I had the opportunity to interview Tony Armstrong, one of the founders of PSC, to learn about the company’s origin story. Although I hadn’t met Tony before, it quickly became clear that he is full of personality, lots of wisdom, and many amusing stories from his time starting up and leading the company. Suffice it to say, if Tony ever writes his biography, we are all in for an adventurous and engrossing read. While I don’t have the time to get into all the fun details here (like his four-month motorcycle trip from Cape Town to London to get off the grid and recharge), I hope you enjoy this brief look back on how PSC was started.
SP: Tell me a bit of your background before PSC.
TA: I think we have to start back at my absolute roots. My parents grew up on the backbone of electricity reform in New Zealand. My father was a power station operator. My mother ran a hostel that housed all the apprentices and engineers that worked on major power projects. So I was destined to get into the power industry in one form or another. Having a high-profile dad in the Waitaki Valley, I managed to get my first job in 1977, at the age of 15, where I worked with a lot of technicians, eventually gaining experience in telecommunications and some SCADA systems. In those days, when it came to operating the power station, everything was done manually. SCADA was only just being invented so nobody knew what it was.
As far as education goes, I was never a person that conformed with schooling. I had just achieved a qualification in New Zealand for a school certificate and ended up really enjoying my first job, so I made some inquiries to the New Zealand Electricity Department, which was the company that ran the power grid for generation and transmission. I ended up getting a job as a technician trainee specializing in telecommunications. So that’s how it all started.
I had to do a lot of catching-up education-wise, but over time, I achieved a number of technician certificates and then went on to get my New Zealand certificate in engineering (NZCE Telecom) and eventually became a registered engineering associate (REA).
Four years into being a technician, at the age of 20, I got married to Robyn. There were power projects everywhere, and we had the flexibility to move around so I could work on a variety of projects. One of the notable power projects I worked on was in Tongariro, on the North Island of New Zealand. It was complex because it had a lot more remote control, with technology that came from a company in Sweden called ASEA (which eventually morphed into ABB). Over time, I gained a wide variety of experience (hydro, remote control, telecommunications and geothermal), and I grew interested in gaining experience with HVDC.
At this point, Robyn and I had two children, and I got a job with the HVDC division of Transpower in Wellington, the HVDC link was on the brink of its first upgrade since 1965. Recognizing I had no HVDC training, the company seconded me to the project as part of the commissioning team and asked me to move to Sweden. The first objective was getting trained in HVDC theory by Dr. Ranil de Silva. So Robyn and I packed up our kids and moved to a little town in Sweden called Ludvika. On a cold September day, my family and I went to the community swimming pool, and I happened to run into Dr. Ranil de Silva in the changing room while getting ready for a swim. Little did I know that he would eventually be my good friend and business partner for over 25 years.
Ranil taught me a lot about HVDC as we worked side by side. I eventually went back to New Zealand to run all the commissioning tests for the HVDC link at the Haywards terminal just out of Wellington. Ranil was the technical brain that worked with the commissioning team of people, many of whom ended up eventually working at PSC.
SP: Why did you start PSC? How did the idea come about?
TA: In December 1994, the HVDC project was wrapping up and I was concerned about having no project to work on. I couldn’t imagine being cooped up behind a desk.
Ranil and I had talked about doing a consultancy together. Ranil is extremely cautious but was willing to do it because he was single and didn’t have any debt. He had enough savings to give it try for a year. On the other hand, I was on the other end of the risk curve. I had a single income, a family to support, a huge mortgage and a secure job with Transpower, but I just knew I wanted to do something more.
With the HVDC project coming to an end and inspired by the financial component of wanting to provide more for my family, I was motivated to quit my job and start the business. However, Ranil was concerned I was making a major mistake. He didn’t feel comfortable starting the consultancy until I could guarantee a minimum amount of billable hours lined up to cover my basic expenses. From there, I had to get creative.
