Corporate “news show” introduces the bottom line to staff

At Ontario Power Generation, changing employees’ mindset required a crash course in private-sector realities
By Mani Goulding and Tom Pendlebury
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/19/2003

Changing from a government-owned monopoly to a nimble, private-sector player in a competitive market is a huge change. For Ontario Power Generation (OPG) the opening of Ontario’s electricity market meant shifting the attitudes of all employees to fit new realities.

OPG, which inherited the power generating capacity of the former provincial electrical utility Ontario Hydro, also inherited a culture that saw itself having one mission: keep the lights on. Ontario Hydro had faced virtually no competition, and its ballooning debt load demonstrated that the need to be fiscally restrained frequently took a back seat to the service imperative.

Changing this attitude demanded a new focus on fiscal responsibility and attention to the bottom line at every level of the organization. Front-line workers, many who wear hardhats to work, needed to become familiar with complex financial concepts so that they could see how their actions affected the organization’s financial health, and contributed to its success.

A new employee compensation structure reinforced this emphasis by tying a potential annual bonus to the company’s financial performance. The company chose a formula based on a key financial measurement: Earnings Before Interest, Taxation, Depreciation and Amortization (EBITDA).

OPG believed that by changing the compensation structure this way for all employees, it could motivate them to act in the company’s long-term best interest.

OPG’s finance department undertook the task of educating the workforce. It faced a number of challenges. Employees are widely dispersed throughout the province, from the company’s headquarters in downtown Toronto to remote hydroelectric installations. There are wide ranges in education levels, from high school right through to PhDs in nuclear physics. Most daunting of all was the common view that financial issues were unimportant compared with the task at hand.

Finance teamed up with the public affairs department on the initiative. There was concern a print product would get lost in the “binder fatigue” many employees were already suffering.

It was agreed that something was needed that wouldn’t get lost in the paperwork — it had to cut through the noise. Video was chosen as the most effective and powerful way of reaching employees with consistent messages. It could be made appealing, even fun, and present complex ideas in an easy-to-understand way.

OPG looked for a partner who would help develop and deliver a long-term communications strategy, and selected Coolfire Inc., a Toronto-based communications consulting and video production firm.

Coolfire immersed itself in the culture and business of OPG and developed a format for quarterly “Report on Performance” videos that emphasized a visual commitment from the senior management team. Modelled on popular television newsmagazines, the series began to teach employees the language of finance while following the performance of the company.

Each program begins with a succinct financial summary by Chief Financial Officer, Wayne Bingham, followed by information on issues and trends. Leading performance indicators such as EBITDA are shown graphically as instrument dials to make them more understandable within the company’s engineer-driven culture.

Each quarterly report video, which runs about 18 minutes in length, also includes mini documentaries that explore current financial issues in more detail, using interviews with employees, senior executives and location shots to tell the story.

As a geographically and functionally diverse organization that has traditionally operated as a collection of discrete business units, one of the greatest benefits of the videos has been the ability to pull it all together. Employees throughout the province now have a better understanding of how the whole company works and how their individual tasks play a part in reaching the organization’s overall goals.

Regular exposure of the entire senior management team has raised their profile, and this means employees are getting to know them in the only way that is practical in such a large, spread-out organization. The quarterly videos also assist management team members in cultivating an approachable and open corporate culture, where leaders articulate a vision for the transition to a new competitive market.

Since the programs were introduced in 2000, they have steadily grown in popularity as measured by employee evaluation forms submitted after each edition. As one employee said, “For the first time I feel like I’m in a real company.”

Of course, getting the programs to all employees in a timely fashion was a major logistical challenge. Many saw the programs on videotapes sent to their workplaces. Others, with computers and access to the company’s high-speed intranet, could view them at their desks. Improvements in video compression, combined with an increasing availability of networked computers and high-speed access, have made intranet provision increasingly practical and effective. About half the workforce views the videos on their desktops, the other on TV sets in groups.

The quarterly “Report on Performance” videos have also been supported with other communications tools. “PowerNews” is the twice-monthly publication of the public affairs department. Following each video, the same graphics conveying the financial indicators in the videos are printed on the back cover of the magazine.

These same graphics also appear in the redesigned finance department intranet site, reinforcing and aligning the messages of the videos. This Web site, redesigned in a joint OPG/Coolfire project, has increased awareness of the role of finance in the company.

Bingham is featured in a regular section entitled “Wayne’s World.” He is shown in a self-deprecating caricature with bags of cash, and the slogan “Cash is King.” It helps to demystify finance and turn the “bean-counter” image on its head.

Links to financial glossaries, interactive quizzes, financial summaries and informative industry sites round out the most popular intranet site in the company.

OPG is a new business in the rapidly evolving competitive electricity industry. It will require fast and flexible decision-making to compete in a market environment no one can predict. An informed workforce closely aligned with the needs of the business will help it succeed in the difficult competitive years ahead. That’s why keeping employees regularly informed of financial progress and issues will continue to be a key factor in OPG’s strategy for success.

Mani Goulding is director, talent management at Ontario Power Generation and can be reached at (416) 592-7755 or Tom Pendlebury is a partner with Coolfire Inc., which provides strategic video solutions for business. He can be reached at (416) 955-0909 or

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