ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore on the smart grid and learning to teach, not do
Anne Pramaggiore took over as Commonwealth Edison CEO a year ago, in the midst of one of the great transitions in the electric company’s 120-year history.
In 2011 the utility got legislative approval to build its so-called smart grid, a $2.6 billion system upgrade that would outfit Chicago homes and businesses with meters that monitor electric usage remotely and give ComEd real-time outage reports.
To pay for it, ComEd has asked to raise rates every year through 2017, adding about $3 per month to the average electric bill. Gov. Pat Quinn and consumer advocates have fought the increases, delaying the smart grid rollout.
A theater major turned corporate lawyer, Pramaggiore, 54, is the first woman to run ComEd, a peculiar business with one foot in the profit-obsessed private sector and one in Illinois’ dysfunctional public sector.
Grid visited Pramaggiore to ask her what that’s like and to find out what she’s learned in her first year as the boss.
Grid: Do you view smart grid deployment as inevitable?
AP: I think it’s something that we have to do. It’s something we ought to want to do. One of the challenges with the smart grid is that the focus has been so much on the smart meter and yet there’s so much more to it. . . . We’ve got the Chrysler plant up in Belvidere; their body shop is all robotics. They have like 780 robots, they change tools in 45 seconds and they can do three different models. And so they’re much more sensitive to disruptions on the power grid — not just outages but voltage depressions, which will throw microprocessing equipment off so they’ll have to reprogram. [Reliability] means a lot to these customers.
So our big job is trying to get the grid to match where the economy is going and do it in a way that supports economic growth in our region. And there’s such a shift right now that if you’re not one of the regions that’s investing in [smart grid technology], you’re at an economic disadvantage in the future, because we see customers looking for high-reliability areas.
Grid: ComEd is a for-profit company, a subsidiary of publicly held Exelon, but you’re also a regulated utility. That means when you want to raise your prices, you have to ask the government’s permission. And whereas most businesses have three main constituencies — customers, owners, employees — you also have to satisfy regulators and legislators. Talk about what that’s like.
AP: This is an industry that moves pretty slowly, and so I think you have to have a certain amount of patience. It doesn’t mean you don’t drive change — this industry needs change and I’m all about driving it — but there’s a lot of people you have to bring along with you. We have more stakeholder groups than many other businesses and you know, everybody’s got to be with you, so it takes some time.
Grid: Before you became CEO a year ago, you were ComEd’s president. You had worked closely with the previous CEO, Frank Clark, so you mostly knew what you were getting into. Tell us something about being CEO that’s surprised you.
AP: I was surprised by how fast this company can move. When the smart grid bill got passed [in 2011] we had to hit the ground running. And I think we did 25 percent more work that year than we’d ever done before, and that was just in the hard-core capital investment side. We also started to restructure our customer experience; we put in texting and iPhone apps, and enhanced our website and Twitter, and just opened up all these channels to the customer. This is a mature business, and as I told you, you have to be patient. But I mean, this company got going.
As CEO you [also] shift from a doer to a teacher. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out. You should be less of the person who’s getting work done and more of the person who’s teaching people around you how to get it done and how to carry forward — you’re developing your people. My job, in part, is to make sure my senior team of eight people have opportunities to take my job eventually. I’m not the doer anymore. I’m the person who creates the vision, and then the teacher, the guide to getting people there.
Grid: What’s your biggest problem as CEO?
AP: I think the biggest challenge is not to get so much going that you don’t get anything done. We’re working on so many fronts at once. You have to prioritize, and you can’t put too much on an organization at one time.
And right now we’re rebuilding the system, redesigning our customer area [online], adding all this new technology to make it easier for our customers to reach us.
When you’ve got so much change coming on in an industry, the big challenge is getting the priorities right.