Over the past six years, Robert Watson has emerged as a critical cog in Saskatchewan's economic growth machine. He left a private-sector telecom career in 2004 to run SaskTel, the Crown corporation that is the province's major communications provider. Last year, he shifted to another hot seat as CEO of SaskPower, the Crown utility that's a key component in the province's development strategy. For Mr. Watson, 56, it has been a whirlwind of change. Still, he has kept his hand in national IT-telecom issues as chairman of the Information Technology Association of Canada, the voice of the high-tech industry.
How did you find the transition from the private sector to a Crown corporation?
I didn't find it too bad at all. I was used to a large company - I worked quite a few years with [Britain's]Cable and Wireless, and, in that period, I was Canadian country manager. We were a small part of a very big corporation - and with SaskTel, I became part of a very big corporation, as well. The board of directors for a Crown corporation is actually the Cabinet and there's governance down from there.
Any tips to survive in this milieu?
When I came here, I made a conscious effort not to get involved in politics. I've never joined a party or been involved in politics. And any time I recommended anything or responded to anything, there was always strictly a business slant to it. And that keeps you out of trouble, believe me.
What was the biggest adjustment?
It is being a big fish in a little pond, which I was as CEO of SaskTel and I am now as CEO of SaskPower, which provides even more exposure. Everybody on the street recognizes you. It's different coming from Toronto, where you can go places where you are not recognized.
You're a power executive with an IT-telecom background. Does that make sense?
The power business is going through tremendous changes and a lot of it goes right into sophisticated IT being developed for business and residential users. That's really meant to empower the consumer, to have consumers understand their power consumption and the cost of that consumption. Before, it was "the lights are on, that's fine." But that's not good enough any more.
So, power is an information business?
Yes. You can clearly see that there'll be smart transmission networks where you'll know exactly where an outage is. We're starting to implement smart-metre technology and we'll be getting more information from a home in one day than we could get in 10 years.
In your ITAC role, you made a strong pitch for a national digital strategy. Is it hard to sell that in a resources economy?
Not at all. The four Western provinces are mostly commodities-based, but there's a good, stable, and very growing economy behind the commodities. That's particularly so in Saskatchewan, with all the growth that's going to happen and all the opportunities. With any young family I talk to, I say, "If you have any idea to move at all, move to Saskatchewan."
It's the quadruple play. It's uranium; it's oil and it's gas; and it's potash. And of course, there's the potential of diamond mines. And I don't hear too much argument against the idea that the agriculture industry is going to come through a bit of an upswing. So it will be good times, although sometimes you need Mother Nature to co-operate.
Is a digital strategy part of all that?
A digital strategy is one of the ways that we can get at productivity improvements - for any product, anywhere. There is now the potential of mines becoming fully automated, and it all has to do with IT. The farming equipment now is incredibly sophisticated with GPS and everything. Farm production, from the tractor right through to quality testing, will be based on new technology.
Have you been able to bring private sector ideas to the Crown corporations?
Those were my intentions at SaskTel and I think I was quite successful. At SaskPower, I want a culture that believes we are in a competitive industry, which we are. Even power is competitive. And we have to build our customer-satisfaction numbers because rate increases are coming. It's just the way of the world because of the infrastructure we have to build. It's much better to ask a happy customer to pay more money than ask an unhappy customer to pay more.
Can you shed more light on why you need rate increases?
We have to increase our power production in the next 10 years by close to half because of the economic growth. There has not been proper investment in the transmission network for the last 20 years. There has not been proper investment forever in the customer-service side of the business. So, we've got to get this whole thing smartened up and get it into line. My true vision is to make SaskPower a world-class company based on best practices.
I was reading that Saskatchewan is, per capita, a worse greenhouse-gas polluter than Alberta - even with the uproar over the oil sands. Doesn't that arise from SaskPower's coal-based generation?
I don't know about being the worst one. But, yes, 62 per cent of our power production came from coal plants. We're quite aware of that. … Our view is that it is a good fuel to use to burn. I mean, it's here - we know where it is. We know how to get it safe. And it's surface coal, so we can return the ground to as good as it was.
It's just a matter of making sure we keep up with the technology that burns it clean, or has clean emissions. Our intention will be to look at keeping our coal burning plants and cleaning them up.
But isn't coal a big part of the overall greenhouse gas problem?
There's no question about it. The federal guys are talking regulations [for coal-fired plants] We're going to want to get in there over the next three or four months and truly understand what they're planning to do. Then, you'll probably find us aggressive with what we're going to do. [In December, SaskPower announced a $354-million refurbishment of a major coal plant, but deferred a carbon capture and storage component, pending federal rules.]
In this booming Saskatchewan economy, can you get the people you need?
With SaskPower as a very mature company, our primary concern is the number of people who are going to retire. We have about 2,700 full-time employees, and there are probably at least 500 who will retire in the next five years. That's a big void that we're going to have to fill because we're a growing company. That's our biggest single issue - making sure that we have the right skill sets.
I've seen efforts to lure ex-Saskatchewanians home from Calgary. Doesn't that just touch the surface?
Yes, just the surface. We're going to get very active about having people move here from wherever. And we have a specific program to interact with the aboriginal community in the province. It's an essential part of our community for the future - to get the aboriginals into more technical positions.
President and CEO, Saskatchewan Power Corp. (SaskPower), Regina
Hamilton, Ont.; 56 years old
Graduated in electrical technologies from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University)
Served in a series of senior positions in the telecom industry, including stints at Cable & Wireless, Shaw Communications, and GT Group Telecom/360 Networks
In 2004, left the private sector to become president and CEO of SaskTel
Became SaskPower's president and CEO in August, 2010