With the departure Wednesday of former Ascent CEO Ron Osborne, board chairman John Laverty takes over the helm on a temporary basis. It will be his responsibility to guide the process that will result in the hiring of an individual tasked with winching the utility out of the financial quagmire in which it finds itself to the tune of $14 million in losses and money owing to the city last year.
Not to mention its long-term debt of what, another $6 million or so?
We caught up with John this week and what many may not realize is the St. Thomas resident was a former public utilities commissioner who has been “kicking around the utility industry on the governance side since 1991.”
He advised the process of hiring a new CEO started almost immediately.
“We decide as a board whether we’re going to use a headhunter or not.”
And, how much that undertaking will cost or should the board of directors tackle the hiring on their own. John is hopeful the CEO position will be filled early next year.
“You can get lucky and it can happen within a couple of months. Or it could stretch to perhaps six months. One of the challenges is utilities have changed. Utilities like St. Thomas and those around us are always going to have the regulated utility side but most have developed competitive business components.
“So finding someone to run a utility is probably easier than finding someone who can run both the utility and the competitive side, which is a relatively new creature.”
Under former CEO Brian Hollywood, the utility undertook a fairly rapid expansion. Osborne, on the other hand, pulled Ascent back in to focus on its core business of substation construction, traffic and street lighting, pole line construction and high-voltage maintenance services.
Does John see that as the track on which Ascent should remain?
“We need to do our core competencies really well. Once we’re back doing them really well and profitable again, then there will always be opportunities to reach out. We may have reached too far. Perhaps some of the processes around which jobs we bid on needed to be better.”
That included bidding on large renewable energy projects.
“There was a lot of interest on government sides to put a lot of money into them and it attracted a lot of big players. And we were not a big player but we were playing in a big-player market.
“We have a much stricter process for which jobs they can bid on. And everything is much smaller in scope.”
We asked John where he will channel his energy in the capacity of acting CEO.
“When CEO’s tend to leave, it tends to cause disruption in the organization. A lot of my energy will be focused on the people and making sure the people who are with the organization are the key people we need and how do we help them be part of a team moving forward.
“I need to listen to what’s gone on and hear from the people in the organization and help them understand where we want to go and how quickly we want to do that.”
After a financially forgettable 2014, John truly believes Ascent has turned the corner.
“We’re beginning to see our numbers stronger now for August than earlier in the year. This could be a two- to three-year process to get back on stream.”
Belated good news of a sort for St. Thomas Cemetery Company. A report from city manager Wendell Graves recommends council provide an additional $20,000 in funding this year for operation of West Avenue Cemetery.
This is in addition to the $30,000 provided back in the spring.
The cemetery company had requested a grant of $59,000, in line with what it has received from the city for many years.
Graves cautions the reduced funding this year — and likely beyond — will require the cemetery board “to review the costs associated with its administration and day-to-day operations to find further efficiencies.”
This in spite of the admonishment last month from Gail Ballard, a member of the Old St. Thomas Church Restoration Trust which maintains one of the oldest landmarks in St. Thomas.
Speaking out at a special reference committee meeting of city council, Ballard noted “this is as cost effective as you are going to get. Trust me, you do not want to run that cemetery.”
Advice some members of council seem hell bent on ignoring.
Have to question the thought process employed by Community Living Elgin in closing down the adult workshop on Curtis St. last Friday. It was more than a place of employment for the individuals who took great pride in the tasks they accomplished. The packaging business allowed the to socialize in a work environment and afforded them a sense of worth.
Susan Kalinoski Hill posted this observation on the Times-Journal Facebook page: “This is outrageous. I worked at Friendco. It was an absolute privilege to work with those with developmental challenges. It has been over 18 years since I worked with these adults and to this day they remember me and remember my name. These adults were hard workers, they never complained, they were on time. Elgin Community Living should be ashamed of themselves.”
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
A tip of the denim engineer’s hat is in order to the Elgin County Railway Museum’s manager Dawn Miskelly for her oral history undertaking that will capture the city’s railway heritage on video for future generations.
The museum was the recipient of a $2,810 grant Friday that will allow them to produce an oral history video featuring the voices of those employed on the railway during the halcyon days of steam and the early diesel days.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“All of the signposts tell us that the status quo is probably not something that is going to be acceptable. And I think the shareholder (the City of St. Thomas) probably understands that and is looking for that leadership to take us into the next phase of what this is going to be like in this area, particularly for St. Thomas.”
John Laverty, acting Ascent CEO on the future of small utilities in Ontario.
City Scope appears Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.