Usually when your natural gas provider decides to replace thousands of miles of pipeline, it spells potential inconvenience for customers. But when you’re working with Columbia Gas of Ohio, they’re one step ahead. That’s because President Jack Partridge keeps the company’s customers front-of-mind – which is pretty innovative in the regulated utility industry.
Because of this, Smart Business, US Bank and Blue Technologies named Partridge to the 2011 class of Columbus Smart Leader honorees. He told us how he maneuvers challenges like these with communication, setting his company apart with innovative service.
Give us an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.
The Challenge: Several years ago, in the interest of safety and reliability, we knew we needed to significantly accelerate the replacement of major portions of our 20,000-mile natural gas pipeline system in our 61-county service territory (capital spend of more than $2 billion during the next 20 years). We knew we were going to be in customers’ backyards and busting up pavement on the streets of the communities we serve more than ever before. We also realized we needed our regulators to authorize us to recover this investment of major capital in Ohio.
The Solution: We launched a proactive, comprehensive communication/education plan targeted to all our stakeholders – from one-on-one meetings with community and government leaders to presentations for civic organizations to bill stuffers and door hangers and news releases – all with the same message: ‘Yes, we are going to be visible in your community. We will minimize disruptions. The benefits are: first, safety and reliability, more jobs, property tax benefits to the community, economic development benefits, better sizing pipe to growth areas, less leaks, lower O&M expenses, etc.’
In terms of our regulators, we conveyed we will be investing more capital in Ohio than ever before, and the investment will enable us to keep our costs down.
To date, this program has been extremely effective. We have seen no material increase in complaints. I credit this to effective communication and very effective operations planning and execution.
In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?
We are innovators in the utility industry in terms of how we maximize value in a regulated environment and how we work with our customers.
Utility companies, being regulated, typically file rate cases to recover their costs from customers. This usually involves nine months or more of litigation (beating your customers up, in a legal sense, in a hearing room). We have adopted an innovative approach to this combative, unproductive process. We gather all our stakeholders around a table in a collaborative fashion prior to filing a rate case to find out what their needs are, be candid about our needs, and negotiate true win-wins. Our objective is to file a settlement with the PUCO for approval – ideally a multi-year agreement that’s agreed to by all parties. We have been successful – our most recent rate case was in 2008 and resulted in a settlement approved by the PUCO. This has allowed us to establish more positive relationships with our customers and regulators.
How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?
We serve the entire Central Ohio region and realize we have an obligation to not only supply customers with reasonably priced natural gas every day, but to be good community partners in terms of providing corporate, philanthropic and employee participation contributions. In terms of direct economic impact, natural gas prices are the lowest they have been in the last eight to 10 years. This has a huge positive impact on residential, commercial and industrial customers.
I personally serve as chairman of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce board, and I am a member of the Columbus2020 board and the Columbus Partnership. These require a great deal of time, but it’s time well spent. The Columbus2020 Economic Development initiative is for real and will provide great value for the investment in our Central Ohio region.
How to reach: Columbia Gas of Ohio, www.columbiagasohio.com