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Electric transformation: Ed Wilson

Wilson Transformer Company (WTC) specialises in the manufacture, installation and maintenance of transformers – critical components used in energy generation, transmission and distribution. The family business was founded by Jack Wilson in a tiny garage in South Melbourne and, this year, it is celebrating 85 years of operation.

Managing Director Ed Wilson is a third-generation member of the business and believes people these days are more aware of how energy is produced. “Going back 10 years, nobody turned on a light switch and wondered how it all occurred,” he tells The CEO Magazine.

“Going back 10 years, nobody thought twice about turning the light switch on and wondering how it all occurred.”

At the centre of energy generation, transmission and distribution are transformers; systems that transfer electricity from one circuit to another and can increase or decrease the electrical voltage depending on its application. “Transformers are critical assets that touch every human every day,” Ed adds.

Ed Wilson, Managing Director of Wilson Transformer Company
Ed Wilson, Managing Director of Wilson Transformer Company

“Other than rooftop solar, any electric energy that’s generated, whether it be coal, hydro, large-scale solar or wind power, requires transformers. Every single watt generated through those means will pass through a transformer.”

Ed joined WTC in 2002 straight after university, despite his mother’s wishes for him to work elsewhere first. “I grew into it naturally,” he recalls. “At school, I was always maths and science-oriented so engineering was a logical choice. When I was in university, I did some work in our factories in Glen Waverley and Wodonga – I really enjoyed the work.

“I chose mechanical engineering as a discipline even though the business primarily produces an electrical product. In fact, there are a great number of mechanical engineering in our products and operations – we actually have more mechanical engineers than electrical engineers in the business.”

Ed was completely captivated by the company soon after he joined. “I’ve had many different roles in the company and I’ve been exposed to other businesses, processes and people, whether it was through continuous improvement delegations overseas, general business dealings, or board positions in not-for-profit organisations.”

WTC around the world

While headquartered in Australia with manufacturing facilities in Victoria, WTC has sales and support offices in New Zealand, Singapore and the UK. Its distribution transformers are primarily for the local market while its power transformers are also shipped around the world. Additional products and services are offered through WTC’s subsidiaries and joint ventures in the US, Malaysia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Some of WTC’s notable contracts over the years include the supply of power transformers for the 2000 Sydney and 2012 London Olympics; the delivery of seven transformers to the largest hydroelectric station in New Zealand, Manapouri Power Station; the supply of transformers to Energy Queensland; and the development of padmount substations for local data centres in Australia (which contain a transformer and medium and low voltage protection and monitoring equipment).

Further, in 2012, the company became oil and gas giant Chevron’s first certified global supplier in Australia. For Ed, this deal wasn’t just about being certified. “It was more about challenging our health and safety system,” he says. “In fact, working with Chevron and going through the rigid qualification process inspired us to make major improvements in our safety system and performance. We created a new vision of ‘Zero harm, zero waste, complete customer satisfaction… always’. And through the six-year journey, our lost time injury frequency rate dropped from around 30 down to zero, which is an amazing achievement for any heavy manufacturer.”

With time comes change

Over its 85-year history, several changes have taken place within WTC that have seen the company continuously evolve for the better.

Since joining the company in 2002, Ed has seen massive change. “When I joined, the power industry was in a boom period and customers were spending a lot of money upgrading their networks. We were flourishing in the mid 2000s, which triggered us to invest in our business. We spent A$80 million upgrading our facilities and started moving our operating systems towards more digitalisation. These were significant changes in our business, but it was a question of either upgrading our facilities for the long-term, or dying a slow death. You need to reinvest in your business to give your employees and customers confidence they’re dealing with a good company using the latest technology.”

“You need to reinvest in your facilities to show customers that you are using the latest technology.”

More recently, WTC has rolled out its refreshed core values and strategy to all employees. Ed says the company has focused a lot more on ensuring its employees are aligned with the vision and values of the business, which has never fundamentally changed since Jack Wilson started the business.

“We previously had eight core values, which were difficult to remember, so these have been reduced to four: care, customer, excellence and integrity. These are the front-of-mind behaviours we want to instil in all our employees in everything we do.”

Alongside these refreshed core values is the catchphrase ‘The standard we walk past is the standard we set’. While this concept isn’t new and is often used in the lean manufacturing framework, Ed states that “it’s a very powerful statement because it challenges all employees every moment of the workday. Whether it be a safety hazard or a quality issue, if you don’t address it right then and there, then people surrounding you may interpret it as the standard you expect.”

Ed Wilson, Managing Director of Wilson Transformer Company

Before 2015, the online presence of WTC was not reflective of the company and its various operations.

“We are an engineering, manufacturing and service business. A lot of people underestimate the engineering aspect but without that, you don’t have the manufacturing or service capabilities. And we never really marketed ourselves that way. We could always justify significant capital expenditure on items such as processing equipment but we didn’t spend enough time or capital on marketing.”

In 2015, the company hired a branding specialist to assist with its marketing material, ultimately improving first impressions when chasing new markets and opportunities. By working closely together, WTC’s value proposition of ‘Built Smart for Life’ was born. Each aspect of the phrase was carefully chosen to reflect how WTC’s products are produced.

“The branding project has opened up opportunities in new markets as our prospective customers suddenly get a greater understanding of what we’re about,” he says.

Going green

One of the most significant shifts that has occurred in the energy sector in recent years is the push for more renewable energy sources, something Ed says the company is very involved in. In 2016, WTC worked closely with Goldwind Australia for the construction of the A$400 million White Rock Wind Farm near Glen Innes in New South Wales. WTC manufactured and supplied transformers for the project which, when complete, is expected to power 75,000 houses annually.

