How Asplundh keeps trees from cutting power in New Zealand
Wielding a cutting device right next to a power line is just the sort of dangerous activity that calls for an experienced hand – and they don’t come more experienced than Asplundh New Zealand. It’s part of the US-based, family-owned Asplundh Tree Expert Co., which has been providing vegetation management since its founders started trimming trees away from power lines and telephone wires in Philadelphia in 1929. Asplundh has been providing vegetation management services for New Zealand utilities for 27 years.
This long pedigree doesn’t allow for any complacency, though. “It’s very competitive,” says Managing Director Kevin Burt. With 29 utility networks servicing only 4.5 million people, and some of the networks providing their own services in-house, Asplundh can’t rest on its laurels. “We have to be more than just a cutting company to our clients,” says Burt.
To stand out from the crowd in such a competitive environment, it helps to have the backing of a global enterprise. “One of our USPs is the ability to deliver a higher level of capability,” says Burt. “We have access to technology, we have access to systems and we have access to equipment which generally may not be cost effective for smaller operators or networks.”
Equipment, that is, like the Jarraff and Mini-Jarraff – a fully insulated mechanical line-trimmer which allows the operators to remain on the ground or in a protective cabin, at a safe distance from the power line.
The Jarraff makes the business of cutting trees next to power lines significantly safer. “Unfortunately we’ll never get to the point of removing the physical aspect of men and equipment needing to be in close proximity to the power line but over time, as the vegetation management regimes improve here in New Zealand, those tools and devices will have a much greater impact.”
Investment in equipment like the Jarraff reflects Asplundh’s commitment to safety. “Safety first, no one gets hurt” is the company’s slogan and mission statement, and according to Burt they are not just empty words.
“We work in an extremely high risk environment and everything I do as a managing director and everything I challenge our staff to deliver is very much driven by that [mission statement].”
State-of-the-art equipment isn’t the sole answer to safety, of course; without good operators the best equipment, it is worthless. “We take the qualifications, skill and competency of our staff very, very seriously,” says Burt. “We empower them to be out there operating independently and we need to make sure they’re not only technically proficient in what they’re doing but trained in the soft skills to be able to make smart decisions on the ground.”
Asplundh has its own warranting system for its staff and works with the industry to improve standards. “We’re about whole, industry-wide safety and actively participating in utility working groups to share that information,” says Burt.
Small wonder, then, that when new health and safety legislation came in this year, Asplundh was barely affected. “We have a history and culture of exceeding the legislation, so for us it was a very easy transition.”
What Burt has seen changing is the client’s role in setting and enforcing health and safety standards. “Our clients are stepping up. They are understanding their vital role in health and safety and understanding the first principle that we have to take reasonable steps to ensure any risk to our employees is mitigated. The thinking is changing for the positive, I believe.”
Asplundh singles itself out further with a vegetation asset management system, known as VAMS, which Burt championed when he arrived at the company. A former officer in the military, and armed with a degree in IT, he asked himself how the business could add value in a tight market with agile competitors.
“How do you do that when your main function is cutting trees next to power lines? Well, you get into the mindset of doing that smarter, sharper, safer. In our space that’s gaining vegetation intelligence and delivering a better outcome,” he says. “To reduce our client’s network vegetation risk and deliver industry leading productivity, we capture the vegetation and cutting data, and effectively analyse it to ensure our programs see us sending the right people to the right job for the right outcome at the right time.”
VAMS allows the business to think strategically, looking ahead to a 5-10 or even longer cycle. “Vegetation is not going to go away,” says Burt. “We have to make sure we’re not thinking short term and just going around doing the same old thing year on year.”
So successful has VAMS been that it is now being rolled out across the US. Burt is understandably gratified. “The satisfaction is driven primarily because of the skill and ability of my staff here in New Zealand who have been real leaders of the development, who have taken the time and effort to see the vision. It’s hard to test and trial and update while running business as usual, so system development is never a smooth process, but if people see the vision and the benefits that it can deliver they’ll push hard for it.”
Utility vegetation management isn’t the only service Asplundh offers; over the years it has diversified. “To stay in a small marketplace we have to look at other revenue streams,” says Burt. A significant percentage of the business is open space management which includes services such as the maintenance of sports fields and parks, mowing, gardening and even burial and sexton services.
As for the future of Asplundh New Zealand, the main aim is to continue with what they are doing, only better. “I think there’s strong benefit in focusing on what we’re currently doing and doing it better and delivering better value for money to our clients,” says Burt.
