As part of the announcement of its new trans-Tasman operating model, leading services provider Downer Group has appointed James Kafanelis to the role of Chief Operating Officer (COO), Downer Utilities. Here we explore Jim’s leadership journey from apprentice to executive leader and his drive to make a positive contribution to the communities around him.
Fresh out of school, Mr Kafanelis first stepped into the industry as an electrical line worker apprentice for the State Electricity Commission (SEC) of Victoria.
“I didn’t know too much back then, but what I soon realised was that it was a great place to work. It was a great environment to learn, and even more importantly, a great environment to retain that learning experience. At the time I would say the best skill I had was my work ethic. I’ve always been very passionate and driven about achieving my goals and ambitions,” Mr Kafanelis said.
“The SEC was privatised in the 1990s and when it became Powercor, I was asked to take on a leadership role as a supervisor. It wasn’t long after I got my trade qualifications, which some may have deemed at the time to be a bit early for a young individual in what was a very structured and hierarchical sort of industry back then. When you’re a younger individual starting to take on a leadership role and earning the respect of your team, you’ve got to be able to demonstrate elements that people will get on board with before they start to recognise the value that you bring. That’s what really started getting me thinking about leadership and what it meant for me. From there I gained a lot of ambition as to where I could see myself heading in the future.
“I had a clear view that one day, whenever that may be, my career objective would be to progress to a role in senior leadership. And that drive has never left me. I always had a philosophy that no matter where I end up, when that journey finishes, at least I’ll know that I’ve given it my absolute best to be able to get as far as I could.”
Creating success with Downer
This ambition drove Mr Kafanelis to take on every opportunity that came his way and eventually saw him make his way to Downer Group in 2013.
“I joined Downer through an acquisition actually. I was employed by Tenix at the time, which was a utilities organisation. And I’d literally only been with Tenix for about 18 months when Downer acquired us,” Mr Kafanelis said.
Mr Kafanelis was already well versed on the various utility sectors, whether it be power, water, gas or telecommunications. Thanks to this extensive background in utilities, Downer asked Mr Kafanelis to assist with the integration of Tenix’s New Zealand branch.
“I was running the gas services contract for Tenix, and they asked me, based on my background, to head over to New Zealand, where I would have a look at the Tenix businesses and undertake some groundwork to determine how best we could transition and integrate the business into the new Downer Group effectively,” Mr Kafanelis said.
The role was initially only going to be for a couple of months to assess the businesses, undertake a few reports and initiatives to determine how Downer could best transition the business. However, when Mr Kafanelis returned to Melbourne, he was asked to go back to New Zealand for another 12 months and actually deliver on the actions he had identified.
Mr Kafanelis said that he was quite reluctant at first. He’d already travelled a fair bit and wasn’t sure if he wanted to head to another country at this point in his career. However, the work was an exciting opportunity that perfectly aligned with his experience, so after discussions with his family, he stepped into the role of general manager for the New Zealand Tenix business and facilitated the integration of the business into Downer. And that 12-month opportunity became seven and a half years.
“[And this all came about because] I was offered an executive general manager position a year or so into my role and I was given the opportunity to create a utilities division for Downer New Zealand,” Mr Kafanelis said.
“I thought it sounded like an exciting opportunity where I’d get to be able to use all the skills and experience that I’d acquired over my career and put it to good use. So, I made the decision to take up the offer and have never looked back.
“It was a fantastic journey, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t filled with a lot of challenges and a lot of hard work. But to see what we’ve been able to develop, create, implement and operate, it was magnificent. The division I looked after in Downer supported 10,000 employees and families. It was a very big honour, and an even greater responsibility.”
United across the trans-Tasman
The next step for Mr Kafanelis was to use this experience to return to Australia. And in 2022 he did just that, taking on the role of Head of Utilities where he led and managed the utilities business in Australia until stepping into his current role as the COO for the Downer Utilities trans-Tasman business unit.
Initially both the Australian and New Zealand businesses had been run as separate entities with their own corporate structure, but the new trans-Tasman operating model will see the two businesses fully integrate into each other. With extensive knowledge of both the Australian and New Zealand utilities businesses, Mr Kafanelis was perfectly positioned to be at the helm of this transition.
“We’ve always had the two trans-Tasman businesses running their own corporate teams. Now we are one organisation with one purpose, and that is not a small change by any means. It has been a very structured approach to understanding what our future strategy is and the best way for Downer to be able to fulfil that.
