John Mackay is the chief executive of Actew/AGL, Canberra’s electricity, gas, water and sewerage services. He was formerly deputy secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration, general manager of the Overseas Property Group and director of Australian Protective Service. He is a Fellow of AIM.
AIM: Can you run through your recent history in management?
Mackay: I was senior private secretary for the Minister for Administrative Services. That was a classic Bernard (of Yes, Minister) role. We felt that Yes, Minister was more a documentary than a comedy.
AIM: Who was your Jim Hacker (the minister)?
Mackay: Stewart West; he was the minister in the early 1990s.
AIM: What was next?
Mackay: I then moved to be general manager of Overseas Property Group, a government agency that builds and buys embassies and diplomatic houses. Given that the biggest thing I had ever built was a brick veneer house and I had never been out of Australia, I had to make a few changes. But it showed that you don’t necessarily have to be an expert on your subject matter to be a manager.
AIM: What do you regard as the generic skills you need?
Mackay: You need to be able to understand people and to be a good communicator. You need to be a good planner, more than anything else. There are four or five things that make a successful enterprise. You have to be financially successful, which means managing money well. You have to be customer driven, which means having a clear understanding of who the customer is. You need to be technically competent and make sure you have the right skills to do whatever is required. You need to be a good employer, and the elements of that are: communicating and developing and rewarding talent. And you need to behave as a responsible enterprise.
AIM: What is your educational background?
Mackay: I’ve got a Bachelor of Arts and Administration and Economics from Canberra University. I still lecture there from time to time in management.
AIM: What do you regard as your strengths?
Mackay: I think I am a particularly good people person. I will generally consider the human factor before anything else.
AIM: What came next?
Mackay: I ran a security agency: Australian Protective Services. Again, I had no particular skills in that area. It had about 1000 policemen, and I played a central role in bringing commercial practices to that organisation. Customer service was not immediately apparent in a police organisation. When the police walk into the room, they are in charge: that is it. So, to change that to have them thinking of the customer was a satisfying challenge to meet.
AIM: How did you make the change?
Mackay: I got some good people in to help with the training, and was constantly walking the talk. That way I was able to convince them that, if they did not do it, they would die as an organisation. Most government organisations have victims, not customers. The great thing about commercialisation (of government enterprises) is that it forces the staff to think in terms of customers. The alternative is to wither on the vine.
AIM: What are the challenges in your current position with Actew/AGL?
Mackay: It is probably the world’s most multi utility. It combines sewage, gas, water, electricity and telecommunications.
AIM: How do you establish guidelines?
Mackay: By setting clear financial goals before we move into each financial year. I do that through a consensus process and set up a financial plan. I agree with my managers on what are the 10 or 12 things that we want the board to sign off on and judge us by. Then pretty well everything is centred around a two-page business plan which has a simple statement of how we will behave and what we want to do.
AIM: What is the most difficult thing you have had to do?
Mackay: The most difficult thing to do is retrench staff. Something I have lost more hours of sleep over than anything else. I think it is one job you can’t delegate to anyone else.
AIM: And the best experience?
Mackay: I have been the general manager of 10 government business units that have been privatised. In four cases I have been able to sell them to the staff. Now they are private-sector businesses owned and managed by the staff and they have been successful beyond our wildest dreams. I joke to them, it is amazing how successful a business can be when we are not helping them.