Livia Whisenhunt Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007
The decade’s first couple of years felt like a bad dream for Livia Whisenhunt. The founder and CEO of PS Energy Group Inc. was leading the energy provider through troubled water as it experienced serious losses, and waded through waters of change as the industry was deregulated and the company switched from Arthur Andersen to a new auditor in the midst of that firm’s problems. But despite all the issues, she didn’t lay people off and instead looked at every invoice and examined the minutia of the company, which she says is a lot of minutia when you do $90 million in business. Paying attention to the details helped, as she has since those difficult years, and she has grown the energy provider to 2005 revenue of $160 million. Smart Business spoke with Whisenhunt about why she acts first and thinks later, and how that benefits her company.

Act quickly. Do it now — talk about it later. I like to have an idea of most of the facts. Then I’m very intuitive, so I usually go with how I feel about something also. One has to act upon ideas and do things now and talk about them later, as opposed to a paralysis-by-analysis-type method.

If I always knew I was going in the right direction, I’d probably be a gazillionaire as a consultant, but I don’t necessarily always know. You have to trust your instincts. Learn to trust your instincts, and the way you do that is when you second-guess yourself and then it turns out you were right the first time. That’s how you learn to trust your instincts.

The decision you make today, you may make another decision to do something different tomorrow. Because you decide something, it doesn’t mean it’s etched in stone.

Business is a dynamic, evolving entity, so you have to constantly be making decisions, even if it’s decisions about the same thing you made previously. You can’t do things just because that’s the way you’ve always done them.

Be open to change. Treat your business sort of like you would anything changing — whether it’s fashion or trends or whatever, you have got your traditional, classic-type things that work, but you have to embellish them with your trendy, vogue things that make the individual what they are, or your home what it is, or a building what it is. That’s what makes your business what it is.

Talk to customers. The part the customer sees in the field, we constantly QA [quality assurance] that, so at least what the customer is seeing is quality.

Solicit input from your customers about the service level you’re providing. Don’t be afraid to be criticized. We solicit criticism.

We do random Q&As looking for problems because it’s not just us that have contact with the customers. We use common carriers and maintenance providers, so we wanted to know how the people that we selected to be an extension of our company are performing, as well.

The only way you know if you’re performing is to ask. That’s all you can do is find out if you have a problem out there. It’s usually the third-party vendor that’s causing the problem, so you need to solicit your customer’s opinion of how those people are performing because that’s what your customer is seeing out in the field.

Hire loyal people. I don’t really look at, ‘Does this person have an MBA in accounting,’ or this, that and the other. If I need a programmer, he certainly has to have the expertise of what we’re looking for in a programmer, but generally, I look for somebody who appears to have good instincts, who appears to be quick on their feet and has broad, versatile abilities.

When I go through resumes, I look at how long somebody stays with somebody. I don’t want to hire somebody who’s just going to immediately be looking for a job on the Internet. I want to look for someone who has stayed with the company and worked with them, believed in them.

Pinpoint bottlenecks. I’m certainly not a programmer, but I know all the workings of the business. I know what works and what does-n’t work. I can pinpoint bottlenecks and try to work things out.

You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and the hardest part is being able to admit it. That’s usually where that bottleneck occurs. Where that usually occurs is the department who’s getting the burden of the growth.

Pass your enthusiasm on. Decide the direction you want to go and just keep plugging away at it. Try to instill that in everybody else.

A lot of times it’s hard, but nobody’s going to be the CEO, especially if you start the business like I did. I’m always going to be the best salesperson because it’s my company, but you hope and surround yourself with people that can pick up a little bit of your style and a little bit of the direction you want to go to acquire clients and expand your business.

Don’t give up. Never say never. Every leader you see has had their share of rejection. Just forge ahead.

You go through sales slumps and you go through sales take-offs, but it doesn’t always work. If you sell something like we have, which is a value-added product, it’s a long sale. You just have to stick to it.

Treat employees well. Employees are going to be the lifeblood of the company. Treat them very well. I pay day care and health care. We pay very competitive salaries. It’s a casual environment.

We generally give bonuses based on performance, and I encourage someone to come to me if they see something that’s not right. I don’t think it’s appropriate to give someone a financial bonus every time they find something that’s not quite right.

Give a bonus as a performance incentive annually, based on the overall performance. Recognize or recall that employee’s contribution to the profits.

Have integrity. Always make your decisions as if you know somebody’s watching you and everything you do. That’s basically integrity and behaving in a way when no one’s watching as you would when everybody’s watching.

HOW TO REACH: PS Energy Group Inc., (800) 334-7548, (404) 321-5711 or