Interviews, Women in Utilities

Women in utilities

In the latest instalment in our regular Women in Utilities feature, we speak to three women working in different areas of the EnergyAustralia business.

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Briar Hall

Briar Hall, leader vulnerability and recovery

I got my start in the utility industry when a former colleague, who was working at EnergyAustralia, told me a senior analyst role had became available; I applied and the rest is history!

I joined EnergyAustralia in 2013 as a senior analyst on a business improvement project. While my career has always been focused on improving business operations, problem solving and bettering the customer experience, this role was my first exposure to the energy industry, having spent most of my career in the banking sector.

I spent six months on the business improvement project, gaining significant knowledge of the business and industry before being offered the opportunity to work as the head of our hardship program – EnergyAssist.

In 2015 this role was expanded to include our complaints department, and now, I manage a team of around 80 people responsible for our hardship program and customer resolutions.

Our EnergyAssist program supports around 12,500 vulnerable customers in a number of ways, including through payment plans, matching payment opportunities, debt waivers and other initiatives.

We also find resolutions for customers who haven’t had a positive experience. A big part of our role is to identify the drivers that are making customers contact us, before working with the business to address these issues.

Since managing the complaints team, our complaints have more than halved, which is testament to the dedication and hard work of my team.

I believe what we do is fundamentally good and important. But I especially enjoy being in a position where I can directly support customers in financial difficulty by ensuring gas and electricity is still accessible.

I enjoy working with the financial counselling industry, and the community sector, who share our passion for supporting those that need it the most.

In November 2016, EnergyAustralia was one of 12 “trailblazers” – and the first energy company – to launch its Financial Inclusion Action Plan (FIAP). The EnergyAustralia FIAP sets out a program of activities and commitments aimed at helping people achieve financial security and independence.

As a provider of an essential service, my team has seen firsthand how a lack of access to financial services can impact the community.

The plan is designed to:

  • Improve EnergyAustralia’s understanding of why and how customers face financial exclusion, particularly groups over-represented in hardship statistics
  • Understand how EnergyAustralia can improve its products, services, policies and practices to better support vulnerable customers
  • Help EnergyAustralia employees better understand financial inclusion, the issues that affect it, and how they can support customers
  • Foster relationships between EnergyAustralia and community groups, advocacy groups and partners in business to lead change and improve lives

I was part of the working group which built the plan and my team, along with other areas in the business, will deliver the 19 key actions.

The energy sector is incredibly complex. There are a lot of regulators and a heap of regulation we have to manage. Regulation can be good for consumers and the sector when it drives investment towards better, cleaner energy for all Australians.

But inconsistent regulation across geographies can have significant and unintentional consequences that add cost for retailers and therefore customers.

The cost of energy is one of the main challenges facing energy companies at the moment. Electricity bills have increased across the country, with recent rises reflecting the impact of higher wholesale costs (the cost of buying electricity on behalf of customers) following the closure of large coal-fired power stations, increased demand for gas by LNG projects in Queensland and reliability issues with some big generators.

We know that’s bad news for customers and in June we announced we would commit an additional $10 million to financial and other support for some of our most vulnerable customers.

The funding will be used to expand our existing hardship program; it will also go towards doing new research aimed at alleviating chronic, long-term financial hardship.

We’ve been consulting with social services groups on how to best apply the additional funds, with an emphasis on energy efficiency and measures that provide lasting, long-term relief.

The funding will also support initiatives arising from our Financial Inclusion Action Plan.

I’ve always aligned myself with mentors, usually female but not always, who are in roles that differ from what I do day-to-day. I look for people who have similar values to me, are confident and have high emotional intelligence.

Advice from one mentor I’ll never forget was around the importance of building trusted relationships, particularly with your direct reports.

Managing a team of 80 people, you can’t do everything yourself, so having the right people, in the right roles to get the job done is fundamentally important.

Our Managing Director, Catherine Tanna, is a huge inspiration. Catherine has driven a customer-centric culture within EnergyAustralia, she is values driven and focused on doing the right thing by the customer and the community.

She has a deep respect for cultural awareness which I admire, and she is a working mum which I relate to.

I haven’t found EnergyAustralia to be a male dominated organisation. Half of the EnergyAustralia Board are women and around 40 per cent of the organisation’s managers are women; these are across a diverse range of roles and areas. I actually found the banking sector less diverse.

I see myself continuing to work in the utility sector. It’s a great industry with lots of opportunity, especially for improving the customer experience.

Outside of work, my family keeps me busy. I have a seven-year-old daughter, Makayla, and spending time with my family is the most important thing to me. In general I have a busy lifestyle, love travel and am planning a trip to New Zealand this summer.

I also love the cricket and barrack for the Bombers in the AFL.

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Andrea Coulthard

Andrea Coulthard, site chemist

Following completion of my science degree at university, I secured my first position at the Yallourn power station as a Scientific Technical Officer responsible for chemical routines.

