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First Gas: From zero to corporate hero – in four months

First Gas: From zero to corporate hero – in four months

Formed from the gas assets of Vector, a trio of IT experts created the 'NASA project' to give the fledgling company an ICT backbone.

Huw Griffiths is the first IS Manager for First Gas.

Huw Griffiths is the first IS Manager for First Gas.

“Like launching a rocket” is how Blane Evans-Parker describes his experience in working with the setting up a company from scratch.

Evans-Parker was part of the transition team - together with Huw Griffiths and Mark Webb - who built the ICT infrastructure for the new First Gas business.

First Gas is a group of companies owned by overseas superannuation funds, under management by Colonial First State, that acquired the Vector Gas business and the Maui gas pipeline. The First Gas group now owns gas network assets in the order of $1.3 billion.

On April 20, First Gas acquired the Vector Gas business, excluding the Auckland gas distribution network. On June 15, the Maui gas pipeline assets were also acquired. By the end of August, First Gas had a new standalone ICT corporate environment, says Evans-Parker.

The core developments included Microsoft Dynamics NAV, Microsoft CRM, Maximo, ESRI GIS, Distribution Telemetry, Health Safety and Risk, Billing, Meridian, Business Intelligence and IT Infrastructure.

Moreover, says Evans-Parker, the transition was completed within budget.

We did not have the luxury of only one project. We had several running at the same time.

Mark Webb, First Gas

While similar corporate takeovers may take up to a year to complete, in the case of First Gas the time frame was four months from date of sale, he says.

“I thought it would be pretty difficult. I do not think it has been done in New Zealand before in that time frame,” says Evans-Parker. “There have been takeovers but not of this scale and the time pressure.”

“And it was not just one system, we had at least 10 major systems,” he says.

The programme involved two phases - the first was the gas transmission and distribution transition. Phase two involved replacing all the systems used by Vector in the ‘corporate’ or non-gas specific space.

The scope and the mission-critical nature of the systems - both gas and corporate related - prompted the tech trio to call the go-live plan for the programme “the NASA plan”. This was to coordinate all 10 projects for the same go-live date as they had to go ‘big-bang’.

Decisions made in one area can impact others considerably. We need to have robust governance and decision-making in place.

Blane Evans-Parker

Evans-Parker shares with CIO New Zealand some pointers for change management and business transformation strategies that worked for them.

Vector sold all transmission assets, transmission based systems and the basic infrastructure to First Gas, except for the Auckland gas distribution. The Maui pipeline was also acquired in a separate transaction on 15 June.

Evans-Parker, who was also acting CIO for First Gas, knew the companies he would deal with during the transition would mostly be in Auckland, but he needed somebody in New Plymouth to manage the operations from the head office.

He tapped a contact from the industry, Huw Griffiths, who was then doing consultancy roles. He and Griffiths put together a proposal to manage stage two of the transition to First Gas.

This phase, explains Evans-Parker, was “everything else” involving the corporate system.

“The first thing we did was look at the people.''

“The regional office had no corporate people at all,” he says,” there were no accountants, billing or IT staff.

“You need to have subject matter experts who understand the whole business.”

“You need somebody who has a good overview of how the business should look, otherwise you can get people in finance and other divisions with no understanding of the whole operation.”

Tim Hatch (project co-ordinator), Hew Griffiths and Mark Webb at the First Gas headquarters.
Tim Hatch (project co-ordinator), Hew Griffiths and Mark Webb at the First Gas headquarters.

In a fast-track project it is critical to have good executive and board support...You have to have your A-team.

Mark Webb, First Gas

Richard Krogh, who was acting CEO of the new company First Gas Limited, asked Mark Webb to run the transition programme. Webb was previously General Manager Gas Transmission for Vector so has good industry knowledge.

The team audited all the other systems needed and the costs involved.

Once the scope was determined, they knew there would be several inter-related projects on the go at the same time.

The projects would have different suppliers working on them, different business owners and sponsors. However, they all inter-relate, says Evans-Parker. “Decisions made in one area can impact others considerably.”

“We need to have robust governance and decision making in place.”

Speed was of the essence. The goal was to complete building the new company within four months.

“We were paying a lot of money to Vector per month. It is in our interest to move off rapidly as possible,” says Evans-Parker.

They audited all of the incumbent and main providers in all of the systems used at Vector and used a system called Throw/Catch to shortlist possible replacement solutions. The vendors for these solutions were approached with a pragmatic view of ‘can they deliver, fast’.

Says Webb: “What you are looking for is, 'what is the catch if we choose this vendor'?”

Their experience in the power industry aided them in their decisions.

“It was that combination and the willingness to go really fast that allowed us to make really quick decisions,” says Webb.

They took into account the company will be based in New Plymouth.

“We did not go out to market. We knew the vendors, what their strengths are and weaknesses,” says Evans-Parker.

