When Richard Mark, Charles Matthews, and Melvin D. Williams get together, a collective energy fills the room. An observer notices the natural rapport that exists between the three executives, whether they’re sharing a personal story or talking business. What doesn’t exist is the executive rivalry that one might expect to see with three corporate leaders from the same state in the same industry.
Also, unmistakable, even in 2019, is that three African-American males sit at the helm of three of the largest and most influential energy providers in Illinois. The companies – Ameren Illinois, Peoples Energy, encompassing Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas; and Nicor Gas – deliver electricity and natural gas to more than 4.4 million customers in the state. These multi-billion-dollar enterprises collectively employ nearly 7,500 workers.
Circumstances brought the group, we’ll call them the “Big Three,” together, affording them the opportunity to not only learn from one another, but to collectively help shepherd their companies and the Illinois utility sector through a period of unprecedented growth and change. Along the way the work they are doing is paving the way for the next generation of businesses and employees to thrive.
“We’re very comfortable with each other,” said Mark, chairman and president of Ameren Illinois, a distributor of natural gas and electricity to more than 1.2 million customers. “I have a great deal of respect for Melvin and Charles and what they have been able to accomplish for their companies, customers and shareholders.”
The three became acquainted through their leadership roles on the Illinois Utilities Business Diversity Council (IUBDC). A first-of its-kind coalition of state utilities, the IUBDC was formed in 2015 for the express purpose of getting leaders like Mark, Matthews, and Williams to sit at the same table. Along with charter members Commonwealth Edison and Illinois American Water Company, Ameren Illinois, Peoples Energy, and Nicor Gas are making significant investments in strengthening the state’s electric, natural gas, and water infrastructure. The execution of these capital-intensive projects requires a base of skilled external contractors – welders, pipefitters, electricians, maintenance workers, engineers, financial experts, and more. The IUBDC’s focus – and by extension that of the Big Three – is on opening doors for a growing share of those projects to be awarded to minority- women- and veteran-owned businesses.
The results have been impressive. In 2017, IUBDC-member utilities spent a combined $1.05 billion with Illinois-based diverse businesses, including $477 million on goods and services provided by minority enterprises. IUBDC initiatives have contributed an incremental $2.05 billion to the Illinois GDP, supported 14,200 jobs in Illinois, and added $341.5 million in taxes collected by federal, state and local governments.
The Big Three credit the Council for creating a spirit of cooperation in leaders of companies that don’t compete in the literal sense, but who have historically kept plans close to the vest.
“Our work together has gone beyond increasing spending on supplier diversity,” said Williams, president of Naperville, Illinois based Nicor Gas, the state’s largest natural gas distributor. “We’re partnering in many different areas such as operations, workforce development, customer service and energy policy. These collaborations benefit the communities we serve across the state – from safety, reliability and affordability, to energy efficiency and job creation.”
One of the hallmarks of the utility industry is the deep level of experience of the workforce. In utility companies throughout the country, it’s not unusual to hear about employees who have worked in the business for upwards of 40 years or more. That collective experience is clearly a competitive advantage for companies like Ameren Illinois, Peoples Energy, and Nicor Gas. With a highly skilled and experienced workforce, their operations are more efficient. Productivity is higher, service disruptions are resolved more quickly, and customers receive better service. Conversely, as the more experienced employees retire, it poses an operational challenge to replace that institutional knowledge.
Mark estimates that nearly 40-percent of the Ameren Illinois workforce is eligible to retire within the next five years. Together, he and his utility counterparts have been collaborating on ways to cultivate the pipeline of young workers who have the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) skills needed as the energy sector moves toward a high-tech delivery system.
“An aging workforce creates opportunity, but it means that you have to have a plan to prepare and train that next generation,” added Matthews, president and CEO of Peoples Energy, which delivers natural gas to more than one million customers in the City of Chicago and northern suburbs. “Richard and Melvin and I have had many discussions about this issue and we’re looking at ways we can work together to expand the pool of workers for the benefit of all our companies.”
One thing that all three leaders are passionate about is the important role their companies play in building stronger local communities. Non-profits are the fabric that connect people in need to the services that can meet those needs. With state and local government budget constraints, many of these organizations are relying on the generosity of businesses now more than ever.
“We all know that we’re only as strong as the communities where our employees live and work and where our customers call home,” said Mark. “It would be all too easy to simply spread the dollars throughout the community without paying attention to who is putting the funds to best use. That’s why each of us approach charitable-giving like a business.”
“The size of our companies provides an opportunity for the three of us to demonstrate we can be successful at introducing new approaches to address old issues,” added Matthews.
The significance of three African-Americans leading three large utilities in one state at one time is not lost on the three men, nor is the unique opportunity they must capitalize on in order to influence others.
“We’re all different, which is a great thing,” said Matthews. “We have different personalities but similar goals. I’ve learned from those two guys how to approach something in a way that is unique from my own way of thinking.”
“I don’t know of any other situation like it in the country,” said Williams. “To be a role model for other African-Americans and show them how to walk the same path to success is a tremendous privilege. I know we don’t take that responsibility lightly.” Illinois business and government leaders also know that the state is fortunate to have three strong executives leading an important sector.
“The energy landscape is changing so rapidly,” said Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly A. Lightford. “Richard, Charles and Melvin all have a strong vision for what the integrated energy delivery system will look like in 10 or 20 years. The fact that they all came along at the same time has been a huge benefit for the industry and for energy consumers.”