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Profile - Basil Scarsella: The boss who stayed on the ball for a fresh challenge in Britain

The chief executive of Northern Gas Networks is an Italian-born Australian who was on the board of FIFA, football's governing body. Business Editor Bernard Ginns meets Basil Scarsella.

BASIL Scarsella was in the United States on business. His footballer son, David, was in Yorkshire playing in goal for Barnsley, while his daughter, Tania, was on a working holiday in London.

He decided to stop off in the UK on the way back home to Australia. Tania picked him up from the airport and they drove north to Leeds, where David was living.

David wanted to take his father to a Sunday carvery so they drove to a pub near Wetherby. Basil liked what he found.

"It was a nice, beautiful sunny day. Not a cloud in sight. There was a cricket match being played at the back of the pub on a typical English green."

He rang his wife Rita and said she would love it here.

Twelve months later, and all the family are in the UK. David has retired from professional football and is running a chain of noodle bars in Leeds called Wokon, Tania has her own hairdressing business in Ilkley and Mark, the other son, is working for Deutsche Bank

in London.

"Try to plan it," said Mr Scarsella. "I reckon you wouldn't have a chance."

The 54-year-old is the chief executive of Northern Gas Networks, the owner of gas distribution systems in the North East, Cumbria and most of Yorkshire.

He took up the position on the creation of the company in June 2005. For the first 12 months he commuted. From Australia.

"It's a long commute," said the Italian-born Australian, whose accent is a blend of the two countries. "I did it about

13 times in a year. I didn't

know where I was and what I was doing."

Down under, he was running ETSA Utilities, a privatised electricity distribution business. It was a big patch, with 800,000 customers, but far fewer than he has in the densely-populated UK.

The company's owners, a consortium led by Hong Kong-based CKI, bought its UK assets for 1.5bn from National Grid and asked Mr Scarsella if he would like to establish the

new company.

He said: "From a professional perspective the attraction was to set up Northern Gas Networks from scratch with a blank sheet of paper. It was something new that I fancied.

"The other attraction was that CKI in Hong Kong has expressed a desire to make further investments in the UK and western Europe."

CKI, which owns 40 per cent of NGN, is chaired by Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, whose father is China's richest man.

Today, Mr Scarsella is responsible for distributing gas to 2.5 million households. The company has about 1,800 employees and revenues of 300m a year.

Aside from the professional challenge, there was another compelling reason for the move to the UK. Football was taking over his life.

A builder's son, Basil Scarsella was born near Rome and emigrated with his family to Australia when he was seven. He was a talented footballer and played semi-professionally as a young man. He was goalkeeper.

After his playing career, he became involved in football administration and worked up to deputy chairman of the South Australian Football Association.

He joined the board of the Australian Football Association and was later appointed chairman, a post he held for four years. During this time he brought former England manager Terry Venables over to manage the Australian side.

He spoke fondly of Mr Venables. "He's the best man manager you could ever meet. He's got great people management skills. I haven't seen him for 10 years but if you bumped into him you would think it was only yesterday.

"His appointment in Australia attracted amazing publicity because he had just left the England job after the Euro 96 competition. He was great for the game."

Mr Scarsella became chairman of the Oceania Football Confederation and eventually was elevated to the board of Fifa, the game's international governing body, where he remained from 1999 to 2003.

"My football involvement was lifelong and it was taking over my life.

"Coming here was a welcome break and my wife got me back, for better or for worse."

Running alongside this football career was a career in business, which began with degrees in economics and accountancy from Adelaide University.

It was at university that he met his wife. "I met her catching the bus. She was going to hairdressing school, I was going to university. I was looking for someone to buy me lunch. She was working. I was a student so I didn't have any money. I asked her if she'd fancy lunch, with the condition she'd pay."

He added: "I'm an accountant – what do you want?"

The big break in business came at 26 when he was appointed finance director of the South Australia Gas Company, ahead of more experienced competition. Chris Armour, the chief executive, plucked him from

an assistant financial accountant's role.

"He saw something in me that resulted in me being appointed when arguably there would have been three or four people that probably had better claims than me on the job. But he saw something in me that I probably didn't even see myself and he gave me the opportunity. I worked with him at both the gas company and moved with him to the electricity company for

12 years."

Mr Armour asked him if he ever fancied being chief executive. He replied no, not CEO, but he would make the best assistant or deputy chief executive you could ever wish to have. Mr Armour disagreed, told him he had the making of a CEO and expanded his role so he could get a broader understanding of the business.

Five years later, in 1996, the opportunity arose and Mr Scarsella became chief executive of ETSA Utilities.

He seems to have a good relationship with his staff in Yorkshire and the door to his expansive office remained open during our interview. His favourite question, he said, is to ask staff where the company is going wrong. Sometimes he wishes he'd never asked.

"I often say to the employees we are all equal in this business. We all have different jobs but at the end of the day everybody is encouraged to express their views.

"If we can't agree, it's my decision and I'm happy to make it but whether it's a gas engineer working on the streets or the communications director, they have the right to express a view. I encourage that."

He said all employees have a clear understanding of the direction of the company. Employees are rewarded for good performance through a company bonus scheme.

Mr Scarsella added: "In order for an organisation to be successful you need to align the interests of customers and employees to those of the shareholders.

"It's no good the owners saying they want to maximise the value of the business, but when that happens the employees are not in some way rewarded, because without the support of the employees the shareholders will never maximise the value of the business, and similarly, without providing good customer service, you are never going to get there in satisfying the shareholder."

Asked how the recession has affected the company, he said: "The negative inflation has impacted on us because our prices go up by RPI. When it's negative RPI, our prices go down and therefore our revenue goes down.

"Yes we have suffered for the last 18 months but I see 2010 a lot more positive than 2009.

"The UK economy will come out of recession in 2010 and Northern Gas will continue to perform very well and the Northern Gas employees' jobs will be safe and secure for a long time to come."

Basil Scarsella

Title: Chief executive officer

Date of birth: September 2, 1955.

Education: Bachelor of Economics, Fellow Australia Chartered Accountant

First job: Auditor at KPMG, Australia

Car driven: Mercedes S320

Favourite film: Slumdog Millionaire

Last book read: 1788 – First Fleet to Australia

Favourite holiday destination: Italy

Most proud of: My children, Tania, David and Mark and my wife, Rita.

 
 
 

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