I knew that ABB was employing three full-time workers in New Zealand to meet the Defect Liability Requirements. I got in contact with ABB’s Swedish management team to offer them a contract to have access to me permanently and Ranil on an hourly basis. This would end up reducing their need for employing two staff in New Zealand and save them a lot of money. With a 12-month contract in hand to support the ABB DLP for New Zealand’s HVDC link, Ranil and I had our first client and a strong foundation for a company that would eventually become PSC. It wasn’t an easy time or a smooth birth, but we made it happen. Needless to say that this became the foundation for PSC’s HVDC division.
SP: Tell me about those early days of PSC and the roles of the other founders, Ranil and Robyn.
TA: We were running the company from an extra bedroom in our house in Whitby, Wellington. My wife, Robyn, had just gone back to work almost full-time. After work, she would come home and take care of our children, and then she would go into the extra bedroom and be our admin person, processing and setting up systems for our timecards and invoicing.
Ranil had a place on the New Zealand coast but spent a lot of time at our place, so much so that Robyn would describe Ranil as our third child. He would always come to dinner and even come with us on holidays for at least the first ten years.
Ranil and I have always been joined at the hip. Ranil was the brain trust and very analytical. Robyn covered anything from an administrative or HR point of view. I was focused on marketing, business development and staff recruitment.
If there was any successful ingredient to our initial success, I’d attribute it to the fact that Ranil and I are completely opposite in every aspect.
SP: At the time you started the company, where did you see it going and how did you go about building the business?
TA: I remember saying to Ranil at the time, “how big do you think this could be?”. Ranil responded that he thought employing 8 to 12 people would be a great size. I didn’t respond to him at the time because I was thinking 120. So we definitely had different expectations.
When you look at how we grew the business, you need to remember that we started with HVDC. So my first point of attack was building our HVDC capability, but I also had SCADA and telecommunications experience to build on.
For the first 12 years, I knew every person we recruited personally. We didn’t have recruiters in those days. It was very much word of mouth for the first decade. We had an established network from our experience working in the industry, and we used that network to grow the PSC group. As we added more staff with more capabilities, we grew our service offerings and diversified over time.
SP: It seems like PSC has strong relationships with clients and staff? Was that an intentional strategy on how you built the company?
TA: When it comes to staff relationships or business relationships, my methodology has always been to establish strong relationships at the highest level in various organizations. It all started with a very strong bonding relationship with ABB in Sweden. I would go to Sweden every year and meet with senior executives, and over time, built solid relationships with them and even got to know their families. It’s a similar story on how we built out other parts of the business. I haven’t invested my time in building relationships because it helps the bottom line of the company, I have always just found that in having those relationships, one takes care of the other. Many of these connections have become great friends and some have been significant mentors to me, sharing wisdom that helped me shape the business. And I still value many of those relationships today, even outside of PSC. So it’s always been about relationships.
SP: What was the culture like at the time when it started? What type of culture did you strive to create?
TA: At that stage, and for many years, it was a family environment. I had to know everybody. I had to know their wives and their children. We always had so many social gatherings, at least every week. We took any opportunity to have a dinner out or celebrate a milestone.
Our roots in New Zealand have always been important to us and for many years we created calendars with beautiful New Zealand landscapes. We gave them as gifts to our clients and it was always nice to see them hanging in their offices around the world.
I treated everyone the same. I’m not a person that believes in hierarchies. I’m also a strong believer in sharing profit and we based it on years of service. One of my key things was loyalty. I placed more importance on loyalty with an employee than anything else. Loyalty and getting the job done. The company grew on that for a long, long time. It finally got to the point where it was just too big for me to cover all the bases and to be the hands-on person that I am. That’s when Alex and I started talking about the next steps for the company.
Tony went on to discuss the story of Alex Boyd joining the company in 2007 and his role in building the business in the United States, and eventually facilitating the PSC ownership transition in 2017. Although PSC is now operating under different leadership and has grown to over 225 subject matter experts around the world, Tony, Robyn and Ranil built the foundation of PSC and their legacy continues. We wouldn’t be the company we are today without the determined spirit of our founders and their deep commitment to developing the PSC family from the ground up. We owe them our gratitude for creating a company with such stable roots from which we continue to grow.
These days, Tony is serving on multiple boards and providing consulting services as well as spending quality time with his kids and grandchildren.