Country Energy’s tentacles reach, literally, into the homes of every one of us in the Hastings, not to mention more widely, along a network strung across 95 per cent of the State’s physical landscape. The utility’s new managing director, Port Macquarie’s Terri Benson, accepted Susie Boswell’s invitation for a lunchtime chat.
Terri Benson reminds me of a duck, cruising about, cool, confident and collected, a figurehead sailing steadily along while the monolith she leads, Country Energy, paddles furiously, presumably purposefully, beneath the surface. The Keneally Government (“a well-known desperate vendor”, snigger the financial newspapers) has just sold off CE’s retail assets. Yet Benson is one of the calmest – and reputedly cleverest – executives you could meet, apparently not the least phased by the loss of a vital – income-producing – one-tenth of her business, except concerned to reassure the troops that all is well. Her mind’s on adapting smoothly to this change; indeed, taking advantage of it, I’d guess.
Probably only the truly wealthy open the quarterly electricity account nowadays without that sickly realisation: the bill’s gone up, again. Benson cheerfully admits to being a commercial animal who’s been dedicated to selling not more, but appreciably less, of her product. Sydney’s erstwhile main supplier, Energy Australia, too has pushed for flat dwellers to be permitted to dry their washing on balconies, instead of in power-guzzling clothes driers. Cynics might say it’s OK to sell less of a commodity if you sell it at double the price! But anyway, the 20 per cent of NSW customers CE accounts for won’t long be an issue, as far as retail sales income’s concerned: the business will need to turn to concentrate on its other role, of providing the infrastructure that carries the electrons around.
The zeitgeist, though, is all about this sustainability thing, and renewables. Benson begins to expound on future directions: solar, wind, geothermal, etc – but soon discovers that she’s talking to a fiscal four-year-old. An accountant by profession who earned her degree with Deloitte’s in Sydney, she turned to high-flying commercial accounting then, once married, moved with her policeman husband (Ken’s since become a teacher) around a series of regional areas in the State’s south and west – her childhood territory – where the kids came along. Lauren and Ashleigh are now 14 and 13 and it’s 12 years since Benson reapplied her professional skills with CE’s precursor, Advance, in Bathurst. After transferring here four years ago, she was executive general manager corporate and commercial when, last June, she became acting MD, permanently appointed in October: the youthful boss of our biggest workforce and far and away Port’s highest paid executive. Presumably she moved from her acting salary of $387K pa closer to the $666k of her predecessor, noted in CE’s annual report.
In bygone days electricity was sold by county councils, abolished in favour of quasi-government entities like Advance, North Power and Great Southern, in turn merged into Country Energy. CE, chartered as a commercial enterprise, has a State government-appointed board overseen by “shareholder directors” representing taxpayers – the NSW Treasurer and NSW Finance Minister. So: an “independent” politically dominated outfit, in fact. Anyway, I’m lunching with Benson just as top 50-ASX player Origin Energy is taking over her turf. I imagine she’s probably even delighted – after all, it’s the retail arm that issues the bills that everyone hates. Benson will be left with the 90 per cent of the existing business that looks after reticulation: “poles and wires” (prominent infrastructure, incidentally, that we’re stuck with; country wiring, all 200,000km of it on 1.4m poles, is not destined to go underground any time this century), meters, meter reading and so on – the exact cut-off point in existing operations to be revealed. I guess CE will bill Origin healthily for those services though: we’ll soon find out!
Someone once made a sales killing, I suspect, hawking blue paint in Port Macquarie, for the hulking bulk of Settlement City, and Country Energy’s bilious blue building on Buller Street. So it’s surprising, inside, to find a tasteful modern executive suite and streamlined MD’s inner sanctum. A striking strawberry blonde, businesslike in beige trouser suit, Benson gets up to greet me … disconcertingly at ease for someone with so much on hand right now. We settle on her black leather sofa and I’m, like, already so relaxed I’m mesmerised, failing to protest that it’s awkward taking notes in this position. I learn that Port Macquarie, CE’s effective headquarters, is likely to remain so, home now to 1000 of its 4500 employees around the State. There’s a Sydney office and branches of 200-300 staff each in Bathurst and Queanbeyan. Benson makes soothing noises about transitional arrangements for job security, then, cheerful and charming (her reputation preceded her) indulges me with some banal chitchat, appearing genuinely interested I’ve slashed my own power bill substantially. We agree on the inconvenience of having to reach behind the screen to turn the TV off standby at night: she gives me a tip about a foot-operated remote switch I can get from Bunnings. Then, there’s this new passion for solar. Both of us failed to get a string of 60c/kW solar panels installed on our roofs, too busy. Benson was tied up making the sell-to-the-grid bonus scheme itself work for some 10,000 customers at June 30 and installers alike, hurrying up supply of new meters needed, for one thing. Inquiries spiked from 200 a week to 2000, she remarks, evidently impressed by the market’s enthusiasm, though it meant abandoning her annual family holiday.
There’s much to discuss around the energy economy: climate change, carbon tax, failed pink batts and green loans schemes, but Benson – her mind a steel trap, mine more a mousetrap – has worked out by now I’m no business journalist or willing propaganda purveyor. Instead, we move on to enjoy a magnificent Lou Perri lunch while, imperceptibly, she occasionally steers me back to business, casually mentioning CE’s sponsorship of community events, for instance. More engagingly, she tells me a funny anecdote about her training regime for a 1.9km Ironman swim, how she’s acquired a taste for exercise with help of a personal trainer, and other private snippets. She has the work:life balance thing worked out, I reckon, and admits she treasures family above all. “You’re always someone’s wife, sister or Mum,” she declares. Perhaps that’s why she’s calmer than your average CEO: I think she’s got it all in perspective.
Out To Lunch is hosted at award-winning
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