Don’t try to keep up with Ysni Semsedini on his fast track.
Born and raised in St. Thomas, Ont., he was president of his hometown’s chapter of the Canadian Red Cross at 19. During both of his master’s degree programs – the first in Electrical Engineering at Western, the second an MBA at Laurier University – he worked full-time to jumpstart his career in the energy sector. At 29, he became the youngest chairperson of the St. Thomas United Way. And, at 33, he was named CEO of Festival Hydro in Stratford, becoming the youngest CEO of any of the more than 70 utilities across the province.
“It’s because of a good support system – both at home and through my employers,” Semsedini said.
Thanks to such support, he is able to network with partners and peers in the industry and look for new business development opportunities for a utility that has really made a name for itself in recent years, he added.
Despite being a small local distribution company (21,000 customers) in a small city (population 30,000), Festival Hydro and its affiliate company, Rhyzome Networks, has been internationally recognized for its forward thinking. A downtown Wi-Fi ‘freezone’, for residents and tourists alike, was a major factor in Stratford being named one of the Top 7 Intelligent Communities in the World three years in a row by the Intelligent Community Forum, a New York-based think tank.
“We believe connectivity and Internet are as important as electricity and water. It’s an essential service,” said Semsedini, who also serves as President and CEO of Rhyzome Networks.
That interconnectivity has allowed Stratford to become a “digital media playground” and has attracted a number of companies, including several in the automotive sector, as well as a University of Waterloo digital media campus. All this could lead to Stratford becoming Ontario’s testing ground for driverless cars, a technology that certainly intrigues Semsedini.
“The way it works now is when a light goes green, the first car moves, and the second car doesn’t move until the first car moves. And so on. But if you had autonomous vehicles that could talk to each other, when the light goes green, they all move at the same time,” he said. “That means you’re pushing more cars through the intersection; you’re getting products to their destination quicker. So it’s a boost for the economy and it’s less time spent idling and wasting gas.”
That certainly ties well with Festival Hydro’s aims at conservation – specifically conserving electricity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Between 2011-14, Festival Hydro, which also services St. Marys, Seaforth, Brussels, Dashwood, Hensall, and Zurich, achieved 154 per cent of its conservation targets, ranking in the Top 9 of all utilities in the province, earning the company the 2015 Conservation Leadership Excellence Award from the Electricity Distributors Association.
“Bigger isn’t necessarily better,” Semsedini said. “Smaller utilities can be on the cutting edge of technologies and be really progressive.”
Semsedini’s first stop after completing an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering was at Kitchener-Wilmont Hydro, where he worked for a year before moving closer to home. He then served as a plant engineer for three years at GKN Sinter Metals in St. Thomas, while completing his master’s degree program at Western full time.
In 2006, he moved to London Hydro where he held a number of roles over a five-year span, working his way up to director of metering and business planning. He made the jump to Festival Hydro in 2011, starting as VP Engineering Operations. In 2012, Semsedini was made Chief Operating Officer of Rhyzome Networks; he was appointed CEO of both Rhyzome and Festival Hydro in May 2014.
“It’s something I take great pride in,” Semsedini said of becoming a CEO at 33 – undoubtedly young by industry standards. “There’s a lot of responsibility with it, and the work doesn’t slow down. But it’s a mixed blessing.”
Festival Hydro is a city-owned utility – which is not the case with all local distribution companies, some of which are run by Hydro One, while others are handled by a private company. This provides an important flexibility, Semsedini said.
“It’s really good to have everything tied together – connectivity, infrastructure, hydro, water, roads, land. You can take your city in any direction you want,” he noted. “But when somebody else is running it, you can’t have those conversations about what’s the better public good because the other person might only have profits in mind.
“My primary driver is not profitability,” he continued. “It’s still important; I can’t lose money. But there’s a balance between profitability and community involvement – giving back to the citizens.”
As part of that, Semsedini said, the utility is more municipally minded. Festival Hydro is involved in numerous community projects, from sponsoring the build of an artificial-turfed soccer field complex, donating solar-powered phone chargers to the local skate park for youngsters to keep their phones charged up, to making donations to local hospitals, the United Way and the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
“To me, that’s the coolest thing about the job,” said Semsedini. “Charity and community have always been important to me. That’s why it’s so nice to find a role that mixes technology, essential services and community involvement to give back.”