Terry Charlton looks forward to flying high

AS A young man from a Newcastle blue collar background, Terry Charlton had one burning ambition - to be a flyer, to become a pilot.

He nearly made it too and virtually had a choice of the Air Force or Qantas. He progressed well in training - until a routine medical identified a congenital nasal problem, and that was the end of the dream.

"I got kicked out of both," he said.

But flying remains a passion and when he leaves Cooma after a 14-year stint as chief executive of Snowy Hydro at the end of the month, he will go into partnership with a couple of old friends and buy a Cessna.

Then they'll do a bit of flying around the place "as responsible old men."

Despite the shattered dream, Mr Charlton considers himself lucky because out of 112 fellow school children, only three went to university. He was one of the three.

He spent much of his early years growing up in the Western Suburbs of Sydney, although in those days the area was still rural. There were sheep and plenty of cows that he had to milk.

He developed a very strong awareness of the importance of job security, which he carried into his days in charge of Snowy Hydro, and that stimulated his determination to ensure job security for employees.

"It shaped my attitudes. I know what it's like when families are torn apart," he said.

After the flying let down, he went back to university and then joined Stewarts and Lloyds in Newcastle, which later became Tubemakers of Australia before being acquired by BHP in 1995.

He spent 32 years there, dealing with industrial relations, human resources, metals merchandising, R&D, and mergers and acquisitions.

He and wife Alvis moved to London for three years for Edison Mission Energy before returning to Australia for the Snowy Hydro position in 1999.

At that time, the company had about 420 employees. There are now a touch under 500, with about 180 in Cooma - and when partners, spouses and children are taken into account, these employees are a significant contributor to the local economy and community.

Ask Terry Charlton about the highlight of his reign over Snowy Hydro, and his answer may surprise.

"Safety - it stands out above everything," he said.

Workplace safety in terms of lost time injury has improved enormously but he also means safety on the road, at home, at school.

It's about encouraging mates to look after mates, training, behaviour.

He is also proud of the culture - Team Snowy as he calls it - and respect for people.

"It's not sweating about the small things but about keeping an eye on the future," he said.

"Developing a strategy and understanding it. Getting it right the first time."

With a sense of achievement, Mr Charlton also points to Snowy Hydro's extensive community involvement, such as the rescue helicopter, the Snowy Ride, the new universities centre in Cooma, the young driver learning program, and others.

"I'm only a steward of this place," he said.

"It's my job to leave it better than I found it."

He's confident that Snowy Hydro will continue to be involved in the local community and seize opportunities to grow.

"We have a proven business model and it is a business that is demonstrably successful. There is no need for change.

"Improvement, yes, in an incremental and evolutionary way."

What does life hold when he leaves Snowy Hydro? Many things, apparently.

Skiiing in the Italian Dolomites. Flying in the Cessna. Looking after the Blue Mountains hobby farm (Angus cattle, roses, heaps of fruit trees). Conducting a bit of business.

Importantly, catching up with adult children, two of whom have jobs in the Mediterranean luxury yacht community.

What will he miss the most?

"No longer being part of the Snowy team," he said.

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