Keeping pace with rapidly-changing technology is key to this. Burt is excited by the potential of LiDAR (light detecting and ranging) – laser scanning technology that is being introduced into vegetation management to capture vegetation data around distribution and transmission lines to identify areas with clearance issues. “When harnessed correctly it is a powerful tool,” he says.
He foresees an increasingly collaborative approach to vegetation management, with an online portal where members of the public can report issues and learn about risks. “They can start to take ownership.”
Whatever the technology may be, Burt is positive about the next few years. “I think the future looks bright,” he says. “It’s going to be exciting to evolve the business and see how the industry evolves over the next three to five years.”
Technology revolution for water retailers
In April 2017, the UK’s water retail market in the world opened for business – the single biggest change to the water sector since privatisation. This development allowed businesses, charities and public sector organisations to shop around for the best deal.
However, like any industry, this change hasn’t been without its sticking points; here, Paul Williams, CTO at Everflow Tech (pictured far right), discusses how retailers can harness technology to their advantage
Quotations could take up to a week to produce, billing software had to be manually updated and brokers were unable to manage the complete customer journey in one place – all of which took time, cost money and allowed for human error.
The more complexity that was involved in billing or quoting, the more contact end customers needed to have with their retailers, pushing up the cost to serve for every SPID. This meant retailers – ourselves included – found themselves in a situation where profits were simply eaten up by service costs.
We also note that it can traditionally be hard for retailers to stay on top of balancing what they are charging their customers with what they are being charged by the market. To further exacerbate this, the longer a change goes unnoticed, the more trouble it can be to balance the issue.
It was these issues that Josh and his (at the time) small team wanted to ameliorate, creating their own technology in the absence of anything else.
This technology evolved into our award-winning retail sales, billing and customer management platform for the water retail market, and Everflow Tech was launched as a standalone venture in 2018, selling the software externally for other water retailers and their customers to benefit from.
What retailers want
As a relatively new entrant to the world of utilities competition, the water market could be seen to be lagging behind, particularly when it comes to innovation.
In fact, as recently as 2019, Ofwat said it expected the industry to be making technological advances and to be working with a culture of innovation, collaborating with companies both within and outside of the sector.
And with cost-savings for consumers traditionally lower than for other utilities, retailers need to be offering something more – whether that’s better support, energy-efficiency advice or more accurate data.
What’s more, consumers have had a taste of the power of technology, and they’ve come to expect nothing less from retailers across the board.
Another key issue – thrown into sharp relief during the past 12 months (and counting) of a pandemic – is rising levels of arrears, which are likely to increase bad debt beyond margins that retailers originally allowed for when the market was created.
In such a low-margin industry, there is a limit to the amount of debt retailers can take on, especially as recovering costs can be a very slow process. Ofwat has signalled that this issue could be addressed as early as this year, with a mechanism for recovering bad debt to be established during 2021/22.
The market needs simple solutions to better serve the end user, and we were perfectly placed to develop those solutions. At Everflow, our software is designed for the water retail market, by the water retail market.
As well as simple billing, clear-to-understand workflows, and a revenue assurance system to allow retailers to quickly compare market charges, Everflow has also introduced a complete debt solution, allowing missed payment dates to drive late payment charges and escalations automatically.
Retailers are able to design and put out their own bill and quotes, tailoring customer journey and overall experience – whatever the circumstances.
What does the future hold?
Automation is key to any industry; we’re heading into an age of driverless cars and smart homes, and this drive for tech will filter through to our industry, and we need to catch up.
The Internet of Things – a network of physical objects connected to each other – means human error (and effort) can effectively be removed from many everyday tasks, which goes for meter readings too. However, in the 21st century, the water market is still not leveraging previously emerged technology in the form of smart meters to provide accurate billing.
Consumers are also becoming more empowered, both to ask for information and change their preferences if they don’t like what they learn. Retailers need to be armed with this information, not next week, not tomorrow, but now – and, at Everflow Tech, we’re putting that information at their fingertips.
But the retailers themselves need to speak up too, and we will always work with them to get the best ideas on what needs to be developed and when.
Our strong bond with Everflow Water, along with other key customers, means we have a direct interest in making sure our systems serve the water market in the best way they can.
For us, the goal is to make sure retailers on our platform can grow as much as possible, leaving behind laborious daily processes to focus on their own strategic growth and, most importantly, helping their customers.