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Utility lessons from King Cake and small plastic babes

Everything I learned at the DistribuTECH keynote this morning I will now discuss in terms of king cake.

There are two fabulous outcomes when it comes to king cake, that tri-colored staple of the Mardi Gras scene here in New Orleans: (1.) good eats or (2.) good eats and you get all the prosperity (if you find the small plastic baby hidden inside the cake).

The first isn’t bad. The second is a bonus round, of sorts, but all that prosperity comes with a cost (at least around New Orleans): You’re required to bring the next cake to the party (or bring the whole party).

The annual DistribuTECH Conference brought the whole party to New Orleans this year and started the festivities with a talk about outcomes (though, sadly, not about king cake).

Host utility Entergy’s Vice President and COO Paul D. Hinnenkamp started the conversation advising everyone in the energy industry to keep a close eye on outcomes for all the lives each utility powers, from customers to employees, communities and owners, too—a decidedly delicate balance sometimes.

“How many of you woke up this morning and thought, ‘I need to buy some electricity today before I do anything else’?” he asked the audience.

It’s not what we do, of course. None of us as consumers—even those of us in the energy and utilities industry—think of electricity in commodity form in our personal moments (unless the bill’s high). We, instead, think of it in the outcomes that electricity provides: a well-lit bathroom, a warm shower, an hour in front of CBS This Morning, a perking coffee pot (just to name a handful of outcomes you may have experienced just this a.m.).

To make those outcomes happen—and to “power life,” as Hinnenkamp put it, this industry needs to make a few choice investments. His utility is focused on smarter tech and finding talent, as well as making that next-era thinking shift. (The first-era thinking shift in this industry was moving from “ratepayer” to “customer”; the second is moving the thinking about ourselves from “supplier” to “partner.”)

Hinnenkamp also emphasized getting in front of expected outcomes with customers as well—namely, what outcomes will they want in the future. Doing that requires a lot of planning for innovation and disruption without fully knowing all the details of which innovation will foil which disruption.

“We, as utilities, need to continue to explore how we change the lives of our customers. If this business is going to be disrupted, then why don’t we disrupt it ourselves?” he asked. “We need to figure out how to transform ourselves, how to capture that and deliver the outcomes our customers desire.”

He added, “What the utility of the future looks like is uncertain, but it is very much an opportunity.”

Terence R. Donnelly, President and COO of ComEd agreed with Hinnenkamp about that outcomes focus, couching it in terms of promises made, promises kept and promises to be expanded.

“We are not in the utility business anymore,” he told the keynote crowd. “We’re in a new era of power.”

Reinforcing Hinnenkamp’s insights,Donnelly spoke of  true utility transformation and the need to evaluate the role of the utility, reinforcing the current basic necessary infrastructure need and adding in more—building onto the ideals rather than replacing any.

“We will need to be more to our customer, to our communities, and to our stakeholders,” he said. “We need to participate in change, not fight it. And, I think we’re doing it. We’re not just in the energy business; we’re reframing our role, expanding the promises we made to the people we serve.”

He added, “I argue we’re now in the business of powering lives in our communities, in the business of making connections. As energy providers, we have a unique relationship with the communities we serve, and that interdependency will get stronger.  Our future is bright, indeed, in the new era of power.”


Get more insights on that new era of power this week at DistribuTECH. You can follow all the conference action right here.

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