “to really get our diversity working.

“We have a very engineering culture and as a consequence of that, quite a male culture.” While there is some diversity within the organisation in terms of gender, ethnicity and age, there is not enough diversity in the senior ranks of the business, something which is not abnormal for Alison. “I started out my career in the eighties and there weren’t that many women engineers and I’ve always worked in male-dominated environments,” she says.

Alison believes that to succeed women need to be competent and authentic. “Working hard and merit will eventually come through.” She also points out that while it is more challenging to lead a diverse team, with different viewpoints, you get better outcomes.

Young people are also an important part of the diversity mix at Transpower. Every year, three or four engineers enter the graduate programme and rotate throughout the business and with key customers. Some of these engineers are technical experts while others, like ​Alison, want to lead people and go into management. Training and development in general is critical for Transpower to make sure competent, certified people are working on assets.

Alison says she was lucky to be made a Fellow of IPENZ in 2013, and is really keen to promote engineering as a profession. In particular, she wants to see more students interested in science subjects at school and to help teachers create an environment that supports this. “If I look at my sons at Uni, there are some great girls coming through but there could be more. How do we attract them into the industry but also pull them into the senior ranks and make sure people aren’t just dropping out?” she asks.

When asked if role models like she is are the solution, she says: “They’re not the only answer. But the more we have of them, the less odd you become, and then it’s much easier.”