They also went with the vendors that could work with them immediately and not nine to 12 months down the track.

We are looking at a hybrid delivery model so there will be staff in all areas, but they will be bumped up with outsourcing contracts...This is to ensure the business knowledge is kept inside, or retained with staff.

Huw Griffiths, First Gas

Launch pads

The IT trio ran the steering committees for governance, technical and business group.

It was like launching a rocket, Evans-Parker and Webb both agree.

It was Webb, however, who had liked the name NASA. “It had an engineering connotation,” he says.

The NASA plan was intended to coordinate the go-live activities of all the major projects in the programme to help the programme succeed. “We did not have the luxury of only one project. We had several running at the same time.”

“We also had to make sure that the servers were ready for the different technology systems,” Griffiths says. The whole IT Infrastructure that supports the solution delivery had to be built from the ground up.

They were also coordinating the technical advisory group, composed of project managers and technical people across business divisions.

“We had to commit four weeks to give notice ahead,” says Webb. “Once we are committed, we are fully committed.”

Griffiths told the teams they would not modify the systems, preferring ‘out-of-the-box’ functionality where possible.

Office 365 was used to get up and running quickly with basic services.

“It was a decision made early on, because of the constraints of not having our own infrastructure,” says Griffiths. “The quick and easy option was Office 365.”

“What worked well? Having a small focused team who knew the business pretty well,” says Evans-Parker.

Webb says communications is always critical in a programme of work of this scale.

“We set up multiple methods of communications, the two main areas were email and meetings,” says Webb.

They made sure, however, the recipients know the email will be coming from First Gas and they should read it to be updated on the programme.

“The second thing is we had a lot of face to face communications,” says Webb.

“I sat in the canteen and invited people to talk to me. I did that as many times as people needed.”

Third is a formal governance structure was set up, says Webb. “We had management, operations and governance working on all those levels and talking to each other.”

Griffiths says one of their advantages is the huge buy-in from staff.

“They were keen to really be on board on day one. So we would have those meetings in the cafeteria and these were well attended.''

Webb explains most of the staff from Vector moved to First Gas. They initially had 130 staff, but this has since increased.

“We had no corporate office staff, we have to build as we went. When we started, we were relying on the contractors to help us through the transition."

What worked well? Having a small focused team who knew the business pretty well.

Blane Evans-Parker, First Gas

The A-team

“The parallel activity to all of this was writing the IS strategy,” Evans-Parker says. “The original contract was for a plan for the next three years along with creating the transition programme.”

At the end of July Griffiths was appointed IS Manager for First Gas, the first permanent IT role in the new company.

Griffiths will now be driving the IS Strategy alongside creating a new IS Department from scratch over the next few months. He is already partnering with TSB Bank to help attract talented qualified IT professionals to New Plymouth.

“We are looking at a hybrid delivery model so there will be staff in all areas, but they will be bumped up with outsourcing contracts,” he states.

This is to ensure the business knowledge is kept inside, or retained with staff, rather than with outsourcing partners. “We have to have in-house knowledge understanding of the business.”

Webb also says that in a fast-track project it is critical to have good executive and board support.

“You have to have your A-team,” he says, referring to the key people they have assigned for the project teams. “The IS team also knew that this was a business-led project.”

The bigger picture

After the successful go live of all the projects Griffiths is looking to consolidate the systems and grow the IS Department to match the business support requirements. “We knew it wouldn’t be perfect and that we would need to deal with some turbulence over the first few months.”

First Gas is now talking to other corporates in the region, to ensure a pipeline of staff in upcoming years.

It has recently worked with other companies to holding recruitment drives.

Griffiths estimates there are up to 20 IT roles needed across the companies they are working with for this regional push.

The goal is to promote the region as a whole and also to emphasise the quality of its school system, in order to attract people to move there with their families.

This way, says Griffiths, you are emphasising the upsides of lifestyle, environment and family needs, along with the job.

“You are offering a bigger picture.”

Mark Webb: "Communications is always critical in a programme of work of this scale.  We set up multiple methods of communications, the two main areas were email and meetings...We had a lot of face to face communications. I sat in the canteen and invited people to talk to me. I did that as many times as people needed.”
Mark Webb: "Communications is always critical in a programme of work of this scale. We set up multiple methods of communications, the two main areas were email and meetings...We had a lot of face to face communications. I sat in the canteen and invited people to talk to me. I did that as many times as people needed.”

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Tags leadershipHuw GriffithsMaximochange managementvendor managementMark WebbIT director to CIONew PlymouthMicrosoft CRMspeed of technologyESRI GISanalyticsOffice 365digitalteam buildingskills shortageBlane Evans-Parkerstrategydisruptionproject managementDistribution Telemetrycustomer focusMicrosoft Dynamics NAVOil and Gas IndustryIT recruitmentcxglobalisationFirst Gasknowledge management

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