Morgan O’Brien’s vision wins over his employees at Peoples Natural Gas

 

When Marcellus Shale drilling began in Western Pennsylvania, Morgan O’Brien wanted to be part of that resurgence. He knew the development of natural gas would create growth opportunities.

As CEO of Duquesne Light Co., O’Brien was already involved in economic development and community support — something he not only believes in, but finds to be good business. So when an investment fund looked to buy the gas utility in Pittsburgh, O’Brien made his pitch.

“I shared with them my belief that the utility could play a meaningful part in helping the region grow, and in doing that, the business itself would grow,” he says. “It would have more customers — more people using gas — and gas would become more important to the different businesses. I described what that vision could look like and they completely embraced it.”

In 2010, he became the president and CEO of Peoples Natural Gas Co. LLC. Peoples had been a division of a larger electric holding company, Dominion Resources, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia.

“The first opportunity I had, which was my starting point, was to create a whole company, rather than just being an operating division,” O’Brien says.

Between adding a call center, administration and support, the new company, which had been legally around for about 125 years, brought 300 new jobs to Pittsburgh. More importantly, it was forged around a new identity.

“We created a simple vision statement that said: The reason we exist is to make our customers’ lives better, whether it is a residential customer or a business customer,” O’Brien says.

A lot of people view utilities like government.

“We don’t necessarily, because we’re a regulated monopoly, treat customers like a retail company should treat its customers — somebody who can leave you or buy product from someone else,” he says.

Even today, O’Brien and his leadership team spend time convincing employees that Peoples needs to add value to every customer it serves.

But it’s easier to get that buy-in from both his employees and investors because the results have proved O’Brien’s point. In almost eight years under his leadership, Peoples has grown from 500 employees to nearly 1,500. It’s also selling more gas than ever, going from 350,000 customers to more than 750,000.

You’d better believe it

It’s one thing to talk about running a company differently — with a focus on partnering with customers — but it takes time to show it.

O’Brien says in the beginning, employees who had been part of the operating company or came from other utilities didn’t understand what he was saying and how deeply he meant it.

“You have to believe in your heart what you’re doing, and you have to recognize that it’s a long journey to get a company and employees to embrace a vision and values of what you are and how you want to do things,” he says.

O’Brien always looks at people with challenges and thinks that he could easily be that person. Whether he’s supporting a cause personally or Peoples is participating in an initiative to help the region in the long term, that compassion sends a message to his employees.

But cultural change takes time and persistence. People will resist. That’s why authenticity is so important.

Business leaders will hear a thousand reasons why employees want to continue to do things the same way, O’Brien says. Things like: We’re busy. We don’t have time to think differently and investigate new ways; we barely have time to do the things we have to do now.