Sue Chase powers up Cowell Electric

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By Lana Guineay

If you find yourself in the grain and sheep country of Cowell, 489km north-west of Adelaide, look up. That light aircraft in the sky is probably Sue Chase, on her way to a meeting.

Managing director of Cowell Electric, Sue is a regular at 5000ft up in the pristine air of the Eyre Peninsula, piloting her Bonanza Beechcraft aircraft between Cowell, Olympic Dam, and Adelaide.

“I got my pilot license on my Year 12 school holidays, at that time I wanted to be a flying vet,” Sue says.

While she didn’t end up as a vet, Sue says the mobility is invaluable in her day job – supplying regional and remote areas with powerlines, water, gas, and communications infrastructure.

“It’s a five or six hour drive to Adelaide; I can walk out the office in Cowell and be at a meeting in two,” she says. “The view’s not bad either.”

Red earth, blue skies at Cowell Electric’s Olympic Dam site.

The enviable commute also gives Sue the chance to see Cowell Electric’s handiwork from on high.

In 2016, Cowell Electric was awarded a $20.4m contract by the State Government to support the Remote Areas Energy Supplies (RAES) scheme, supplying electricity to homes and businesses in remote towns; and to remote Aboriginal communities including Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY Lands) as part of the Aboriginal Communities (AC) project.

The contract saw the group create new jobs in the regions, covering a service area of 210,000 square kilometres – about the size of the United Kingdom.

Managing power station and distribution networks, around 2400 customers in 13 remote towns are provided with more than 15 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity annually.

Managing director of Cowell Electric Sue Chase.

Sue is passionate about hiring from within the region, and supporting the communities where Cowell Electric works. The group currently employs over 100 people at their Cowell and Olympic Dam sites, with plans to recruit more this year.

It’s a significant turnaround from the year 2000, when the business faced liquidation. Two million dollars in debt, its interstate branches were closed and equipment sold off – the same was going to happen in Cowell. Until Sue stepped in.

Together with two other business people “passionate about the township”, Sue made an offer for the Cowell-based part of the firm, and was able to keep 13 staff in her hometown.

After taking over the company, despite competition from larger companies, Cowell Electric has quadrupled sales, taking advantage of the state’s mining boom.

Sue says the rapid growth in the last two years followed a conscious shift.

“For a number of years our revenue stayed the same, but we started to feel an air of confidence within our own company about what was coming up,” she says.

“Two years ago we had a strategic session and said ‘right, we are going to lay out a plan for significant growth, and be more open to opportunities.’”

Cowell Electric’s Olympic Dam project.

For Sue, who was named 2009 Telstra Businesswoman of the Year, Cowell Electric is “in the blood”.

Her grandfather was a co-founder when the firm was established in 1928 to provide the Cowell township with power before there was a state grid.

Her father also worked in the business while Sue was growing up; school holidays involved surveying the powerlines, and not even family mealtime was safe.

“We’d be sitting down to tea, the lights would flicker, and Dad would be off down the power station,” she recalls.

Starting her professional career at IBM, Sue says her dad asked her to come home and sort out some issues with Cowell Electric’s single computer.

“So I went home to try and sort that out… and now it’s been 40 years.”

The Olympic Dam project.

South Australian small to medium enterrprises (SMEs) are perfectly positioned for growth, Sue says.

“As a smaller state you know more people and can take advantage of the six degrees of separation,” she says.

“Whether it’s NSW, QLD, Victoria, if we’re going to the west, or competing with the eastern seaboard for work, our location makes it easy to mobilise.”

The state’s support is also key, and Sue encourages other SMEs to take advantage of development programs on offer.

“The key to success is education and training. Last year we did a Going for Growth program through the University of South Australia, available to SMEs. It’s an investment in time but if you’ve got vision, it can help with commitment.”

Sue’s last tips for budding South Aussie entrepreneurs?

“To be successful in business you have to have a vision, and you have to share it with your people, and trust in them to go along.

“You can’t be successful just on your own – it’s the old cliché: work on your business, not in it.”

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