Opinion & Analysis
OPINION: Fletcher Building vs Meridian - two tales of corporate responsibility
A few years ago I had a great lesson in corporate responsibility and leadership.
My motorcycle, a gorgeously svelte Ducati 916, was backed over by a Fletcher Building ute. The driver did a runner, but a kind observer left me a note about the incident.
When I got home that night, I was fuming. Being a Fletcher Building shareholder made it doubly annoying. I drafted a detailed letter, guessed the email of then CEO Ralph Waters and sent it away with a picture of my bent machine. By 8am I had a reply from Waters apologising, noting the duty the company had to the community it operated in and saying Fletchers would make good. And it did. It was a stunning example of a corporate taking its community seriously, and showed Waters understood the import of doing the right thing.
Lately I've experienced another take on corporate responsibility and community relations from Meridian Energy.
Three months ago my family and I moved to a farmlet near where Meridian is building 25 kilometres of heavy duty road to transport turbines for its new 60 megawatt Mill Creek Wind Farm at Makara.
Prior to moving, I was firmly in favour of wind generation, and well-disposed towards Meridian. I'm a happy Powershop customer, and I worked with the Meridian team a while ago to set up NZ's first carbon trading market.
Moving into the neighbourhood, the first thing locals told us was how frustrating Meridian was to deal with: a history of broken promises about bridle tracks, turbine numbers and delivering community benefits. We decided to keep an open mind.
Since then I've gone from positive, to neutral to scornful of its approach to running a major infrastructure project through the heart of a small rural community.
Having a quaint country lane transformed into something reminiscent of the potholed tracks of Kashmir was the first thing to vex me, not to mention munting the shockies in my wife's Suzuki Swift. Mind you, that's minor compared to the damage other locals' cars have sustained.
More concerning was when I noticed the operator of one of the massive roadbuilding behemoths outside our gate texting while driving. The thought of what one of these would do to a car of kids on their way to school left me cold. Talking of kids' safety, Meridian's contractors left their massive metal equipment in the local pony club grounds, a serious liability if a child gets thrown from a horse.
The ongoing roadworks have pretty much killed road access to our largest pasture. Nothing less than a stonking 4x4 with mud grips can enter or exit the paddock, so forget about trying to get a stock truck or float in.
Like many on the road our main entry has been demolished and made over by Meridian to allow for the substantial new road and drainage. Residents were assured everything reasonably practicable would be done to buffer the impact of the work and we were invited to offer suggestions.
We suggested Meridian might like to fill in some potholes on our common drive for a few metres. After initially assuring us "nothing was off the table" it refused our request. If you thought a billion dollar company laying a multimillion dollar 26 kilometre road through the heart of a rural community could afford to patch a few holes on the side, you'd be way wrong.
But what annoys me the most is the tone of their regular emails to the community. While the destruction and reconstitution of the public roads is now well behind schedule and the disruption weighty, you wouldn't know it from the "Hi-de-Hi" digital communications. It seems there are no weeds in Meridian's garden.
This isn't rocket science. It's about leadership from the top and doing the right thing by the community you do business in.
It causes me to wonder whether the stalemate in negotiations with Pacific Aluminium at Tiwai Point correlates to the attitude Meridian has shown in Ohariu Valley. Based on what I've seen, I'd walk away as well.
It's timely to consider what happens to the value of the new Mill Creek wind farm (and hence shareholder equity) if and when Tiwai Point closes. Meridian generates around 9000 gigawatt hours a year. About half of that goes to Tiwai Point. If that deal implodes, the whole supply/demand equation will turn on its head, not perfect timing for a Government pushing through partial privatisation.
When you are selling 9000 gigawatt hours a year and are close to capacity, it makes good sense to commission a further 60 megawatts out the back of Makara. But when you're suddenly facing oversupply of 4500 gigawatt hours, it's less compelling.
The true irony is that Merdian CEO Mark Binns cut his teeth at Fletcher Building, as a divisional general manager under Ralph Waters. Too bad he didn't do a better job of emulating his boss's ethical approach to community relations. After all, we're all shareholders, at least for the moment.
Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is a professional director, author and ecommerce manager. His Twitter handle is @modsta and he's after a set of mud grips. Disclosure of interest: Meridian has given MOD some free water.