‘Rodney Powell, the recently appointed president and COO of Western Mass. Electric Co., believes in tackling problems head-on. Two primary challenges for the utility are stimulating economic development in the region and helping existing businesses operate more efficiently — strategies that will enable the company to achieve desired growth.
Rodney Powell will long remember the day he was introduced as the new general manager of the Simsbury-area district of Connecticut Light & Power Company (CL&P).
"I think I was the only one stupid enough to take that job," he joked, recalling that at the time (early 1996), the Simsbury area was in the throes of a brutal winter that caused regular and seemingly endless power outages — and thus a public relations nightmare for the local utility and its administrators.
Powell told BusinessWest that the end of his first day on the job featured a public meeting in the Simsbury High School auditorium attended by large numbers of dissatisfied customers seeking answers about their problems with getting reliable electrical service. "I would call it a mob," Powell recalled. "I was introduced as the new general manager, and people started saying, ’you ’re the one that ’s going to fix our system, ’ and ’you ’re the one that ’s going to get things right around here.
"It was a real trial by fire, but also a great learning experience," he continued, noting that he spent the next two years working on the problem, which resulted from both inefficient infrastructure and ineffective systems for communicating with customers. "I learned a lot about the importance of tackling a problem head-on."
Powell plans to take what he learned in Simsbury — and at other stops during a 25-year career with Northeast Utilities, parent company to CL&P — to his new assignment as president and COO of Western Mass. Electric Co. (WMECO), another NU subsidiary. There, he faces a different kind of challenge.
"There ’s nothing broken here," he told BusinessWest, speaking broadly about WMECO ’s staff, systems, and operations. "We just want to get even better, or real good, at what we do, and sometimes doing that is more challenging than fixing something that ’s not working right."
To address that challenge, Powell, the subject of this month ’s CEO Profile, will start by first gaining a thorough understanding of WMECO ’s operations, the local market, and the Western Mass. business community. With that knowledge he hopes to improve customer service, provide more value to those clients, and help WMECO operate as a more efficient business.
And he stressed that a utility is, indeed, a business in every sense of that word.
"Most people don ’t think of us a business, but we are," he said. "The public thinks that whenever we run out of money we ask for a rate increase — it ’s not like that; we have budgets, we have goals, and, like many businesses, we have slim margins that we have to live with."
Like his predecessor, Kerry Kuhlman, who has been promoted to director of NU ’s newly established Corporate Shared Services Group, Powell said repeatedly that in its post-utility-industry-restructuring role as strictly an energy distributor, WMECO can achieve growth only if the region it serves remains vibrant and achieves residential and commercial growth itself.
Thus, the utility is — and will remain — actively involved in economic development initiatives and programs aimed at helping local businesses, especially manufacturers, become more competitive in an increasingly global economy.
This includes an active role in the Hartford-Springfield Economic Partnership, or the Knowledge Corridor, as it ’s called. Powell said the border-erasing initiative is a pivotal development strategy for both states.
"Massachusetts is no different than Connecticut — both states face the same challenges and want the same things," he said. "We ’ll see a number of advantages from them working together, collaboratively, on cross-border initiatives."
He said that economic development is a multi-faceted process, however, and that perhaps the biggest factor in achieving progress in Springfield, or any other community, is quality public education.
Transforming a Business
Recalling the situation he encountered in Simsbury, Powell said the problems there involved both technology — the system had two circuits that overlapped, so when one went down both did — and communications between the utility and the community it served. Or, in this case, a lack thereof.
"I remember writing a lot of letters to customers at that time," he explained. "I would end each one by saying that a representative of CL&P would be in touch with them. Someone at the company told me that I shouldn ’t be doing that — it was something we couldn ’t commit to — and I said, ’that ’s part of the problem here. ’"
Improving communication with customers has been one of Powell ’s many areas of focus within the NU system. He told BusinessWest that in his most recent position, that of vice president of Customer Relations at CL&P, he handled just about everything that wasn ’t on a pole or wire.
Specifically, he was responsible for the interface between CL&P ’s distribution organization, customer support functions, and the 1.1 million retail electric customers of the 149 cities and towns in Connecticut. He also managed CL&P ’s community relations, conservation and load management, customer services, and economic and business development fuctions.
Prior to joining NU in 1978, Powell, a native of Norfolk, Va. worked for Arthur Anderson and Company as a senior staff auditor and as an associate director of a federally funded community health program with the University of Connecticut medical School. With that background, Powell told BusinessWest that he has been more involved with numbers all of kinds than with technology.
Before becoming general manager of the Simsbury district, for example, he served NU as a consultant in marketing services and an area called "customer engineering." Powell explained that this involved oversight of an NU process called Customer Engineering and Management Services, which brought personnel — including service technicians, conservation ‚ and load managers, and others together in teams to address specific customer needs. The process was especially helpful during the higher-load-growth era of the late ’80s and early ’90s before conservation initiatives were well understood and utilized by commercial and industrial customers.
Most customers are now quite familiar with those conservation programs, he continued, but the team approach to problem-solving and customer service remains a vital component of NU ’s overall operating philosophy.
At WMECO, Powell said his preliminary challenges are to determine what drives customers and identify areas where the utility can help enhance economic development efforts and assist individual businesses in their efforts to become more competitive.
