Gerry Russell has had a long and interesting career in the hydro industry, and in that time, developed expertise and insights that have helped him crack many big deals. However, he feels that he has learnt more from his failures than his successes. Find out why.
Taking risks is part of the innovation process
In the world of big business, you might occasionally come across elements of cloak and dagger which can sometimes seem a bit surreal, and often times quite humorous. Such was the case for Gerry Russell, Managing Director of American Hydro when he went to a customer’s headquarters to negotiate a new contract.
“As we walked through the lobby towards the bank of elevators, I noticed a large gentleman standing in a corner behind a potted plant trying to look inconspicuous. He was wearing a trench coat and a fedora and holding a newspaper as if he were reading it,” recalls Gerry. “I immediately recognised him as our competitor's head of sales. After it was clear we were going to win the contract, I sent him a brief email which said, ‘Nice Hat’,” he continues with a wide smile.
Working towards growth
Such wry wit is typical of Gerry, who has been with American Hydro for over 30 years, and even after it was acquired by Wärtsilä in 2016. American Hydro – a Wärtsilä Company is a leading supplier and installer of large equipment upgrades and servicing for the hydroelectric industry. Gerry’s knowledge of the hydro industry has made him a highly sought-after colleague as Wärtsilä seeks to grow its hydro business.
“We were recently given approval for a large capital project to invest in our manufacturing facility,” he says. “This reaffirms Wärtsilä’s strong commitment to growing the hydro business and I am happy that I am able to bring my long experience to the table to support this.”
Gerry’s primary function is to direct the sales and marketing activities of American Hydro – a Wärtsilä Company, using his expertise to develop new solutions and helping his customers succeed. While he has had many successful deals, he says it is the challenging ones that he looks forward to the most, as they help him learn.
One such case began 10 years ago when American Hydro won a contract to design and manufacture large replacement propeller runners to upgrade a hydroelectric station in Canada.
“I think we typically learn more from failure than we do from success,” he says. “In this case, we struggled to meet our performance guarantees during the design/scale model testing phase. While we ultimately did meet the minimum contractual requirements, it was clear that our design was not fully satisfactory to either our customer or to us.”
Learning from failure
That was not all. While the customer ended up awarding American Hydro the contract to build four large propeller runners, they did not release Gerry’s team to start manufacture due to previous struggles. Subsequently, the project was delayed for several years. American Hydro used that time to maintain close contact with the customer and through a series of meetings and discussions, it became clear that the original design conditions requested by the customer did not truly represent the conditions at the hydroelectric site.
Gerry’s team quickly offered to develop a new design, to be verified by scale model testing, to fully optimise turbine performance for the correct site conditions. The resulting design exceeded the new performance guarantees during the model test. American Hydro – A Wärtsilä company was recently released to manufacture the four large propeller turbine runners with the installation of the first unit scheduled for 2020.
“Had we built the original design from 10 years ago, the customer would have been disappointed with the machine performance and we would have lost their trust and money on the contract,” explains Gerry. “With the new design, and under the current contract terms, the customer will maximise their revenue from their hydroelectric plant and we will have a successful project.”
Gerry and his team learnt several lessons from the experience. One of the most important ones among them is the importance of investing in both people and technology in order to deliver the best performance.
“Continuous investment in people and technology is critical to our growth and success. It shows in the number of successful projects we have had, and continue to have,” says Gerry. “Additionally, the importance of sustained, close relationships with our customers cannot be overstated. Work hard to understand what is important to your customers and find a way to meet their needs.”
Gerry also brings in an outside-in perspective and applauds Wärtsilä for focusing on its vision of a 100% renewable energy future. To achieve this, the company has shifted from being a traditional product and service provider to be a smart technology company focusing on comprehensive solutions, which he says is ‘an important innovation’ that will help Wärtsilä thrive well into the future.
In his spare time, Gerry likes spending time with his family and also enjoys tennis, road cycling, travel and hiking. At the tennis court, Gerry can be actually spotted together with his work colleague, VP of Engineering and Field Service at American Hydro. “He supports and challenges me every day. Besides tennis balls, we can bounce ideas off each other and make each other laugh.”