People First HR Services

Bob Brennan of Manitoba Hydro on the power in numbers

John McFerran

 Opportunity abounds in large Hydro workplace

One of the largest employers in the province, Manitoba Hydro employs 6,300 people from Churchill to Emerson, a fact that president and CEO Bob Brennan never takes for granted.

“It’s a sobering thought to know that you’re accountable for the welfare and safety of 6,300 people, especially when they’re working in an environment like a generating station or on a hydro pole,” says Brennan, now entering his 22nd year as head of Manitoba’s electrical power and natural gas utility, where he has spent his entire career.

According to Brennan, all performance indicators for the Crown corporation are the best in the country, with rates among the lowest and reliability among the highest to be found anywhere in Canada.

The company has approximately 540,000 electrical power customers and 266,000 natural gas customers. While it operates 15 interconnected generating stations and has 72 customer service offices across the province as well as construction and maintenance employees at strategic locations, the remainder of its employees work inside Winnipeg, whether at the offices on Taylor or Sutherland avenues or at the brand new Manitoba Hydro tower on Portage Avenue.

“It’s pretty hard for me not to be proud of this organization,” Brennan says. “This is a great company with a powerful mix of people. We take great pride in the fact that we serve our customers quite well and will continue to do so for years to come.”


Q: What do you think attracts people to work in a large organization such as this one?

A: When people are interested in working for any company, they ask if it’s a good place to work, what opportunities are available and what it stands for. And I do think Manitoba Hydro stands for all the right things. We have a reputation for being professional and I truly believe we are widely viewed as a good place to work because we all understand our purpose for being here. Because we are a large organization, we have an incredible mix of quality people with every skill possible in every discipline imaginable. The only thing we don’t have is doctors! I think another advantage of being this size is that we are able to offer our people so many opportunities. We’re growing, and with our massive capital program, there are constantly new opportunities being presented. For example, we have lawyers who started in our legal department who have developed specialties like the environment or working with First Nations bands. That being said, I believe it’s important for people to have a good working knowledge of everything that’s happening in the place they work. If they take the time to thoroughly understand the company’s growth potential and its risks — the whole gamut — then success opportunities will surely open up for them.


Q: Has your new corporate office played a role in recruiting and retaining employees?

A: The importance of providing good work facilities was something I previously underestimated but building and moving into our new offices on Portage Avenue is the best thing we could’ve done for our people. Environmentally speaking, the facility is exceptional, right down to the fact that you can open your window and smell the fresh air. People are taking the bus and biking to work — we now have more bikes parked in the racks downstairs than we ever imagined possible. This is an excellent place to work and it is reflected in people’s attitudes. They’re happier and show more pride in their workplace. At the same time, we’re proud of the fact that our relocation has been an economic boost for the city, with 1,900 of our employees now working downtown.


Q: Beyond traditional benefits, what is a unique program or opportunity you offer employees?

A: We have a consulting arm called Manitoba Hydro International (MHI), which gives employees an opportunity to work in developing countries like Africa for short-term assignments. Basically, it entails taking a skilled professional out of their position here and lending them to the foreign company or government requiring our management expertise for a project or for training local workers. Within MHI, we have set up subsidiaries, such as telecommunications, to help telecommunication retailers take advantage of Manitoba Hydro’s assets. Our research centre provides professional services such as modelling and another company which rates transmission lines so that we know how high the wires need to be off the ground based on the amount of power flowing through them. As an added bonus for us, while the MHI employee is on leave from their job, we temporarily backfill their position with other employees, which creates new training opportunities right here at home.


Q: What people challenges do you have today that you weren’t facing a decade or two ago?

A: We’re finding that there’s a lot more stress in people’s lives and it seems to be getting harder to juggle the pressures coming from every direction. As a company, it’s difficult to manage this because it’s a personal issue as well as a workplace issue, but we know we have to do our part to help our people deal with it and find a healthier balance before it develops into serious health problems. Ensuring the wellness of our people has been a growing concern to me and something we’re continually trying to deal with more aggressively. I would also mention that in our view, it’s easier to find good managers these days than it is to get highly skilled professionals. We have people who are going to be very difficult to replace when they retire because of their skill set. Everyone talks about the importance of developing future leaders, but one of our biggest challenges is ensuring we have skilled people in the pipeline to fill highly skilled technical jobs.


Q: As a provincewide employer, is there a difference in recruiting outside of Winnipeg?

A: Interestingly, there does seem to be a difference. One thing we have found is that if you have a position that requires moving an employee to another location in the province, it seems best to hire someone from rural Manitoba. If you hire from within Winnipeg, they are generally not as receptive to moving compared to hiring a person with the same skill set from outside the Perimeter. There are exceptions, of course. Our linemen tend to move around wherever they are needed, but often we find that once they settle down in a community they like, they’ll think twice about leaving or won’t be as willing to move unless the opportunity presented is an exceptional one. They buy a home and they put down roots. It’s a challenge, but at the same time, it’s also a benefit for Manitoba Hydro that so many of our employees are committed to staying in the communities they live and work in. Manitobans are generally reluctant to leave the province.


Q: What important lessons did you learn as an employee that you still apply as a leader?

A: I’m fortunate in that every boss I’ve ever had during my whole working life, I learned something from. They were all different in their backgrounds, personalities and leadership styles, but I gained something from each of them. I think that taught me that you can learn something from everyone, from the way the present themselves to the way they treat people. I certainly still apply that philosophy to everyone who works in our organization today, which is why it’s so important for me to take every opportunity to interact with our people as often as possible. I enjoy it. I remember going out to the lake one Friday afternoon and stopped to talk to one of our survey crews working at the side of the road. It was scorching hot and I said, “Wouldn’t you guys like to take a holiday today and go to the lake yourselves?” One of the fellows said, “No, not me. But come back in January when it’s 20 below and then I’ll gladly take you up on the offer.”

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2011 H1