How does an IT professional end up in a very engineering-driven profession such as utilities? Wes Kelley knows his story is one that requires some explanation.
“I worked in IT in the 90s, when the internet was taking over and becoming what it is today,” Kelley, President and CEO of Huntsville Utilities, tells The CEO Magazine. “The little community I was a part of was looking to start a broadband project and they decided that their local electric utility would be a good asset. And that’s how I started working in utilities.”
Soon Kelley was, as he says, the number one guy there.
There are a lot of geeks in Huntsville and we embrace it, we’re very proud of that.
“Then I went up the road to another utility that provided more opportunity for my family and education,” he says.
In 2017, the chance to move to Huntsville, Alabama presented itself. Seeing a “unique and dynamic community”, he didn’t hesitate to say yes.
As an infrastructure company, Huntsville provides electricity, water, natural gas and fiber services to a population of more than 400,000.
“This is a community on the move,” Kelley enthuses. “The city of Huntsville has dubbed itself a smart place. That’s their slogan, but it’s true.”
A typical small town in Alabama until the 1950s, it became the center of the beginning of the United States space program when 118 German rocket scientists relocated to Huntsville after surrendering to the Americans during World War II. The city soon became known as Rocket City.
“Huntsville is still the center of space propulsion in America,” Kelley says, noting that NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is located there. “But increasingly, the FBI has a very strong presence here. They’re even referring to it as HQ2.”
Then there are the global names who have flocked to Huntsville on the back of these strong credentials, including Boeing, LG, Mazda and Toyota.
“We’re a very engineering-driven community and there are a lot of really smart people who live here,” he explains. “There are a lot of geeks in Huntsville and we embrace it, we’re very proud of that.”
Scale to need
In his capacity as CEO of the local utility company, Kelley knows it is essential to scale to meet the needs of such a community.
“We have been very focused on growth and on changing customer expectations,” he reveals. “It’s very easy to think of utilities, especially distribution utilities like ours, as being very straightforward: flip on a light switch, turn on a faucet, fire a range and you’re good to go.
“But as customers, we’ve all become accustomed to having things in our pockets that tell us everything we need to know immediately – and we get frustrated if we can’t find and do something with that information at the drop of a hat.”
Essentially, we need to be able to provide the same level of service that people expect from large multinational corporations.
That means that even “boring businesses like utility distribution and services” have to embrace technology, he adds.
“We have to rise up and meet higher levels of customer expectation through visibility, access, information and control,” he stresses. “Essentially, we need to be able to provide the same level of service that people expect from large multinational corporations.”
At the same time, Kelley understands the need to stay out of sight, out of mind.
“One thing I tell my employees here is that, when we do our job right, no-one thinks about us,” he says. “Unfortunately, when people think about their utility provider, it’s usually not for good reasons. It’s usually because something isn’t working, or that they’re digging up the bushes in my front yard or my bill is way too high.”
Its job is to stay low-key and provide a foundational service that enables Huntsville to be successful, he explains. To ensure that, the organization has been working on improving the rigor with which it plans and executes its projects, writing clearly defined policy standards and procedures that are accessible to everyone in the organization.
We have to stay true to our plans and then execute dependably so that we can control cost and provide the service that’s required.
“In our line of work, it’s easy to think that we just set poles and run wires and lay pipes, but all that has to fit within a larger plan that is compatible with where the community leadership and state and regional leadership wants to go,” he says.
The challenge for Kelley is to think big picture, but in a way that is cost-effective for his customers.
“There’s always a balance between resiliency, reliability, features and cost,” he reflects. “We know that customers don’t choose us. But because they live here, they’re going to pay for that. And so we need to keep pushing forward and we have to keep the costs measured so that we are building incrementally in the right direction.”
The key, he says, is all the planning going on behind the scenes.
“We’re not the kind of organization that’s necessarily going to launch on some massive wham-bam construction project,” he points out. “No, we have to lay out a long-term plan, build consistently in the right direction over time, not zig-zagging around changing priorities.
“We have to stay true to our plans and then execute dependably so that we can control cost and provide the service that’s required.”
Currently, Kelley is faced with another issue being felt across his sector.
“The electric industry in the United States is really suffering right now from a lack of transformers,” he says.
And he’s not talking about the big transformers in substations and factories. “The little green boxes that are out in neighborhoods have been incredibly hard to get hold of and that’s been Huntsville’s limiting growth factor.”
We’re stewards of public resources and it’s about being good ones. It’s that simple.
Asking for consistency rather than “working a miracle”, as he describes it, from key suppliers has been key to managing the shortage.
“If they can tell me they will ship me a certain number each week, then good. I can plan, I can set expectations and we can manage the process,” he says.
As a public infrastructure company, Kelley is aware that it’s easy to get bound up in bureaucracy.
“The challenge we have is staying nimble and responsive,” he reveals. “We need to be able to answer those why questions to our customers and staff.”
In a business that can be fairly cut-and-dried, fairness is entrenched as a core value, even if its subjectivity makes it difficult to define.
A Focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Along with changing customer expectations, Kelley is also aware that employee expectations are shifting too, and meeting them is key to the company’s growth plans.
“We are in Alabama and certainly have a lot of history here and we need to be focused on embracing diversity and inclusion and accountability across our organization and really lean in with this community to do what’s right to make it one that everyone not only feels welcome in, but is eager to join – from all over the world,” Kelley says.
“One of the simple ways that I define it is to have a reason that you can articulate,” he explains. “Someone may still disagree with it, but at least you had a reason for it.”
Other values include to do what’s right, and to get better every day. “It’s easy in this business to just crust over. We’re not going to do that,” he insists.
Huntsville has been in business for more than 80 years and, under Kelley, it is preparing for the next 80 – and beyond.
“We have to operate in a way that we are leaving it well for the next set of people that are going to sit in this seat and do this job. For the people that are going to live in these homes and work in these businesses,” he says. “We’re stewards of public resources and it’s about being good ones. It’s that simple.”