Discussing the specific hurdles facing manufacturers, he said that cost pressures impact businesses not only in Western Mass. but across the country, and many of these forces are beyond anyone ’s control.
"I don ’t spend one nano-second thinking that I can solve those problems, because I can ’t," he said, adding quickly that he expends considerable time and energy on those matters a local utility can do something about.
This includes the broad area of conservation, which, while it sounds like it is devoted purely to reducing consumption of energy, is also a broad method for making companies more efficient and more competitive — and to allow the utility to eventually sell more electricity.
"It sounds counterproductive in a way," said Powell, referring to programs like PRIME, in which WMECO provides financial and technical support for companies to utilize the Kaizen method for implementing process improvement, reducing cycle times, and, in the process, use less electricity.
"But by helping these companies become more efficient, we can also help them become more competitive," he explained. "As they do so, they will hopefully develop new products, expand their operations, and thus become bigger electric customers."
Powell said he has some general discussions with area business and economic development leaders, but wants to schedule some one-on-one sessions with business owners and managers to gain additional insight.
"I want to better understand not so much their business challenges, such as taxes and health care costs — I think there is a lot of commonality there," he said. "What I want to know is how, in spite of all those challenges, companies are able to stay here and be successful. I want to know what it is that drives people to stay here.
"I believe that if I can better understand that, I can articulate it to other customers and maybe help them find a way to succeed here as well."
Powell theorizes that most successful companies, specifically manufacturers, have been able to develop niches and superior products that customers are willing to spend more for. If that ’s the case, then these businesses can become models for companies already in this region and those potentially interested in relocating here.
What WMECO wants to do is become a partner with area businesses to help them clear the many hurdles in front of them, said Powell, noting that this is a somewhat new but very important role for all electricity providers in the age of restructuring.
Watt ’s Ahead
While striving to understand WMECO ’s customer base and its specific needs and challenges, Powell said another immediate priority is familiarizing himself with the individuals and operations of the Springfield-based utility.
As he said, nothing is really broken at WMECO and thus in need of fixing. "Here in Western Mass., we have a very reliable system that was well-engineered," he explained. "At WMECO, we have dedicated people — from the people in their field and on the poles to those in the office — who are committed to the customer. My goal is to build on the foundation, identify opportunities, and develop best practices."
There will be challenges with that assignment, specifically narrow margins and the ongoing need to widen the customer base in a region that has seen little overall growth for the past several years.
"The margins today are much smaller than there were when we generated electricity and also distributed it," he explained. "For that reason, we have to manage our costs better."
Powell said a recent agreement forged between WMECO and Mass. Attorney General Thomas Riley will give the utility some rates it can certainly live with, but that will also require some pencil-sharpening.
Powell, who has done a significant amount of home-restoration work, draws similarities between those exercises and taking a business and making it operate more efficiently.
Referring to home renovations, he said one never knows the full extent of the work involved until the work is started and the depth of the challenge is revealed. The same is true with managing a company.
And as WMECO partners with area organizations such the Springfield Area Council for Excellence (SPACE) to become more efficient and thus lower the cost of operating, the same process is ongoing within the utility itself, he said.
"That ’s our goal as well — to become increasingly efficient in how we do things," he explained, adding, again, that it is often more challenging to make a good operation better than to undertake a turnaround project.
As he has at other stops in his NU career, Powell will stress the importance of communication at WMECO. This includes everything from providing information on power outages — how they occurred, and when they will end — to continuing a dialogue with the business community about conservation and becoming more competitive.
Powell said that he and others in the utility will be visible in the community, playing a role in some of the obvious workforce- and economic development initiatives, and some that are perhaps less obvious.
As an example, he cited an ongoing initiative with the Springfield Urban League on a training program that would enable unemployed or underemployed individuals to gain the skills necessary to work at WMECO ’s call center in its new headquarters in the Technology Park at STCC.
"This is something I ’m excited about," he said, noting that NU will soon be consolidating call centers in Northern Connecticut, and skilled individuals will be needed for that facility. "Through this 12- to 14-week training program, we ’ll be creating some job opportunities for people in Springfield."
On the broader subject of economic development, Powell said the Knowledge Corridor initiative represents a real opportunity for the region. Like others involved in economic development, he said that both Springfield and Hartford have amenities and selling points. Combining the communities into one larger economic development region makes both areas more saleable.
Meanwhile, the collective minds on both sides of the border can collaborate to work on problems that impact economic development in all communities — poverty, crime, housing, and especially public education.
"I staunchly support public education, that ’s where it begins and ends," he said. "If Rome is burning, I ’m still focused on education — that ’s the key to a healthy community."
Powell, who has followed in Kuhlman ’s footsteps in his last two NU assignments, expects to follow her as well into an active role within the Pioneer Valley ’s business and cultural communities. While with CL&P, for example, he was involved with groups as diverse as the Capital Workforce Partners and the Hartt School of Music.
But he plans to ask those who might solicit his time and energy to give him perhaps a year to first tackle the learning curve ahead of him — getting to know the region, its business community, and the utility itself, and understanding the immediate needs and priorities for each.
By doing so, he feels he can better serve those various constituencies, and more effectively tackle issues head-on.
George O ’Brien can be reached at[email protected]