Ash Rajendra was working for a global life-sciences company when he found his next big opportunity at Just Energy Group Inc., a publicly traded natural gas and electricity retailer serving 4.4 million customers in markets across North America. Since joining the company as its chief information officer in 2013, Rajendra, who oversees a staff of 165 around the world, has implemented a number of changes to drive further growth—many of them tied to Just Energy’s unique business model. “We are not tethered to generation or distribution assets; we’re effectively a marketing organization with a lot of technology behind it,” Rajendra says. Here, he explains how he came across the company and how his restructuring is helping it take advantage of its unusual position.
The nature of the business was important to me. I was first and foremost looking for a global business, but I also wanted a firm that exhibited strong margin performance—which allows you to reinvest—and was publicly traded, because that allows you to go to the markets to fuel growth. On top of all that, I also wanted to know if I could be in a position to drive strategy. Could technology have a meaningful impact on the firm?
The firm wanted to grow but didn’t have the right synergies in the technology arena to do so. We’d work on the wrong project. We’d then take that project through a development pipeline, and it would break. We’d test it, and it would never be what the customer wanted, and it would break. We’d end up with something half-completed and a customer that said we hadn’t met his or her business objectives. As a result, two years ago, the firm would struggle to open two markets. Last year, we entered 17 markets. A lot of that was focusing the team on the right projects.
OUTSIDE THE OFFICE
Ash Rajendra is an avid traveller, and anytime he gets time off, he uses it to visit another country. He particularly enjoys sampling exotic cuisine and has a passion for cooking. “If I were a bit better, I’d be a chef instead of a CIO,” he says.
We had to rework our internal teams. The IT organization was fractured; it operated in silos. I’m okay with competition, but I wanted us to compete against the market, not internally. Today, 75 percent of my direct reports are different than when I started, but 90 percent of the team is the same. It was about getting leadership that could sense the direction I wanted to go and push that through the organization.
Efficiency was important. I would estimate that over the last 24 months, we have absorbed $4 million of work while keeping our operations costs static.
We transitioned to a more flexible labour model. We let attrition take effect and filled those roles with tactical outsourcing relationships. Each one of my core development organizations at this point is a combination of internal teams, which I consider the heart and mind, and external teams, which I consider the limbs. As a result, when we need to ramp up or ramp down a project, we’re doing so intelligently, with flexible labour rates.
We also changed our vendor base. We went through every contract in the IT organization and ripped them apart. We’d go to a vendor and say, “We’re spending X dollar with X company; what can you do for us?” Once you know there’s a better deal in the market, there’s always a vendor who’s willing to take on the incumbent, even at a loss in order to retain your business. As a result, we’ve been able to reduce contract pricing by 20–30 percent while increasing quality of service.
Our project portfolio is filled with the right stuff. In the past, it would be 3 out of 10. Now the goal isn’t to finish everything but to work on the right stuff. We push prioritization into the business by having an active discussion about what’s most important.
We recently went live with a fleet of intelligent thermostats in Ontario and Texas. Our goal is to help our customers derive value from their homes’ underlying energy usage. In our business, we buy gas and electricity at a fixed price and sell it at a fixed price, with the spread being our profit. In modern utility markets, depending on time of year or the weather or an accident, there is often what we call supernormal pricing, meaning energy I buy for $60 on Monday could be $6,000 on Tuesday. Now, when that happens, we offer to pay our customers to throttle back their usage. If they’re not going to be at home during the day, for example, perhaps they’ll turn off their air conditioners. In other words, I give them the opportunity to take advantage of the energy market I see. Just Energy leverages technology to make this easy for our customers.