“Because I have had the privilege of leading both, I know the New Zealand business quite intimately and that has made this integration somewhat easier. It’s like coming back to the family, literally,” Mr Kafanelis said.
“This role is a combination of the 37 years that I’ve had the privilege of spending in utilities. I often think the privileges of working for a large company are that you are really well-supported, really well-trained, mentored and coached. Everywhere I have worked has left positive, lasting impressions. They’ve provided me with additional skills and experience that I didn’t have before. And the combination of all those things provided me with a level of confidence and led me to be able to undertake a role of this nature.”
Serving the community
Downer Group supports more than 32,000 families, and for Mr Kafanelis being at a senior level and serving these people and their communities is a great privilege.
“It’s a real honour to be able to serve the organisation’s people – our employees and their families. Equally as important are our clients. Our purpose is to enable communities to thrive, and everything we touch in utilities goes right to the heart of that. I get quite excited about it. I wake up in the morning with a spring in my step and when I put my head on the pillow at night, I reflect on where we have contributed positively – whether it’s our local communities, our people and their families or our clients. It’s a really nice feeling, I must say.”
Mr Kafanelis describes his career as an exciting journey, where he has been constantly growing and developing. He explained that his confidence has been gained through experience, training, coaching and mentoring, which gives him the ability to be able to undertake his role as effectively as possible.
“You pick up golden nuggets all the way throughout your career. And if you asked me last year, I could say I thought I already knew a lot about the industry, but every year I seem to learn a lot more.
“I have always been curious. I like to observe, I like to listen, and then I like to try some different things as well. You have to be able to open up your mind and your heart to all the information that you can receive. And believe it or not, somewhere along the line, your mind will pull some of the key elements out of information you’ve already received so you can start using it or applying it in the way that you are needing it today,” Mr Kafanelis said.
The next generation
For the next generation of workers looking to forge a career in the utilities industry, Mr Kafanelis’ advice is to take the time to really figure out what you want to do, where you want to be and then from there, pursue every opportunity, rather than await it.
“For the people that I’ve noticed that have had the ability to discover within themselves where they want to be and what type of work they want to be doing, they tend to really set that career path and get on that journey very quickly. From what I have discovered, they have also had great success throughout their careers,” Mr Kafanelis said.
“If you have the right attitude, a good work ethic and always have integrity about what you do, people will support you and really help guide you through your career.
“And I think Downer does support a lot of our people, whether it’s through graduate programs or our blue-collar workforce benefitting from the training and opportunity to be able to grow and develop and also make changes to their career path – just like I was.”
Downer offers a range of opportunities for graduates, cadets, trainees and apprentices, operators, labourers and qualified tradespeople, design professionals, engineering, project management, safety and functional professionals, and promotes a policy of diversity and inclusion for all its employees. With five divisions across industrial and energy, rail and transit systems, social infrastructure and citizen services, transport and infrastructure, and utilities Downer offers employees the opportunity to navigate their way through different sectors and industries.
Mr Kafanelis said that Downer is focused on engaging its staff and recruiting and retaining top quality talent looking for a long term career with Downer.
“I suppose for us, a big driver in that space is the engagement of our workforce and the families that we support to keep our people staying with the organisation. There is a lot of temptation to shift companies out there at present for a number of reasons.
“I’ve presented over the years to many graduate groups and I listen to the things that people say when they leave. There was a response from a young engineer some time ago, which stuck with me: ‘I don’t want to be institutionalised within Downer’, which is the thought process that their career could stall by staying with just one organisation.
“Well, maybe that’s actually a point of difference with being in an organisation like Downer because you get to experience a lot of variety without needing to leave the organisation. You can go from civil engineering to electricity or transmission builds. You could go to a roading business or a transport business or a construction business and utilise and apply your skills and your craft to each of those sectors,” Mr Kafanelis said.
While getting to where he is today has required a lot of hard work and dedication from Mr Kafanelis, he also stresses the importance of having fun at work.
“We’re just human beings, and at the end of the day, it’s nice to work with real, authentic people. You can always tell when someone is smiling inside when they are talking. And I like to hear people joke around, have a laugh and engage with one another as we normally would do with our own family and friends. So, we always look for a way to have some fun whilst understanding the serious nature of what we do and our responsibilities and obligations – but it doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time at work with our colleagues and our teams.”
This sponsored editorial is brought to you by Downer Group. For more information on the ways Downer is enabling communities across Australia and New Zealand to thrive, visit Downergroup.com.