Stephen Blanch, 55, has been managing director of Eastern Energy since it split from the former State Electricity Commission of Victoria almost four years ago. Before joining Eastern Energy, he spent two years as the director of business development for Mission Energy Australia and four years as the managing director of a construction company in New Zealand, following a 30-year career with the SECV. In 1963 he obtained a diploma of electrical engineering, followed by a bachelor of electrical engineering, then a master of engineering science in 1973.
AIM: Did you decide to become a manager or did it just happen?
Blanch: I was a technical expert for the first four or five years, then I was given a small team to lead and it went from there. I never set myself the target of becoming the managing director of anything, I just did the best I possibly could.
AIM: Did you consider other career possibilities?
Blanch: I considered teaching, which I used to do part-time. I was offered the job senior lecturer in engineering the best thing I ever did was turn it down. Two years later I was offered the principal lecturer’s job, and knocked that back; then I was offered head of the department, and finally a vice chancellorship. The message there is you have got to be careful of falling into the trap of doing something that you absolutely are infatuated with if it does not have the potential for growth.
AIM: What does being a manager mean to you?
Blanch: I think of myself as more of a leader than a manager. There is a huge difference. Leaders paint pictures and deliver visions and get people to come along for the ride. Managers keep processes going. I am very much a believer in trying to get people to understand where we want take a business and how we are going to get there, and let them get on with the job of doing it.
AIM: What three skills are vital for a manager?
Blanch: Communication, analytical capability and people skills.
AIM: Can these skills be learned?
Blanch: Education helps but is not paramount. If you are naturally good at analysing things then a formal education will help. Communication can be learnt but some people are always going to be better at it than others. We have all done courses on understanding people but some people are innately better at it: women are naturally better than men.
AIM: What is good about being a manager?
Blanch: Seeing your plans come together is exciting. It’s like being an artist when you’ve finished your work.
AIM: What is the worst part of being a manager?
Blanch: Having to remove good people from the workforce for reasons that are out of their control and, to a large extent, are out of your control. I had to retrench about one-third of Eastern Energy’s workforce. We were excessively over-staffed. Now we have a better workforce that is more motivated and delivering better results.
AIM: What is your greatest achievement in management?
Blanch: Turning companies around, both culturally and financially. I’ve done that three times so far. I had to turn the New Zealand company from a bunch of public servants into a profit-oriented, highly successful international company. Two or three of us built up Mission Energy Australia and made it a very innovative organisation. Then, with Eastern Energy I took over a public service organisation, privatised it, and got it very customer-oriented.
AIM: What has been the biggest challenge?
Blanch: My first role as a managing director, in New Zealand. It was a significant change for me. I had always been in the public sector. I had to turn a business from public sector to private, but also turn it from a loss to a profit, so it was a pretty tough challenge.
AIM: Why was a former public servant chosen for that job?
Blanch: I was always an entrepreneur. My father was a salesman and I got some of it from him. It was easy to be entrepreneurial in the public service, if you were prepared to try it. I never saw the public service as an impediment to being able to develop good skills.
AIM: What is your strategy for Eastern Energy?
Blanch: Our short-term strategy is under way: to be an excellent customer service provider, and to be a total energy provider rather than just an electricity provider. We have won the right to distribute gas in the east Gippsland area in a joint venture and we are hoping to buy into the gas industry in Victoria. Our long-term strategy is to be one of the largest utilities in the country.