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Francois Blouin, director of innovation with ATCO’s Electricity Global Business Unit, says listening to employees’ ideas is one key way for a large company to embrace innovation

Francois Blouin, director of innovation with ATCO’s Electricity Global Business Unit, says listening to employees’ ideas is one key way for a large company to embrace innovation.
(Supplied by Wil Andruschak, Content Works)

ATCO’s leaders believe a company known for being safe and reliable can also be innovative and exciting — a place where ideas are freely shared, celebrated and  implemented.

“I came from another  industry to head up their  innovations practice and help move the culture into a place where new ideas and new concepts are welcomed and encouraged and implemented where it is feasible,” says Francois Blouin, director of innovation with ATCO’s Electricity Global Business Unit, who has  decades of experience in telecommunications as well as transportation and logistics.

“We want our teams to become more entrepreneurial in their thinking and empower them by implementing their best ideas.”

With nearly 7,000 employees and assets of about  $20 billion, ATCO couldn’t have gotten to where it is  today without innovation.

While its business lines are diverse, the company is best known as a provider of natural gas and electricity, as well as its iconic yellow-banded modular structures, which are broadly credited with creating the workforce housing industry seven  decades ago.

In recent years, the company has pioneered several imaginative solutions for its customers, from the Drake Landing solar community in Okotoks, Canada’s largest subdivision of energy- efficient and environmentally responsible homes, to its hybrid house project in Red Deer, which combines solar, battery and combined heat and power technologies to reduce home emissions by up to 75 per cent.

In fact, from the very beginning, innovation has been part of the company’s DNA.

Recently, some of the company’s innovation leaders held a series of internal contests to reinvigorate its employees’ desire to challenge the status quo and suggest operational changes. The leaders took the feedback to heart and is implementing the Top 5 ideas as chosen by a review panel of external participants.

“We want our employees to know we are listening to them and we are actively considering and reviewing their ideas,” says Blouin. “We collected 100 different ideas in just four weeks. It has been a tremendous success.”

The suggestions explored all kinds of concepts, from using augmented reality glasses and drones to conduct pipeline inspections and apps to engage customers on energy management.

Of course, to take these sorts of steps an organization has to embrace risk.

“When I speak to our people, I talk about being brave,” says Greg Caldwell, senior manager in research and innovation with ATCO’s Pipelines & Liquids Global Business Unit. “We need to debate ideas openly, not just supporting each other’s ideas, but really examining them together and deciding what makes sense. Whether it’s an engineer or field staff or an administrative  co-ordinator, we need them to be heard, and we need to listen and to talk honestly.”

Partnerships and outside influences are also critical to success. The innovation group engages with dozens of partners, says Blouin, and Caldwell adds that partnerships are also highly practical in that they help organizations share risk and  resources.

“It’s fantastic to work with partners who have different skills or talents or even  redundant skills or talents, so that if you lose a team  member that is integral to an initiative, you can still move forward,” says Caldwell.

Partnerships also enable organizations to learn from one another. There really aren’t failures, just learnings, says Caldwell.

“When you take risks, things don’t always turn out as you hoped, but there is always something to learn and a way to grow,” adds Blouin.

There’s no doubt that this process of continuous learning has driven ATCO’s success for the past 70 years. By continuing to empower its people to embrace innovation, the company is not only delivering the progressive products and services its customers need today, but is ensuring it will play a leading role in providing imaginative, integrated solutions for decades to come.

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