Genesis fast-tracks its technological evolution

All companies change. Some do it slowly others do it quickly.

Marc England is taking Genesis Energy down the fast route.

The British-born, former power company executive in Australia has completed two major acquisitions and turned over half of his executive team in the 15 months since he took over.

He has bought a 15 percent percent share in the Kupe gas and oil field for $168 million to go with the 31 percent Genesis already owned. He followed this up with a $192 million purchase of Nova Energy’s LPG retail business. The company expects both acquisitions will boost its bottom line.

The speed at which England is moving must have blown a few fuses at Genesis.

The electricity generator and retailer had a reputation as a conservative company under its previous CEO, Albert Brantley.

England says he hasn’t been making snap decisions or judgments.

“It’s never felt like rushing. I had a four-month wind-down from my last job and spent that time studying Genesis, so when I started I already knew what I wanted to do."

What England has been doing on the “company culture” front is likely to be more significant for Genesis, in the long-term, than buying a bigger chunk of the gas industry.

He believes in the “Agile” model. Agile is a style of working that evolved out of the IT industry and is now embraced by giants like Apple, Netflix, Phillips and General Motors.

Instead of “Command and Control" style of management, staff are grouped into cross functional teams. The teams include staff from all levels of an organisation and different areas of expertise. 

For example, an agile team will include someone from marketing, finance and say customer relations, as well as product development.

England accepts that some of the executive team he inherited didn’t take to the idea of “agile”.

“Disruption is coming, the way consumers engage is changing and if we sit around waiting we will find ourselves dead in the water.”

“When I arrived, I could see we needed to change the hierarchal structure and push power (no pun intended) down the organisation. We had people waiting to be told what to do. These people had to be empowered so I decided we needed executives with high capability but low ego.”

Genesis now has 10 teams made up of six to 10 people working in an agile environment.

The aim of the agile teams is to get new products and services into the market faster. It’s here that England admits to being in a hurry.

“My biggest fear is that someone from outside (New Zealand) who understands the consumer better than we do comes in and really disrupts the market, someone like Tesla or Amazon.

“Disruption is coming, the way consumers engage is changing and if we sit around waiting we will find ourselves dead in the water.”

The agile teams work on projects for two weeks and then report back. England describes it as “freedom within a framework”.

He believes in putting minimum viable products into sample markets, iterating on them and then, if they work, scaling up.

A wave of new digital tools for Genesis customers is on the way with an announcement planned for September 18.

Journalists got some insight into the sort of products Genesis is working on during a recent field trip to the southern Wairarapa.

The company is six months into a three-year project of engagement with consumers.

It has installed subsidised solar panels in 35 houses and is looking to extend that to a total of 86 homes. Twenty of the homes have batteries to store the solar power.

The journalists were taken to the Wairarapa’s wine capital, Martinborough, in a bus with England and other Genesis executives working on the project.

Others followed in an electric car. All are wearing black jackets with Genesis's orange logo and the company's new marketing message written on the back – “Putting control in the customers’ hands.”

No one seemed self-conscious about wearing the corporate mission statement and throughout the trip England was using his phone to post photos and messages on Yammer – the messaging system Genesis uses for internal communications.

We were taken to the Te Kairanga winery which has a 40-kilowatt solar array on the roof. Genesis owns the panels and sells the power to the winery at just under market rate. The winemaker, John Kavanagh talks about how important sustainability is for the wine industry and how happy he is with the arrangement.

England talks about the need to build trust and reliability with consumers.

“I like to think of us now as a start-up with heritage.”

The next stop was to the home of app developer Eli Thomas. Thomas, who is renovating his property, is the prototype of the future customer – he is tech savvy and environmentally aware.

“Today is a bad day,” he tells us.  His subsidised solar panels have produced only a small amount of power due to the rainy, overcast conditions.

“Solar has given us 8 percent of our power today, about enough to run 12 lightbulbs; we have had to import 92 percent (from the grid)."

But the interesting point here is not how much Thomas has used but how he knows. Genesis has installed real time energy monitoring in his house and Thomas can get an instant read by looking at a dashboard on his laptop on how much power he is using and where its coming from.

England says: “We want people like Eli to tell us what works and what doesn’t.”

“We feel that if we give people insight and allow them to manage their energy usage, they will trust us. Trust creates loyalty and we want to build brand loyalty.”

Keeping existing customers is key to Genesis’s prospects.

Churn rates in the electricity business are going up and Genesis, the country’s biggest retailer, has the most to lose.

England says there is no point offering price discounts to win new customers if you are losing existing ones.

“Our aim is to be an energy manager not just an energy supplier. Consumers disengage when they feel they lack control. We want to give them that control, right down to telling them that running an air conditioner on a hot day in Auckland will cost you about the same as a flat white. Then people can make decisions based on real-time information.”

England also hopes that digital technology can also add value to the more mundane parts of the business such as distributing LPG bottles.

Genesis is working on a product that links the weight of remaining LPG to a mobile phone app so people know when they are running low on gas. 

"Technology can turn a clunky system into pain point reduction.”

The changing nature of Genesis’s business is changing who it employs. It now has 10 app developers on its staff and is downsizing in other areas.

“We are becoming a technology company,” says England. “I like to think of us now as a start-up with heritage.”

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