Country Energy manager Brian Mclean reckons he’s been “lucky”. Susie Boswell discovers he’s mostly made all his own luck.
I’d expected a dry luncheon engagement discussing electricity with a Country Energy executive. It’s all in the spotlight thanks to escalating charges (up to 60 per cent in the next three years, with greater dividends to government) but it is, after all, just a commodity. Yet as Brian Mclean, CE’s recently appointed Regional Manager for the Mid-North Coast, and I set about making our menu selections, I have an inkling this in fact will be one interesting encounter. No sooner are today’s specials, including some delectable Blue Eye, outlined than Mclean’s eyes light up in anticipation, like a kid on Christmas Day. As one of the energy authority’s top team, dining out for business is not a rarity for him. But he’s not at all world-weary, has genuine unspoiled delight at the prospect of enjoying a prime piece of fish. Indeed, as we settle into the Mullet’s new Wintergarden section, his distinct “How lucky am I?” mien becomes more pronounced with each chapter he unfolds for me.
Mclean, I learn, has made it to top of the tree not via a meritorious degree or MBA but from the humble rank of linesman, crawling around live high-voltage installations. What’s more, he achieved it despite an ethnic background more often a handicap to busting through the invisible barrier to the boardroom anteroom: Mclean is Aboriginal, from his mother’s Wiradjuri-language people in the Dubbo-Trangie area. As he recounts his climb up the corporate ladder, it’s like watching a guy reliving the news he’s just won Lotto.
None of it was mere good fortune. Actually, life tossed a few wobblies into his path along the way. After Year 10, Mclean joined the then NSW Electricity Commission as a trainee linesman, looking after territory from Tamworth to the Queensland border and out to Walgett and Bourke. That was 30 years ago, around 1979. For the next 15 years he worked there, marrying Leanne and raising a family (Jess, now 22, Nick, 19, Sam, 18, and Jason, 13) before, as he puts it, “I went into the jail system”. It was one of those decisions that don’t quite work out (but nevertheless that he parlayed into a plus). “I applied for three jobs and was offered them all: police, sheriffs, and Aboriginal welfare officer at Grafton Gaol. I took Grafton and I was able to do some good work – the jail had a large Aboriginal population – but I found the system itself was very restrictive.” He did vocational and case work including community contact with families, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and liaison with support agencies to prepare inmates to return to the community. But his disillusionment with the system led him to rejoin the power industry with Northern Rivers Electricity at Grafton, then later back in Tamworth, with North Power (merged with others to form Country Energy in 2002).
Mclean’s main focus, meanwhile, had switched from work to home: his youngest was born with congenital kidney disease [that’s him, inset above, with footballer Preston Campbell and CE employees several years ago]. The emphasis was on keeping him healthy until a transplant was viable. “It was always going to be me or Leanne who’d donate one of ours,” Mclean says matter-of-factly. That way there’d be minimum waiting time, he explains; no need for dialysis or arduous trips to Brisbane for the procedure. Ultimately “my wife gave him her kidney, he wasn’t compatible with me”. Mclean refers to the transplant occasion as “the longest day”. He took Leanne to hospital at 7.30, admitted four-year-old Jason at 11.30, saw Leanne return from surgery at 3pm, and they worried about Jason till he came round at 9. But – and here’s the “lucky us” thing again – it’s all been positive for both of them since, he smiles.
Mclean had become a workplace trainer and assessor looking after the power company’s apprentice programs and CE executives often sought his advice on various issues. The authority decided to beef up its indigenous program and Mclean became indigenous apprentice coordinator. “We made a concerted effort, a decision we’d go hard at it – and we decided to employ 50 indigenous apprentices over an 18-month period. I developed our indigenous employment and development strategy … and we implemented it.” Since 2001 CE claims to have employed some 135 indigenous apprentices in all, nudging 20 per cent of the total: “It’s been really popular and successful, and we have a 92 per cent retention rate! There’s a lot of good news stories right across our footprint,” he says proudly.
“Three and a half years ago I was accepted into Country Energy’s senior development program; we came to Port in 2006. I had access across a number of our business units – for example, I managed the meter readers across the State.” The opening, he admits, “was an opportunity I’d only dreamed of: coming from a trade background, given the chance to move into corporate management roles”. Then the position of MNC Regional Manager came up. “I applied and I was successful,” he says simply (and I notice a near-imperceptible shake of his head and a blink of disbelief that he could be so … “lucky”).
“It’s been a remarkable journey;” Mclean admits, “a lot of times I’ve been out of my comfort zone, especially coming from my Aboriginal background. [But] I’ve had a lot of support from people along the way and I hope it’s what I can offer, what I can hold out to others …”. A role model? “Yeah … I’d hope I can be a role model,” he nods, acknowledging the suggestion modestly.
Of some 1200 CE employees in the region approaching a quarter of them report to Mclean, looking after about 160,000 customers from Karuah to Woolgoolga and inland to Gloucester and Dorrigo – ensuring network investment is delivered and customers get reliable distribution service via almost 20,000km of power lines, 170,000 poles and some 25,000 street lights. “We’re spending $100m maintaining the network here this year and preparing it for growth. There’s significant work to be done and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Privately, “Family is number one. I used to play a lot of sport – football, water polo, and boxed a bit. Now I surf a bit but basically follow the kids and their sporting activities”. The “kids” include this young grandfather’s three boys and three girls – among them, twins aged four.
Out To Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach