Interview with Stephen Ellich, CEO of infrastructure and asset management unit UASG

By Pieter Vosloo

Stephen Ellich is the CEO of Spotless Group's utilities infrastructure and asset management unit UASG. Together with its partner A.E Smith (AES), it was faced with the task of restructuring and refocusing the businesses on climate change and energy efficiency. 

With a successful track record of leading large organisations through transformational change to deliver sustainable growth, profitability and strong operating cash flow, Stephen Ellich took to the refocus with enthusiasm. We asked him to reveal some of his secrets.

His biggest challenge, he says was integrating the disparate businesses into a very large corporation. “Both had come out of private ownership. The cultural differences transferring from a private company to a large Stock Exchange listed company have been significant to overcome. To ensure business runs as cost effectively as possible is also part of the journey.”

He sees his management style as one of bringing people along on the journey. “I try to give the team a vision and a direction. Something they can believe in and follow. Though integration challenges look large and complicated, the prize at the end for everyone is worth a little inconvenience.”

What about the natural inertia? “Everyone handles change differently. Usually they can get through that initial tentativeness. I find the best thing is to have open communication with people about what is going on – to explain why we are doing it, being upfront about potential impacts and giving them the opportunity to participate in the change journey.

“I have been involved in many change programmes and we get better at it the more we do.” He adds realistically: “Not everyone will be happy, I can guarantee that! But the vast majority can be persuaded by a sound business case based on sound values.”

In fact he relishes working with mavericks, and meets fortnightly with his Innovations and Emerging Markets group. “You cannot tell people to be creative or set a KPI on how many ideas they have a month! I like to ask them just a few basic questions: 'Does this work help solve a customer problem? Is the customer willing to pay for the solution if you find it? Does it have the potential to be scalable so it will be commercially viable? Have you thought through the regulatory and legal requirements?' If they meet those criteria, keep on innovating!”

Communication is a big thing with him, and the key, he thinks, to wider societal issues. Asked what changes he'd suggest to benefit his industry in Australia, he replies: “While there are interactions between the various entities from time to time, these are usually once off or ad hoc type of events. There is very little industry-wide collaboration on matters where there would be a non-commercial common benefit. One area where I feel that collaboration could help improve the industry is safety. Accordingly, it would be good if contractors and utilities had an annual forum collaborating on safety initiatives to address the root causes of common incidents.”

That response is a clue to what really inspires Stephen Ellich. He is ever looking for the opportunity to help people along, and has served on the boards of the YMCA, with which he maintains a deep involvement, Edmund Rice Camps (a not-for-profit (NFP) organisation that provides camps for disadvantaged, refugee and indigenous children and families) and is on the NFP advisory board of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD).

Nobody is perfect. Stephen has an obsession with punctuality. “I hate to be late for anything, in my professional life anyway. At home I frequently have to take a more relaxed attitude!” Happily married for 25 years and with two teenagers, he regards that as his most successful venture of all – though somehow it comes as no surprise to learn he also sits on the board of his boys' school, St Kevin's College in Melbourne.

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Read the July 2016 issue of Business Review Australia and Asia magazine


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