“Renewable energy is a growing segment, to the extent that it accounts for about 25% of our business,” Ed notes. “It may well continue to grow over the coming years to potentially 40%.”

“Renewable energy is a growing segment, to the extent that it accounts for about 25% of our business.”

In addition, Ed is grateful for the support given by the Victorian Government when it comes to renewables. Victoria has a Renewable Energy Target that aims to have 25% of the state’s electricity generation coming from renewable energy sources by 2020, and then 40% by 2025. Under the Target’s reverse auction scheme, which was unveiled in 2017, companies that had an existing planning permit to construct a renewable energy facility in Victoria could bid for 15-year support from the state government. “The Victorian Renewable Energy Target’s reverse auction has a strong local content push for Australia and New Zealand,” Ed explains. “This has encouraged more collaboration and partnering for WTC in these infrastructure projects, which has been great for local jobs.”

One of the companies that entered into a partnership with WTC is a world-leading solar inverter manufacturer headquartered in Germany, the SMA Group. The businesses worked together to develop a range of innovative solar power skids exclusively for the large-scale Australian solar market, which could be deployed in other parts of the world.

Maintaining success

One of the main factors that has contributed to WTC’s success over the years is the hard work and support of its people. Ed acknowledges that with any business you’ll always find some people who are inclined to negativity, but for the majority at WTC, they find it a happy place to work. “If you walk around our facilities, you’ll see people smiling,” Ed says. “Certainly, in the Wodonga region, it’s extremely community focused. As well as working together, our employees also live in that community together and see each other all the time. As a result, we’re more involved in the local community and our people do appreciate that.”

Ed Wilson, Managing Director of Wilson Transformer Company

To further support the energy and power industry, WTC is a member of two not-for-profit organisations, The Australian Power Institute (API) and CIGRE Australia. API’s purpose is “to supply a sustainable level of innovative and agile industry professionals with contemporary skills to transform and sustain Australia’s energy future”. As part of WTC’s involvement with API, it provides work opportunities for four engineering students during the summer holidays each year. Similarly, CIGRE Australia supports the electrical industry, serving as a global forum for engineers and specialists to exchange knowledge and information about power systems. Ed is a director of both these organisations and further supports them by hosting several industry and university technical visits, and learning initiatives at WTC’s manufacturing facilities.

Other factors Ed attributes the company’s success to include having strong customer support, an excellent supply chain and continuous team development. “Our supply chain is just as important as our customers, although one does not exist without the other. Having our Australian customer base supporting us is absolutely vital,” he adds. “Our contact point with the customer is our people, and our customers evaluate us based on the service we provide, the quality of the product we supply, and the technology behind us. Our people are critical, which is why employing the right people, and developing them to have the right skills to do what we do is so important.”

Barriers to overcome

Ed outlines two major challenges the company must overcome to remain competitive in the global energy industry. The first is the speed at which technology is changing, including the growth of energy storage. “It’s going to potentially present a challenge, but our view is that the grid will always be there, which also means that distribution and power transformers will always be required, particularly when you look at it in terms of large-scale solar and wind farms.”

The next hurdle is the low labour-cost countries where competitors manufacture similar products. “Our competition is fierce,” Ed adds. “We are maintaining competitiveness by doing things smarter. Our costs are always going to be higher than that of firms in low labour-cost countries, but we focus on our strategic advantages, which are meeting local requirements, providing superior value, reducing risk in the supply chain and providing quick deliveries.”

While WTC’s transformers are reliable and of high quality, there is one more thing that gives the company a competitive edge.

“There’s a word we use more regularly now, and that is ‘agile’,” he continues. “Agility is a major factor for us as we have many customers with different specifications and requirements. Australia is relatively small on the world stage and its conditions are quite harsh. Handling these requirements can be quite complicated if you are not dealing with them every day, which is a valuable contribution we can provide.”

Ed Wilson, Managing Director of Wilson Transformer Company

The top leadership attribute

Ed Wilson believes one of the most critical attributes a leader can possess is an ability to lead by example. “You can’t have one set of rules for your employees and a different one for yourself,” he says.

“And if you want to drive certain behaviour or results, demonstrating that by doing rather than saying is really important.”

The next frontier

While the company maintains its commitment to serving its Australian customers, it is also focused on extending its presence in other regions around the world. The expansion of the annual TechCon conference is one example of this – hosted by WTC and TJ|H2b in Australia for the past 19 years, it has now been extended to South-East Asia for the past two years with very positive feedback.

The conference has the specific focus of ‘Life management of high voltage and medium voltage power equipment’ and is now run across the globe in North America, Europe, Australia and South-East Asia.

The company is also looking to expand in other sectors. “Renewables are going to be a major focus for the next few years,” Ed says. “We are in the final stages of another expansion in our Wodonga facilities where we’re investing A$10 million, primarily for the large-scale solar projects with open skid solutions.” This investment will also allow for other products to be engineered and manufactured, which were not previously in WTC’s focus area.

The company aims to expand its services capacity and capability. “My brother took on the Service Manager role in the past few years,” Ed continues. “And he is continuing to mark his presence in the business and improving our field service and support to customers.” With 85 years under its belt, WTC is well positioned to continue its legacy in Australia’s energy market. While the company is still planning its official anniversary celebration, it’s looking forward to the release of its 85th anniversary commemorative book in early 2019.

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