After 21 years leading the charge at Unison, Ken Sutherland is stepping down. As Ken looks to flick the switch off as chief executive of one of Hawke’s Bay’s largest companies, he took time out to reflect on what has been an incredibly successful tenure, building the community-owned business from a turnover of $33 million in 2002 to a turnover of $314 million in 2021/2022.
Ken initially planned to continue in the role until the company’s centenary celebrations in 2024 but has opted to call it a day after the next annual general meeting in July 2023. Unison started as the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board in 1924 and up until the early 2000s, the company was an electricity retailer as well as the network service provider.
When Ken came on board in 2002, the company was reinventing itself and starting to look for new ways of growth, following the government-regulated change that one company could not distribute and retail electricity. “The company was quite small back then, having just gone through the separation of retail and network. We had a small workforce that did faults repair, and we had contractors on the network providing capital construction for the business.”
The growth of the business commenced with being awarded a management service contract of Central Hawke’s Bay lines company Centralines Limited in October 2002, quickly followed
by acquiring the Taupo and Rotorua electricity distribution assets of United Networks Limited and Vector Limited.
The expansion out of Hawke’s Bay led to a change of name to Unison Networks Limited (trading as Unison) in 2003, becoming the fourth-largest electricity lines company in New Zealand.
“I think the board got me in to grow the business, and I had only just got my feet under the desk when the opportunity came about with Taupo and Rotorua, and that basically rewrote the strategy for the business going forward.”
By 2007, Ken had restructured the business, creating Unison Contracting Services, which would offer power, civil and vegetation services to its parent company, and then picking up a similar contract for services with Dunedin energy provider Aurora.
As Ken sits in his expansive office on the second floor of Unison’s headquarters in Omahu Road, he is quick to point out that it’s been a team effort, starting with a strong performing board well led by four chairs over his time – Forrie Miller, Bryan Martin, Kevin Atkinson and current chair Phil Hocquard – and some talented senior managers.
As well as Unison Contracting Services, Unison Group’s subsidiaries include fibre network business UnisonFibre; ETEL, which is New Zealand’s largest transformer manufacturing company specialising in the design and manufacture of distribution transformers; and specialist high-voltage business PBA Limited, which Unison bought in March 2022 from Australian owners. Unison Group now employs more than 1,000 people and has assets of $1 billion. “My view is there is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle you are trying to solve, and so a number of our acquisitions in recent times were the missing pieces that added to the capability of the entire group.
“We look to opportunities that run alongside what we do as a network business, so if it is relating to equipment or services that are related to electricity and networks, then we have an interest in those opportunities.
“Acquiring businesses has also developed and grown our talent and I take a lot of pride in the people we have working at Unison. I think we have a brilliant team and what distinguishes us from other lines businesses is actually our people, not the assets, and how we go about running the business.”
Ken says it has always been important to embrace the constant evolution within the energy sector, the most recent being sustainability and New Zealand’s transition to a zero-carbon future.
“Unison has a role to play in helping the country’s transition to a zero-carbon future in areas such as transport, industrial heating and housing.
“People still need energy to power their lives but how they get that energy and what they use it for is rapidly changing,” Ken says, pointing to the technologies of smart grid, solar, battery and electric vehicles.
“When we acquired ETEL it was at a time when we were looking at the transformation of the electricity network and we initiated a smart grid strategy, which was the beginning of moving the business away from a reactive way of asset management to a more predictive and dynamic asset management approach.
“We recognised we needed to have a smarter network to deal with the changes in use of an electricity network; this was a turning point for us and put as at the forefront of electricity networks in New Zealand, if not in Australasia.”
Being at the leading edge of sector innovations has brought with it a range of industry accolades – the most recent being in the sustainability space when Unison won the 2022 Low-Carbon Future Award at the New Zealand Energy Excellence Awards for its pioneering sustainability work on the recently operational Windsor Substation in Hastings.
As Ken prepares to hand over the reins, he says most Hawke’s Bay residents still think the company simply provides a service that “keeps their lights on” as well as returns them an annual dividend via the Hawke’s Bay Power Consumers’ Trust.
Ken is looking forward to the next stage of his life, which will involve spending more time with wife Debra, their four children and fifteen grandchildren while also exploring governance roles locally and nationally.
“Debs and I have been talking about there being more to life than being a chief executive. Debs has enabled me to dedicate 21 years to the job and it is now time for us to spend time together and with our large family.”