UK expat ‘disrupts’ Meralco

by Alena Mae S. Flores – February 06, 2016 at 11:20 pm

from Manila Standard

A British expatriate is introducing ‘disruptive technologies’ to transform the operations of power distributor Manila Electric Co. amid the changing technology landscape and evolving consumer needs.

Behind the company’s ‘disruption’ is chief technology adviser Gavin Barfield, 37, who is tasked to ensure readiness during the digital age and drive Meralco’s 2021 vision of a smart grid.

“Traditionally technology has always disrupted industries and forced businesses to change their models to remain relevant. But what has changed is the pace of adoption,” he says, noting that it took radio 38 years to have 50 million subscribers, but it took Angry Birds only 36 days to get as many.

Barfield says the entry of the third IT platform such as Internet of things, cloud, mobility, social media and big data is pushing Meralco to re-vamp its technology solutions.

“A new generation of customers is coming in. Things such as fax, branches, paper mail etc. are no longer relevant to them. When you stop being relevant to your customers, you have a problem,” he says.

Barfield, who was appointed in Meralco in October 2014, is heavily involved in defining the company’s technology strategy, improving IT operations and guiding major projects. He is in charge of introducing ‘disruptive technologies’ or innovations that are designed to transform businesses.

Barfield, who holds a Bachelor of Science Degree from Loughborough University (UK), helped formulate Meralco’s technology vision 2021 and is spearheading the company’s drive towards digitalization.

He has worked in the Philippines since 2007, as a key advisor to government agencies in energy market developments and regulatory issues. He was involved in the design and development of both the Singapore National Energy Market and the Philippine Wholesale Electricity Spot Market.

As a foreigner, Barfield says people were initially wary of his involvement in Meralco. “It’s been a big move from consultancy to working inside a company like Meralco. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the challenge and the warmth everyone has shown. Initially people were wary. We have very few foreigners in the organization and I certainly stand out. But soon people could see that I was approachable and had some valuable experience to share,” he says.

Barfield says people began to recognize the unique experience he brought through 15 years in the electricity industry, three market de-regulations and his previous involvement in developing the Philippines and Singapore energy market and his work for the Energy Department and Energy Regulatory Commission on energy policy and retail competition.

“I have been gently challenging the team and setting Meralco on a new innovations roadmap. This is centered around new technologies [like Cloud, mobility] plus a consolidation of our innovations and a drive towards new platforms. such as our customer platform to deliver new products and services digitally,” he says.

Barfield says ‘disruptive technologies’ are affecting all industries, and companies that are unable to cope are at risk of being left in the dust.

“Previously capital intense industries were immune from new competition but the likes of Facebook, Uber, AirBnB etc. has proved that new technology can provide alternative business models that disrupt traditional industries,” he says.

“Our customers are changing. A new generation of connected, digitally savvy consumers are expecting more convenience, more services and more transparency. We already offer the facility for customers to pay online but recognize there are improvements that can be made to make the process easier and to enable customers to pay using other methods,” he says.

Barfield says Meralco’s customers “are at the heart of what we do to ensure we deliver value and recognize customers’ needs.”

“This is what I call ‘customer-centric IT’, where everything we do is for the customer, directly or indirectly. We hope to upgrade our backend systems to improve efficiency and totally overhaul our digital customer engagement,” Barfield says.

He says Meralco customers will soon be able to view their bill, pay easily, receive reminders, submit complaints and feedback, report outages and faults, view detailed consumption information and interact with Meralco through a variety of channels.

“We are keen to attain the highest levels of service possible driven by advances in technology. This will encourage new industries to move to the Philippines or existing ones to stay. As we use technology to improve reliability and reduce cost, we hope to make the provision of electricity in the Philippines on par or better than our neighbors; encouraging more investment and providing more opportunities for Filipinos locally,” he says.

Digital shift

Barfield says telecommunication firms saw their traditional businesses such as fixed line, mobile calls and SMS drop when new over-the-top services like Whatsapp, Viber and Skype came in.

The same thing could happen to Meralco but Barfield says technology can instead be used to help the company “stay relevant in an ever changing world.”

“We want to ‘disrupt ourselves’ and find new technology solutions and business models to ensure that our services are in demand. In the electric industry solar and battery storage technologies are the ‘Uber’ equivalents that could disrupt the traditional model and move Meralco to becoming a secondary or back-up supply. We need to start finding business models that suit consumers desire to self-generate but with the reliability and stability of the grid,” says Barfield.

Barfield sees advances in technology “as an opportunity to improve our customer service, to open up new ‘digital channels’ that allow us to offer more products and services and to harness the advances in sensing, automation and analytics to provide a more efficient, cost effective and reliable service to our customers.”

According to Barfield, Meralco is undergoing ‘digital pivot,’ a time when the company is assessing its operations and looking at ways to introduce technology to improve efficiency and better serve its customers.

“Part of the digital pivot is looking at our core operations and finding ways that we can improve our systems, digitalize our processes, automate further, utilize our data better and improve the service we provide to our customers,” he says.

As a part of this digital pivot, Meralco is looking at new ‘technology enabled’ products and services that it can launch to meet customers’ needs and develop additional revenue streams, he says.

Smart grid

“By 2021, I would like to see Meralco fully embracing the smart grid. We have ambitious plans to roll out more ‘smart meters’ which provide customers with information on their energy consumption on an hour-by-hour basis. This is the building blocks for us to roll out new services like our k-load pre-paid electricity scheme and our planned post paid plus,” Barfield says.

Barfield’s vision is to see more automation and efficiency in Meralco’s back-end processes enabled by smart scheduling or work and field force automation – through mobile devices in the next five years.

“Data is growing fast and we will start to harness the power of big data to deliver insights to our customers and analytics to drive our business,” he says.

Barfield believes that Meralco should be engaging with customers in a whole new way, by integrating digital channels such as the new MoVe app, new website, email and social media.

Customers can self-serve through kiosks or their own devices and have access to a wealth of information, he says.

“Advances in our network management should enable a true -self-healing’ network when the system finds alternative routes to minimize disruptions to customers. We will be proactive in informing customer of issues so they don’t have to call us,” he says.

“I would also like to see Meralco offer home automation services linked into the smart grid. So your appliances can be remotely controlled and can make decisions on when to run based on the price of power. We will also expand into solar, battery storage and electric vehicles,” Barfield says of his vision for Meralco.

Barfield says technology has been moving at a very fast pace and there is a strong need to keep up with the ever-changing environment.

He says Meralco is guided by chairman Manuel Pangilinan’s vision in making it “an Internet company with a power business.”

Pangilinan, together with other executives went to visit Silicon Valley a few years ago to give them an ‘eye opener’ on how technology is impacting businesses worldwide.

As a result, Meralco executives today are very much aligned on the need to constantly innovate and invest in new technologies, he says.

Barfield also helped transform the energy sector in Singapore, where he met a number of challenges. “I could see that Philippines will be facing the same challenges that we went through in Singapore… I wanted to help and to make a difference. I believed I could contribute to Meralco’s future success,” he says.

“With this new focus on technology and innovation the company will adapt to the times. Keeping customers’ needs in view and by constantly adapting and investing in the infrastructure Meralco will play a critical role in the future development of the country… I am excited about playing a part in Meralco’s future,” he says.