Welcome to another edition of Fast Five - our fortnightly series where we ask Victoria’s most influential and exciting business leaders five simple questions to unveil the challenges, successes, and behind-the-scenes operations of Australia’s leading institutions.
'Our overarching vision is to reinvigorate how Australians access the essential services that power their lives.'
This week, we had the pleasure of speaking to AGL’s Chief Customer Officer, and soon to be CEO of AGL Australia, Christine Corbett, on how the organisation has adapted to meet the needs of customers, employees and shareholders during the pandemic, the importance of maintaining COVIDSafe sites, and how the organisation continues to protect the health and wellbeing of its more than 4,000 staff.
Christine shares her insights on the biggest challenges facing Australia’s energy industry, how AGL is on track to achieve its set target of net zero emissions by 2050, forging a new path for AGL’s sustainability and the opportunities for industry and employees as a result of the organisation’s demerger.
#1: What have been some of the biggest challenges faced by AGL due the COVID-19 pandemic, and how has the organisation overcome these obstacles? What has been a key learning for the organisation as a result of the pandemic?
The past 18 months, almost two years, have been challenging for every Australian. No one has been immune to the impacts of COVID-19 and many businesses, like AGL, have had to adapt in order to meet the needs of customers, employees and shareholders.
While we had to make adjustments to many aspects of our daily lives, the essential services kept going. At AGL we knew we needed to keep the lights on and the gas flowing, and ensure customers had reliable and affordable energy. We are working closely with governments to ensure our sites are COVIDSafe and our people’s health and wellbeing is protected and supported as much as possible. For a business with more than 4,000 employees, this is a huge task, but I am very proud of how quickly our people have responded.
Another priority for our business was to support our customers through this difficult time. With many losing work or managing extra responsibilities, we wanted to ensure paying bills wasn’t an added struggle. Last year, we supported more than 38,000 customers through our COVID-19 Customer Support Program, and we are still offering a variety of financial support and assistance for residential and small business customers who have been impacted by recent lockdowns.
One of the most significant learnings for us has centred around support – whether that’s within the business or for our customers. We’ve learned that anyone can be vulnerable in times like these, and we have stood by our approach to avoid disconnections. By just starting a conversation with us, customers have been able to access support from AGL that meets their needs and doesn’t leave them with a debt burden.
#2: What energy transitional initiatives are AGL working on to meet both Government and the public’s climate aspirations and expectations?
It is all too easy to simplify the challenges facing Australia’s energy industry; renewables have grown at record pace as our ageing thermal assets play a diminishing role.
For over a decade AGL has been investing in renewable and flexible generation as part of our pathway to decarbonisation, operating the largest portfolio of renewable assets of any ASX-listed company.
We’ve set a target of net zero emissions by 2050 and are well on our way to achieving this - investing more than $2 billion in renewable and firming technology across the National Electricity Market.
These projects will not only help AGL to achieve our targets, but will also play an important role in ensuring customers have affordable, reliable and sustainable energy.
Even with these developments, we know more work is needed to forge a new path for AGL’s sustainability and we are now challenging our thinking and actions on how we can further embrace Australia’s energy transition.
We deal with a connected market, so as we move forward, the collaboration across government, regulators and industry will be required to ensure the transition to a cleaner energy future is done in an orderly and responsible way.
#3: Have there been any challenging aspects for the business as a result of the company’s demerger announced earlier this year?
As we progress with our proposed demerger, there will inevitably be changes to our business model to suit AGL Australia and Accel Energy, respectively. These changes will bring with them ample opportunities for industry and our employees, enabling both new businesses to thrive.
One is focused on supporting our customers and driving the uptake of smart technologies and renewables, and the other on ensuring the safe and efficient operation of our thermal generation asset base and transforming our operational sites to low-carbon industrial energy hubs.
As I prepare for my role as CEO of AGL Australia, I am looking forward to both the challenges and opportunities. Presently, there is some uncertainty for our employees as we make these changes, but I am confident the demerger will provide exciting opportunities and allow both businesses the freedom, focus and clarity to execute their own strategies.
My focus on leading AGL Australia will be advocating for the customer and reforms that drive the uptake and integration of distributed energy resources, electric vehicles and demand-side participation, as well as the development of new flexible generation. The objective will be the creation of shared value between energy businesses and customers, leveraging private sector investment and minimising energy costs for customers.
One of the biggest challenges for any energy business is the uncertainty that is impacting the industry as a whole. The acceleration of the key operating and market headwinds that we have been foreshadowing for several years have now materialised, although the extent and impact of those headwinds on our business and the industry – especially in the form of declining energy prices and the impacts of COVID-19 – have proven to be far greater than anyone expected.
#4: How has the business managed and supported its workforce in what has been a very challenging 18 months due the COVID-19 pandemic?
Both our corporate offices and operational sites have done an amazing job at adapting to working from home or maintaining a COVIDSafe working environment. I am incredibly proud of how quickly our people responded to the challenge and continued to maintain good practices to stay resilient and keep one another safe and healthy.
As lockdowns have been extended, a big priority has been looking after people’s mental health, as they deal with isolation and the increasing demands in the home environment. We have encouraged people where possible to have walking meetings with a colleague, take time to have breaks from the screen or even have some work games virtually - what is critical is checking in on one another.
As Australians roll up their sleeves to be vaccinated, I’m feeling a renewed sense of hope that we will get to the other side of this pandemic together. Our response to returning to work will be guided by our priorities of protecting our people, keeping the lights on and gas flowing for millions of Australians, while supporting broader community efforts to stop the spread of the disease.
I’m optimistic that in 2022 we will return to the workplace, but when we do I believe it will be a more adaptive hybrid workplace, allowing employees to farewell aspects of working restrictions but keep some of the flexibility it enabled.
#5: AGL is now Australia’s largest energy-led multi-product retailer How is AGL adapting its business model to appeal to different types of customers?
One of my first goals when coming to AGL in 2019 was to bring a customer perspective to every business decision we made – creating a much more customer centric culture within the company.
We have transformed our service and continued to build more trust with our customers. In the past two years, we have grown our customer services by 500,000, now supporting more than four million customers. As we establish AGL Australia, I want us to ensure our focus remains on customers and responding to their evolving needs. As we have grown, we’ve been able to improve their experiences and reduce our rates of churn – which is a huge achievement reflected in our net promoter score.
AGL has long said that the pace of Australia’s energy transition is guided by forces like customer demand and as these changes happen, we are ready to support our customers with renewable energy, carbon neutral products and innovative technology.
We can proudly say we’re not just an energy company now, offering customers a range of household essential services like internet, telecommunications, electric vehicles and home insurance. Our objectives are centred around what we know our customers are looking for: better value, an effortless experience, and support when they need it.
Our overarching vision is to reinvigorate how Australians access the essential services that power their lives.