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The new powerhouse

Province introduces Vancouver chartered accountant as Hydro's new boss

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Scott Thomson knew that his kids were getting adjusted to the idea of moving to Manitoba when he saw his 13-year-old son sport a Winnipeg Jets hat.

Thomson, 48, a senior executive with a large British Columbia natural gas and power distribution utility, will formally become Manitoba Hydro's president and chief executive officer Feb. 13. He succeeds Bob Brennan, who announced his retirement last summer after 47 years with Hydro, the last 21 as its boss.

Like Brennan, Thomson is a chartered accountant. His CV reveals he's climbed the corporate ranks because of his expertise in financial and regulatory affairs. That will likely serve him well as Hydro borrows billions of dollars in the next decade or so to build two new major northern hydro-electric power dams and the controversial Bipole III power transmission line to southern Manitoba.

Thomson said the prospect of guiding an expanding company with large projects on the horizon was a big inducement to leave Vancouver for the Manitoba capital.

"That's actually one of the main... draws of coming to Manitoba Hydro -- the growth that the company is planning over the next decade or so," he said Friday at Hydro's corporate headquarters on Portage Avenue.

Thomson takes over an enterprise with sales of more than $2 billion annually. He said that power exports to the United States and likely to the West are key to Hydro's future growth. He also said that low Manitoba electricity rates are "something that I want to see maintained."

Thomson said he brings to the job a record of "fiscal discipline" and the ability to get projects approved by regulators. He was also able to keep natural gas prices flat in B.C. for six years running.

But those who may have harboured hope that the new Hydro boss might change the corporation's thinking on the proposed route of the $3.3-billion Bipole III hydro transmission line will be disappointed. "That decision has been made and... I'm about getting on with the job and getting it built on time and on budget," he said.

Thomson, who was still on the job as chief financial officer at FortisBC Holdings as late as a week ago, hasn't had a chance to buy a home in the city yet. He and his wife, a doctor, have been browsing the MLS listings online. "There's a number of different neighbourhoods that look attractive," he said.

Thomson has been warned that the balmy weather Winnipeg is receiving this January is far from typical for this time of year. But he doesn't seem to mind.

"Winnipeg is great. There's a buzz around the city. My wife and I are really excited about coming," he said -- they're looking forward to watching the Jets play first-hand.

And what about his 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter?

"I knew the kids had turned (the corner about moving to Winnipeg) when Dilan started wearing his Jets hat," Thomson said with a grin.

There was little fanfare surrounding Thomson's appointment on Friday. Premier Greg Selinger made the announcement in a press release. The new CEO then made himself available for media interviews. The decision to hire Thomson was made by the Hydro board of directors, who are government appointees.

"I think he's going to do a really good job. He's got all the right experience, having managed a major energy company himself in British Columbia," Selinger said.

"I think we're fortunate to get a good person who's interested in spending their career here," the premier added.

Byron Williams, a lawyer for the Manitoba branch of the Consumers' Association of Canada, said his clients would welcome Thomson's commitment to affordable power rates. But he noted that since 2004, the price of electricity in the province has risen faster than the rate of inflation.

Williams said the new CEO will have to grapple with rising internal costs that frustrated his predecessor. And he will face a big financial challenge in committing billions of dollars to building new northern power dams when intended U.S. markets -- at least for now -- appear somewhat uncertain.

Conservative Hydro critic Reg Helwer (Brandon West) said a warmer than normal winter will present an immediate challenge to the new Hydro boss, as the Crown corporation's natural gas and electrical sales will fall. He said the U.S. export market "is not what it once was."

Thomson "seems to have a good background" for the top Hydro post, Helwer said. But the Tory critic said he was disappointed with his refusal to reconsider the Bipole route. The Conservatives prefer a cheaper route east of Lake Winnipeg. "We'll keep working on that," Helwer said.


Meet the man

Scott Thomson, Manitoba Hydro's new president and CEO:

A native of Hamilton, Ont., Thomson is a chartered accountant who has spent the past dozen years in a variety of executive positions with FortisBC, a natural gas and electricity distribution utility that serves most British Columbians.

Before that, he spent nine years with management consultant firm Ernst & Young in Vancouver, London, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Thomson, 48, brings a strong financial and regulatory background to his new role as CEO of Manitoba Hydro. His most recent position was executive vice-president of finance, regulatory affairs, and energy supply with FortisBC. He was also the company's chief financial officer.

He's married to Dr. Silvia Vidas, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. They have two children, Dilan, 13, and Sophia, 11.

Quote: "I'm really excited to be here. I've had a great introduction to the (Hydro management) team. The people have been very welcoming. And I think we're going to really enjoy being here."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2012 B1


Updated on Monday, January 9, 2012 at 10:32 AM CST: Dr. Silvia Vidas is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine.

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