Since then I have held five diverse roles at EnergyAustralia, including Settlements Officer (working within our Energy Markets business), Contract Advisor (Procurement) and most recently as a Site Chemist. All up I’ve been with EnergyAustralia for 22 years.

The Chemical Team at Yallourn is responsible for monitoring and maintaining boiler water chemistry and producing high-quality water for use in the boilers. We also provide testing, monitoring and specialist services to other areas of the business.

My key responsibilities relate to atmospheric monitoring and the on site management of hazardous materials.

I first came to Yallourn as a vacation student while studying science at university. This was a great way to see how what I was studying could be applied in the workplace.

I am pleased to say that we have since had a number of vacation students in the Chemical Team and EnergyAustralia continues to support this workplace learning.

We have online programs that help us to manage hazardous materials at the various EnergyAustralia sites and we are looking to consolidate these into one system.

My role has been to initially draft the functional specification for the consolidated approach to be approved and to participate in a team involving a number of key stakeholders for this project.

The team members come from various areas of the business, so communication has been key – not only to articulate Yallourn’s requirements but to listen to others so that the approach is agreeable to all parties.

I get satisfaction from knowing that the role that the Chemical Team plays contributes to providing an essential service to our customers.

The utility sector contains a great variety of roles which enables people working within the sector to have a very fulfilling career. This has enabled me to have a number of varied and interesting roles without needing to leave the sector.

On the flip side, the utility sector is constantly changing so businesses and individuals working within the sector need to be adaptable to change.

There has been significant change during the last few years in our industry, particularly with the introduction of cleaner energy and the recent retirement of coal-fired power stations.

I am pleased that EnergyAustralia is being proactive in leading change within the industry and looking at ways to diversify the business.

Early on in my working career, I had a number of leaders that instilled in their teams a good work culture that encouraged dedication, respect and pride in your work.

That set the foundation for me and I hope that I have continued this throughout the various roles I have had at Yallourn.

We have had a number of women at Yallourn working in commercial, procurement and technical areas. I have been lucky enough to work closely with many capable women who go about their roles in a professional, no-fuss manner and have the interests of the business in the forefront of their minds.

These women provide a different mindset and way of going about their roles and I have learnt a lot from working with them.

For the majority of my career, I have worked in male-dominated teams. I have tried to be who I am in my roles and encouraged the teams that I have worked in to take advantage of the skills that each team member can contribute.

I see myself continuing to work in the utility sector – it has provided me with a variety of roles that I never envisaged that I would do and a great workplace and lifestyle.

Outside of work my family life keeps me busy (my husband and I have a son, ten, and a daughter eight). I do enjoy travelling but also like to be at home gardening and cooking for family and friends.

Gayle Mcallister, operations team leader

I started in utilities as a power plant operator on a technical traineeship in 1983; then worked as a Unit Attendant at the Loy Yang A

power station for a couple of years before becoming an Assistant Unit Controller (AUC) at the Hazelwood power station.

I fulfilled many AUC roles at Hazelwood including AUC, before being appointed to the position of Shift Manager in 2014.

I was appointed Operations Team Leader (OTL) at EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn power station in April this year following the closure of the Hazelwood power station.

As an OTL I manage the day-to-day operations of the power station, which includes bidding in the electricity market, ensuring Yallourn’s units are running within their capabilities, and that we’re compliant with station health and environmental rules.

I oversee the permit to work system, liaise with stakeholders, including our maintenance colleagues, so that tasks can be completed without interruption to generation, and other tasks such as coordinating rosters and providing guidance to my team.

As a new member at EnergyAustralia, my focus has been on becoming familiar with my new role as OTL and getting to know the business more broadly. That said, I look forward to taking on projects in the future.

One of the main challenges in the energy industry is how we provide customers with reliable, affordable and cleaner energy.

EnergyAustralia has said publicly it recognises that owning big power plants comes with the responsibility of leading the development of cleaner forms of energy.

So as we make the transition to cleaner forms of energy, gas, coal and traditional hydroelectricity will provide security for the National Electricity Market.

That’s why at Yallourn, we’re working to make the site as efficient as possible by investing so our operations are as carbon-efficient as possible.

In 2015, for example, we completed a five-year maintenance program at Yallourn that allows us to do the equivalent of powering an additional 100,000 homes without needing to burn any additional coal.

I haven’t really had any female mentors in my career, as I have had very few female peers. My brother Robin was, up until recently, an OTL at Yallourn and he has certainly been a positive influence.

That said, EnergyAustralia’s Managing Director, Catherine Tanna, is an inspiration to me.

When I first qualified as an AUC in 1989, I was supervising men twice my age which presented some challenges, but I always remember by father’s advice: “Treat people as you would like to be treated.” This proved to be very helpful advice. I have also learned that you need to pick your battles!

I see myself continuing to work in the utility sector until I retire, I love it.

Outside of work I have four adult children, one of whom has a disability, so I don’t have much free time. I work twelve-hour days and night shifts and I love the amount of time off available to shift workers, it fits in well with my family.

I do the Variety Bash every year and have been doing that for eleven years so a fair bit of time is spent fundraising for that.

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