Clarke Energy wasn’t always the international powerhouse it is today. The company started trading in 1989, providing spare parts for marine and industrial diesel engines worldwide. At that time, it was based in Aintree near Liverpool in the UK and was founded by Jim Clarke.
With perseverance and hard work, Clarke Energy, now part of the Kohler Company, has grown from strength to strength, transforming into a multi-award-winning global business specialising in the engineering, installation and maintenance of distributed power-generation solutions.
Its success brought it to Australia’s sunny shores in 1998 on the back of a successful partnership between Clarke Energy and Jenbacher. And Managing Director and Main Board Director Greg Columbus has been with Clarke Energy nearly every step of the way.
“I take great pride in growing the business to what it is today,” he shares. “We’ve come a long way compared to where we were 17 years ago. Bringing Clarke Energy Australasia from a small outfit to the multinational power solution provider it is today, all while providing a real sense of belonging to the people who work here, is a huge achievement.”
It’s a transformation he credits largely to the company’s powerful culture. More than 50% of the staff have been with the company for more than five years and 30% of those have been there for longer than a decade.
“People want to work here thanks to our culture that’s like a family environment,” Greg explains. “They’re not here because they’re necessarily the highest paid. They’re here because we have a real sense of belonging. It’s not that they have to go to work, it’s that they want to go to work.”
Creating this culture wasn’t by accident either. It’s taken a lot of effort and continuous practice to weave it into the fabric of the company. “Culture is really the soul of the business,” Greg says.
“It’s in our DNA. It instils the beliefs and the learnings as we go along, and we reinforce it through storytelling. We work very hard at being more than just another place of work. Like any workplace, we have our challenges, but it’s how we deal with those challenges, and acknowledge and reward our successes that truly matters.”
Beyond recognising achievements, Greg believes it’s just as important to acknowledge areas for improvement. A huge part of the company’s culture is centred on safety and accountability. While it sounds easy enough in theory, in action, it can be a bit more confronting.
Bringing Clarke Energy Australasia from a small outfit to the multinational power solution provider it is today, all while providing a real sense of belonging to the people who work here, is a huge achievement.
“The challenge for me and the biggest challenge for the business is getting all of our stakeholders, staff and subcontractors to embrace accountability and safety,” he reveals.
“It requires a really different approach. You have to view things from key beliefs and a safety aspect, and call out the actions that aren’t right. Hold yourself accountable and then you can hold others accountable.
“We promote being comfortable with the uncomfortable. And it’s up to us to ensure there’s a safe environment for our employees to hold others accountable. The beauty of it is you do this because you care about someone’s safety and welfare. And if you can’t get this basic need for humanity across in your workplace, then I think that we as a society are failing.”
To win a significant contract like this only reinforced to our stakeholders and staff that we continue to be a long-term successful business through the good and bad times.
Having this perspective and shared vision in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, when everyone’s health and safety has been at the forefront of the conversation, has been a blessing. While other businesses have had to shut down, Clarke Energy Australia has continually been powering through.
“We made our workplace a safe haven,” Greg says. “When it came to health and safety restrictions, we found that our staff were more than comfortable to remain in our workplace with appropriate COVID-19 measures in place. It showed our real team culture. Our people were willing to continue as normal for their livelihoods and for the benefit of our customers and stakeholders.”
This incredible dedication only helped the company thrive through the most uncertain time in its history. In August 2020, the power solutions provider secured its largest contract to date – a A$93 million project with Alinta Energy, and it was closed off during COVID-19.
“This contract is significant not only because of its value, but because Alinta was also a brand-new customer. One of the greatest achievements was that it touched most people’s hands in our business, from the sales team to our engineering team, to the commercial and legal team, to contract finalisation and right through to operation and maintenance,” Greg beams.
“The Alinta project features a 60-megawatt gas station designed and built with a 10-year maintenance agreement. The achievement was bringing together so many parts of our business to win that project, to do it during COVID-19 and, to top it all off, be the largest single success in our history.”
And while many businesses have had to prove themselves to stay afloat during the pandemic, this contract did that and more for Clarke Energy. “It eased our staff’s worries about whether they’d have a job. We weren’t immune to the pandemic and businesses all around us were shutting down. So, in a time that felt like the world was ending for many, this contract has enabled us to provide a steady flow of work for our team,” Greg recalls.
“To win a significant contract like this only reinforced to our stakeholders and staff that we continue to be a long-term successful business through the good and bad times. At the same time, we recognise the faith Alinta acknowledged in our company with our capability to deliver.”
Of course, that success depends on the help of a few good friends as well. When it comes to crucial business partnerships, Greg won’t settle for anything less than the best. “Developing relationships comes from being aligned in principles and vision,” he says.
“We’re outcome focused, but we also have to have this alignment, especially in relation to safety, accountability and IIF [Incident and Injury Free]. Adopting this philosophy with partners is what we do. When we work with them, it’s not just transactional – we’re there for much deeper and longer-term relationships.”
Which is what Clarke Energy Australasia has with PHE – a family-owned business that offers electrical operations support services to clients. The two companies have grown together on their own journeys of success while mutually benefiting from the relationship.
“We have a really good, long-term relationship with PHE. We’re successful together because we understand each other,” Greg says.
“Even more, we both understand that not everything in this world goes perfectly. We can give constructive feedback to each other and build on that in a positive way to make sure the next opportunity is even better than the previous one.” In regard to the future, innovation is paramount to the company’s success and staying ahead of the competition.
“We try and approach each and every opportunity with new eyes, a new lens and focus, so it’s not just a repeat of the last time. We think about how we can do things differently to increase the value proposition for our customers,” Greg explains.
“If we’re not doing that, then we believe our competitors will just be copying what we did last time. For us, it’s about problem-solving and finding that optimal result.”
It’s also about finding sustainable solutions because without sustainability, the company doesn’t have a future. “All resources are somewhat limited, and without those growing and being able to develop a continuation of those resources, then we don’t have a business,” he says.
“So, our task is to make them last and everything we do in our business goes towards achieving that outcome.” As such, Clarke Energy is looking to minimise and eliminate waste to increase its efficiency. To date, Greg says it’s going well. The implementation has been a little slower due to the pandemic; however, the challenge has only made the company stronger.
“We’ve started to become more entrepreneurial. We’re learning to step outside our normal surrounds during COVID-19 and get back to the basics,” he says. “Over the next year or so, we want to emerge stronger and even more resilient than we are today.
“The pandemic highlights the need for flexibility and agility in what we do and how we execute. Whether it’s the new norm or not, we have to keep the connection and dynamic in the roles we play in our business in power solutions because it’s very much a team game.”
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