Gregory Ebel has operated in a business environment of uncertainty and constant change for too long. He has worked hard to be at the forefront of his industry, helping people understand the important factors and circumstances in his business.
Ebel, president and CEO of Spectra Energy Corp., a Fortune 500 natural gas infrastructure company, operates in a regulated industry where things might not always go his way. Ebel makes numerous trips to Washington D.C. to be face to face with the legislators who set regulations and helps them understand how Spectra and other energy companies do business to allow for regulations that are fair and sensible for all involved.
“In a regulated business, obviously, what’s going on in Washington D.C. and in lots of states from regulatory overreach is our biggest challenge as a business and the uncertainty that that creates for our ability to invest,” Ebel says. “The pipeline business is a business that invests for 15, 20, 25, 30 years at a time. When you’ve got regulatory uncertainty and you’re trying to determine how good of an investment it’s going to be over time, that makes it very difficult.”
Spectra Energy employs 5,500 people, had operating revenue of $4.94 billion in 2010 and has $26.7 billion in assets, so it is critical that Ebel and the other Spectra executives fight the regulations that unnecessarily harm the business.
Here’s how Ebel communicates and educates his employees, legislators and others in the industry to help improve the uncertain environment.
Engage people in your business
Spectra is currently building a pipeline into New Jersey and New York that is critical to reduce the cost of energy for the people in that region and bring in new gas sources.
“It is only 15 miles long, and it will, from the time we sign the contract with the customers to the time we put it into service, take four years and cost $1 billion,” Ebel says. “If it was allowed to start and we’re two years into this, it could produce more than 5,000 jobs today without government support. Yet it is very difficult. In a country that needs a lot of jobs, in a country that needs cheap energy, in a country that is looking for clean energy, it’s amazing to me and I think a lot of people in different industries, how long it takes to get approvals.”
While there is no desire to get away from following good procedures and good regulation, the issue is the cost of regulation is far outstripping the benefit.
“That’s the big concern and the fight we have to have with the regulators and try to do it in as positive a manner as possible,” he says. “The natural gas industry in North America is undergoing extraordinary growth thanks to technological developments that have given the country a 100-year supply of natural gas at a time that it needs domestic energy, at a time that it needs domestic jobs, at a time that it needs cleaner energy, and that is a huge, huge game changer for the industry. Being able to manage within that is what it’s all about right now.”
In order to overcome the challenges of regulations facing certain industries, companies and CEOs need to be willing to speak to people about their businesses and talk about the issues they are facing and ways to make things better.
“I would say we do three things: engage, engage, engage,” Ebel says. “There are three elements to that. We engage with our employees. We’ve spent a lot more time in Washington D.C. making sure that legislators understand our business and the third area of engagement is our industry groups. We belong to things like the Interstate Natural Gas Association or the American Gas Association. We make sure that either I directly or other executives in the company are trying to muster the forces within our industry groups to make sure we are delivering a consistent message from the industry to government to prevent this regulatory overreach.”
It is that constant education of what’s going on inside Spectra, around the country, and in the energy industry that helps how government handles regulation and how an entire industry can work more efficiently.
“That’s been really critical,” Ebel says. “Generally, CEOs do not like spending time in Washington or state capitals, but it’s critical now. You have to engage with politicians who frankly, don’t seem to have a lot of foresight when it comes to creating regulation or understanding what’s truly going on in the economy.”
Spectra has been spending a lot of time educating not only politicians but its own employees, as well.
“We have what we call an ambassador program so that we can ensure that our employees have the best facts and the best information about the natural gas business and the really exciting changes and the jobs that we produce in the country, and we run a lot of employees through that,” he says. “So whether they’re at a cocktail party or rotary club or women’s auxiliary, they can speak about the company and the industry.”
No matter how you educate your employees or politicians about your industry, one thing has to remain the same: your message.
“You have to be consistent with your message to employees and be consistent with your message to government,” he says. “You need to constantly repeat that message and you have to engage. CEOs don’t like spending a lot of time dealing with government because it doesn’t generate revenue, but it really can generate speed to market. Speed to market for us means building projects faster, on time and on budget to serve our customers and that can be grossly restricted by regulations. So there is value in it, although it’s hard to see. More and more CEOs and C-suite executives need to spend time with our politicians to tell their story. We all like to stay below the radar and deal with our businesses, but when government is so much in your face and has so much regulation, it becomes a real necessity to be successful.”
You don’t have to fight regulations on your own. It is a huge advantage to join industry associations that have similar goals.
“Other than a few companies like GE, Ford, Dow, Microsoft or Berkshire Hathaway, if those companies say something, it might get picked up, but most companies, of which there are thousands and thousands, need the bulk of similar type companies coming together,” Ebel says. “For us, the biggest one we’re involved with is the Interstate Natural Gas Association, which is a group of companies with similar interests in a similar industry that come together. Because of that heft and the number of employees you represent, the amount of gas pipelines you represent, and the energy sources that you represent, you can have a bigger impact by speaking with one voice and one consistent message.”
