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In our latest Corrs High Vis podcast, David Hastie and Paul Brickley sit down with Leighton Wood, COO of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, to discuss its key sustainability initiatives during a time of exponential growth.

Corrs High Vis is a series of podcasts, offering analysis and insight into the Australian construction industry. Presented by Corrs Chambers Westgarth, it considers the issues that really matter to professionals in this ever-evolving industry.

David Hastie, Senior Associate, Projects Team, Paul Brickley, Senior Associate, Projects, Energy & Natural Resources Team (ENR) and joined by Chief Operating Officer of the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre Leighton Wood.

DH: Hello and welcome to a special edition of Corrs High Vis. My name is David Hastie, Senior Associate with Corrs' Projects Team and I am joined by Corrs' Senior Associate Paul Brickley. Today we are joined by Chief Operating Officer of the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre, Leighton Wood.

Leighton's foresight to promote and drive sustainability within a large scale operation has been market leading. Over the last decade Leighton has been instrumental in introducing key sustainability initiatives while overseeing the exponential growth of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. His support of the Melbourne Renewable Energy Project, which help fund the development of a 39 turbine wind farm near Ararat, is a leading example. Corrs' involvement with the Melbourne Renewable Energy Project has seen our firm act for a number of participants in the ground breaking project. Paul, I will throw to you.

PB: Thanks David, it's Paul Brickley from Corrs, I am here with Leighton Wood, the COO of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Morning Leighton.

LW: Morning Paul.

PB: We are here sitting in the Melbourne Convention Exhibition Centre, maybe you could start by telling us a bit about the facility and give us a sense of the scale of it.

LW: Yes it’s a big place now. It's 750 metres from one end to the other, we host over 1000 events close to 1500 now. We provide an economic impact to the city of around $1.1 billion dollars per annum and yes we've just ticked over the $100,000,000.00 revenue mark for the financial year. So the place has grown exponentially over the last six to eight years, and it is now the biggest centre in Australia and we think the best.

PB: You have been open for ten years or 11 years now with the expansion which opened last year so you're growing in scale. You clearly will consume a lot of electricity, other utilities and get through a lot of other consumables. Can you give us a sense of some of the sustainability measures you implement, or maybe you can before that a sense of your approach to sustainability?

LW: Yes, it's interesting. We really took up the sustainability challenge probably five or six years ago and we've inherited a wonderful convention centre that was [six star grand star] and we were certainly taking advance of that. But the team on the ground thought, 'well are we doing as well as we can from an operational day to day perspective?' and so we took up that challenge and a lot has changed. In more recent times in the last two to three years it's become a business imperative. Before it was something we thought we should do now, it's something we must do.

We have all sorts of stakeholders that are interested in this area including our Board that need to act within the bounds of community standards and they do, the States are certainly interested they have set some aggressive targets. Our employees are particularly interested in this area as an employer of choice, this is a critical area for us to be involved in, and our clients have become more and more interested over the last few years and – not all of them, I would say most of them now but not all of them – but certainly the ones that pay us the most money. The most sophisticated big tech companies are particularly interested in this area so we have no choice but to do our best work now.

PB: This is one of the things that brings home to me is that some of the measures that you might implement are about economising or efficiency or cost savings, but some of the other majors on the face is that they appear to have a cost associated with them with no necessary saving. Probably the Melbourne Renewable Energy Project which we will come onto falls within that category, but you make an important point on the bottom line. It might appear as a cost, but it actually drives business opportunity and business outcomes.

LW: Yes it certainly does. There's some projects that we've been involved in we put an energy management system into the exhibition centre some years ago. That now saves us about half a million dollars a year and at the time it was a – it was sort of a six or seven year payback – but the way energy costs have gone its paid itself back already so that's been wonderful and there various examples of that. But MREP was a little bit of a cost to the bottom line that is, there is no doubt about that, not greatly significant but certainly a cost.

But we felt as an executive team and as a company that we couldn't expand our footprint by 20% and expand our carbon footprint by 20%, and so it was important to us we were able to expand our business without further adding to the problem of carbon emissions and we were able to do that by our involvement with the Melbourne Renewable Energy Project. We were – our banding with 13 other significant corporations managed to build a new wind farm with 39 turbines based on our commitment to a certain level of renewable energy at a certain cost over the next ten years.

PB: I think the interesting thing about the Melbourne Renewable Energy Project is that as you say it was yourself and 13 other organisations, but involved coming together and doing something as a collective that individually you probably couldn't have achieved in the sense that together you were able to provide support to fund the development of a, I think an 80 megawatt wind farm, which is some achievement.

LW: Yes it was some achievement. It was led by the City of Melbourne and I have got to tip my hat to them in regard to that. It would have been like herding cats – each of those 14 organisations would have had different suppliers, different contract durations, different commitments and it would have been extremely difficult at times and very easy to say 'look this is just crazy'. Now they have set the model, the documentation around that, it's much easier for someone else to pick up and do that now thanks to them breaking that ground.

