Less than three years after taking over the helm at Ascent Group (formerly St. Thomas Holdings Inc.) CEO Ron Osborne has tendered his resignation, effective Wednesday.
He is stepping down just 10 days after the utility’s dismal 2014 financial statement was presented to city council.
In 2014, the Ascent Group rang up an operating loss of $6.8 million. That compares with a $1.4 million profit in 2013.
Furthermore at the end of last year, Ascent owed the city another $7.9 million for deferred payment of water bills which it collects on behalf of the city.
“We have transactions with them each month because they collect our water bills,” explained city treasurer David Aristone. “So, there may have been outstanding water bills, more than the usual at year end.”
Aristone confirmed the money normally is submitted to the city each month.
“It’s supposed to be. They (Ascent) may have had a cash flow issue that they couldn’t pay it to us.”
Additionally the cash flow situation was so critical in 2014, the city provided Ascent Group with security for a $1 million standby letter of credit so that it could bid on projects.
Osborne joined Ascent in November, 2012 following the departure of former CEO Brian Hollywood.
He previously was president and chief operating officer of ERTH Holdings Inc., an Ingersoll-based infrastructure services and solutions company. He also held senior roles with Ontario Power Generation and Ontario Hydro.
At the time of his hiring, then board chairman Jim Herbert noted, “We are delighted with the appointment of Ron to the CEO role. “With his proven track record, Ron is well qualified to assume leadership of the corporation and its vision of being the industry leader in energy solutions.”
He inherited a utility that had undergone rapid expansion under Hollywood.
In 2007, it acquired Tillsonburg-based Lizco Sales and Tiltran, and then Belleville-based Tal Trees in 2009 and ECM Controls of St. Thomas in 2010.
Osborne announced this spring Ascent would undergo a shift in focus away from large renewable energy projects, which resulted in about 36 layoff notices at Ascent, the majority impacting employees in Tillsonburg and several employees at ECM Controls who designed and built industrial controls.
He would not link the layoffs to acquisitions completed prior to his arrival.
“I can’t really comment on that because a lot of that was before me,” Osborne noted at the time. “What I’m looking at is we’ve got a really good capability in this organization and from my perspective, we just need to focus on the areas that we’re really strong at. Some businesses can get off on to other directions that they don’t need to, but I don’t see that here. It’s a matter of we’ve got a good base and we really need to focus on what we’re good at.”
It’s a drastic departure from Hollywood’s 2011 declaration, “We had the vision once we started to acquire the companies (over the last few years) that, at some time, there’d be some real benefit corporately for us to merge certain services . . . and we’re growing at a significant rate and believe that this is just going to assist our growth. The efficiencies we gain will also help offset the costs.”
Osborne charted a new course for the utility, with a focus on four key business areas.
“There are four areas the company has always had as a core competency. That’s substation construction, traffic and streetlighting, pole line construction and high voltage maintenance services. That’s what we’re going to focus on going forward.”
In August, Ascent sold the vacant ECM Controls office/workshop at 81 Harper Rd. Osborne confirmed Ascent received about 90% of the asking price of $545,000.
Speaking to the Times-Journal on Friday, Osborne did not elaborate on his next move.
“I wouldn’t comment on my personal situation. It’s a decision that I thought it was time to move on to something else. I’m honestly not sure what I’ll do, but I’m certainly going to think about some things.”
As to a successor Osborne advised, “I can say John Laverty, who is the board chairman, is going to step in, in an acting capacity given that I have decided to leave.”
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