Ebel became chairman of the INGAA this past October. It’s these types of connections that can make a big difference when you need it.
“We need more and more CEOs to be involved in those industry associations if they’re going to be effective in Washington. If you show your 80 percent of the industry a position on a policy or regulation, that has real resonance whether it’s with the White House or Congress; that’s why those associations are important. That’s why we put time into them and money and I think more CEO’s need to use their industry groups to mobilize an entire industry to get positive change.”
When it comes to getting people and, most importantly, employees to understand anything that is going on in your business, it is critical that you communicate and communicate often.
“The biggest thing is our ambassador program, which is educating our employees on what our business does,” Ebel says. “It’s amazing when you have thousands of employees, how many, through no fault of their own, don’t know exactly what you do. Everybody’s got a job inside the company and it’s good that they stay focused on that, but giving them a whole picture of what you do, they can become very valuable and powerful advocates for you.”
To get your employees more involved in your company you can’t make things complicated or they will lose interest. You have to make things simple and straightforward.
“We have a phrase here called the KISS method — keep it simple, stupid,” Ebel says. “We say, ‘Keep it simple, Spectra.’ We try to communicate very short and specific goals and messages for the employees. Most employees would know that we are trying to lead in three areas: safety and reliability, customer responsiveness, and profitability. By the end of 2012, we want to be leading our industry. That has been incredible in terms of focusing employees both in the field and in office positions. I think most CEOs know this, but we sometimes forget. Keep things very simple and have three to five messages and goals that the employees across the entire company can pursue and connect with. That’s a pretty valuable tool.”
Getting your message out to your employees is critical, but that message has to also go out to legislators who regulate your industry in order to create change.
“Most CEOs, no matter what industry you’re in, there is some form of federal government regulation,” Ebel says. “If you’re a public company, it’s the SEC. If you’re a company like Spectra, it’s the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which determines how quick your projects get approved, which determines how quick you build them, which determines how quick you take capital and turn it into revenue and serve customers. That’s a huge issue for us.
“Safety is our key license to operate. Particularly in this environment post-BP and oil pipeline spills, all of those often lead to knee-jerk reactions by government. So make sure that you are telling government your story and your safety standard is critical in terms of avoiding unnecessary regulation and there again meeting those goals of safety reliability, customer responsiveness, and profitability.”
Spectra doesn’t just express opinions every so often to legislators, the company has people full-time in Washington D.C. to really make its presence felt.
“We have an office in Washington,” Ebel says. “We have various consultants in Washington and many of us spend time in Washington, not just with politicians, but regulatory bodies too making sure they’re informed about what we do and being an adviser of choice to the government so when they’re thinking about issues they pick up the phone and ask Spectra, ‘What do you think about this?’ And they know they’re going to get relatively unbiased opinions, that they’re going to get constructive views and they’re going to get information that will be helpful for them to make policies. The worst thing is when government makes policies without having all the facts.”
It’s not enough to make a phone call to a politician or write a letter. You have to meet with legislators face to face and treat them like they are another customer.
“You have to go see them,” Ebel says. “You have to spend time with them. You’ve got to try and understand where they are coming from. What political pressures are they under? What public pressures are they under? Regulators are just another form of customer. What are their needs? What are they trying to achieve? How do you help them achieve their goal while at the same time making sure you achieve your goal? Treat the regulators like you treat your customers and try to get win-win solutions. That doesn’t mean you don’t have disagreements, because you have disagreements with customers every once in a while, but making sure you understand what their view point is gets you a lot further down the trail.”
HOW TO REACH: Spectra Energy Corp., (713) 627-5400 or www.spectraenergy.com
– Engage people in your business
– Join associations and groups that have similar interests
– Communicate your company’s message in order to create change
The Ebel File
President and CEO
Spectra Energy Corp.
Born: Ottawa, Canada
Education: He received a BA from York University in Toronto, Canada, and is a graduate of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.
What was your very first job, and what did that experience teach you?
My first job as a kid was a paper route. It taught me how to market and how to expand and how to make sure you bring in more revenue. That marketing to customers was a huge part of it.
Who is somebody you admire in business?
I’m fortunate to have an entire board of former CEOs. They have consistently over years provided great advice and between them, they have launched at least 20 CEOs.
What is your definition of success?
From a professional perspective, it’s seeing the families that work for Spectra continue to grow as individuals and be able to achieve their dreams for their families. If we can do that at Spectra safely, consistently and profitably, that’s success.
What is your favorite thing about the energy industry?
It’s constantly changing. I like that and the fact that it serves people quietly and consistently year in and year out.
What’s something that you are excited about for the future of energy?
I’m excited by the fact that North America has an opportunity now to achieve energy independence with a clean abundant fuel that just a few years ago we weren’t sure would be around as a foundational fuel.