PB: I think that's right. I think what it also required was clearly the interest of all the participants involved to make it happen, so as you say there were 14 organisations it would have been a bit like herding cats but inevitably they had to have the will to get to common outcome. So there is I think an element of flexibility on all their parts, equally also of Pacific Hydro and its financiers in the sense that as I understand it some of the 14 had different requirements in terms of the product they required. Either electricity or renewable energy certificates or a combination of the two, and Pacific Hydro and its financiers were able to make it work in sense of being able to provide that flexibility while still satisfying their baseline requirements to fund the thing and get it up and running.

LW: Yes, no that's right. It was a very complex project to get it off the ground, we are just thrilled to be a part of it, we started gaining green certification from that on 1st of January this year and we expect that to play a really big role in our carbon emission targets. So we've set a sustainability plan back in 2015 and one of the goals was to reduce our carbon emissions by 30% by 2021 on that 2015 baseline. This will play a major role in allowing us to achieve that, so we are just thrilled to be a part of it, very, very proud to be part of it and we can honestly put our hand on our heart and say we helped build a sustainable energy wind farm.

PB: Can you tell us a bit about some of the other initiatives led by the corporate side, or perhaps the employee side of the business?

LW: Yeah look there's so many to talk about. One that we've recently implemented is an organic dehydrator in the business, so reducing our organic waste significantly. Another that is – should be up and going by sort of middle of next year – is a sky farm. We have a carpark over the river that's top two levels are exposed, and that will become a sky farm again in partnership with the City of Melbourne. So we are looking to create a virtual cycle with organic waste and the herb beds and fruit trees and so on that will be happening on the sky farm on that roof of the carpark.

So there's all sorts of things that we're looking at in future, and certainly not resting on our laurels from an employee perspective. I said earlier it was really important to us to act in this area, because that's an expectation of our employees and the younger they get the more expectations they have but we are up for it, we're really pleased to be involved in that.

Also Oz Harvest – we have a pickup a day now that provides meals to the disadvantaged in the city, so we currently last year we did about 40,000 meals so that people on the streets of Melbourne so there's just these win, win, wins like financial win, social good win, avoiding land fill, there's some really clever initiatives now in this city that we're just only too happy to support.

PB: Another example you mentioned to us was the water bottles, so can you tell us about that initiative, how it started and what you've achieved?

LW: Yes that was in about 2014. So we used to put PET bottles of water on meeting tables in front of delegates and our team thought there got to be a better way of doing this. So they went to the people that make beer temp rights they were based next to the Abbotsford CUB factory and they worked out between them that they could use the beer temp rights to produce chilled filtered water. And so we have about 16, 17 of these things around our precinct now, and we use carafes to put the water into and glasses and so that's what happens in meeting rooms now so we don't have those PET bottles.

Back then I knew exactly how many bottles we were saving, that was seven years ago we were saving 235,000 bottles, our business since then has more than doubled and so goodness only knows how many bottles have been saved. It would be millions and millions of bottles that have been saved since that day, so the sooner we get these things started the sooner we make a positive impact. But that was a great result yes, and that's been copied by other venues as well.

PB: Excellent, I think it's an important point in the sense that you can start these initiatives but they do follow on and it's probably an important message for people that – yes there are the big projects but there are also the smaller incremental changes you can make that really make a difference.

LW: There was another story about coffee. Somebody said 'does coffee go off?' and I said 'why's that?' and they said 'because you get a coffee delivery every day'. Coffee doesn't go off – upon investigation at least not in a number of days – so now we have two coffee drops a month. So instead of filling our loading dock with carbon monoxide fumes, we do it the way we probably should have been doing it forever and now we are doing in a much more efficient effective way.

PB: Maybe stick with the theme of coffee and the point you made about relationship with suppliers and changing their behaviours, I think everyone will know about the potential to recycle Nespresso coffee pods but I gather that started here?

LW: Yes that's something we are really proud of that came out of our food and beverage team, and they were throwing away 50 to 60,000 Nespresso pods. And they said to Nespresso 'you know, surely you guys can use these if we were to give them back to you?' and so Nespresso's got thinking and came back a month later with receptacles that we use to put the Nespresso pods in. So probably now we are up around the 100,000 Nespresso pods a year, and they are now systematically recycled throughout many venues like our venue so we are really, really proud that someone in our team had the disposition I guess and the thought of framework to come up with an idea like that. And that's what I love, everyone here now looks at something through an environmental and a sustainability lens. And once you get to that point, once it becomes a cultural norm, you get all sorts of crazy ideas come to you on a regular basis.

PB: Great to hear it. Thank you for your time.

LW: Good on you Paul, very pleased to sit and chat today about a subject I am really passionate about.

DH: Leighton, Paul thanks very much my name is David Hastie and thank you for listening. We look forward to joining us for the next addition of Corrs High Vis.