Austin Energy Sets the Curve

Stakeholders weigh in on top choice to lead utility

Austin Energy general manager finalist Larry Weis
Austin Energy general manager finalist Larry Weis (Photo by Nora Ankrum)

In the search for Austin Energy's new general manager, there's been a lot of talk about "learning curves," as in: Given the unique culture of Texas – and Austin in particular – the on-the-job learning curve for AE's next chief might be too steep for an outsider. Consid­ering that all three candidates on the original short list for the job hail from California, the issue has loomed large from the beginning, only growing more so now that City Manager Marc Ott has narrowed his focus to Larry Weis of Turlock, Calif. Of course, unlike the more tangible skills one might seek in the ideal candidate – technical proficiency, say, or executive experience – this question of whether or not Weis can really lasso and ride the local learning curve will remain unclear, and perhaps contentious, for some time. But last week, as Ott and a team of city officials and community representatives visited Weis in his hometown, they and others attempted not only to answer the question but, perhaps more importantly, to define what everybody's actually talking about when they speak so reverentially of Austin's so-called learning curve.

As one of the Turlock trip participants, the Rev. Joseph Parker of David Chapel Mis­sion­ary Baptist Church hoped to get a sense of Weis as "a visionary," he says. To successfully lead AE into the future, explains Parker, Weis must understand its history. "There are conversations that have been going on, events that have occurred, hurdles that have been overcome. It's important to know what the community has already said or done, how it has reacted," he says. "It doesn't mean that they aren't willing to reconsider some of the things that were considered in the past, but you also don't want to come to the community as if you are bringing them something and it's old news for them."

Throughout the interview process, AE's past – its struggles over the South Texas Project nuclear power plant, its pioneering efforts in green building and plug-in hybrids, the controversy over contracting with a biomass plant – has weighed heavily on the minds of stakeholders concerned that without institutional knowledge at its helm, AE may be forced to reinvent the wheel. "Over the last five years," says Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen, "there's been a real collaboration of environmentalists and clean tech companies around the idea of utilizing the smart grid as a way of reducing pollution, reducing costs, reducing the amount of electrical generation we have, and using our really smart people and increasingly idle high tech personnel here ... to make the products necessary for the new clean tech energy boom." With many holding their breath to see how those efforts – embodied most publicly in the Pecan Street Project – will contribute to defining the utility of the future, the fear is that a newcomer will spend so much time catching up that AE will lose its edge.

Smith compares AE's current challenges to the initial damming of the Colorado River in the late 1800s – which "created an economic boon because we took a problem and made it into an asset" – and the efforts of forward-thinkers in the Eighties to "attract the next generation of chipmakers." Similarly, says Smith, the Pecan Street Project "is looking to create the next generation of electrical appliances and tools ... through manufacturing things here in Austin." Through the combined purchasing power of AE and other Cen­tral Texas municipal utilities, Smith says, the Pecan Street Project envisions creating wealth throughout the region. "If we look at environmental solutions as ways to grow the economy, we all can make money off of the deal," he says. "It's a maturity in both sectors that have come to the realization that what's good for the economy is good for the environment and vice versa."

Because of this history, says Parker, running AE isn't "a matter of looking around, seeing who has the best practices. We are to be the best practice, which means that [Weis] has got to be able to ... look ahead where no one is yet." In talking to community representatives as well as staff and board members of the Turlock Irrigation District, where Weis is general manager and CEO, Parker says he has come to believe that Weis might be the visionary AE needs. "He is flexible in his intellectual curiosity to try to figure out how best practices can be established," Parker says.

Attorney Martha Smiley, who represented the business community during the panel interview process earlier this month, says that in her conversations with people in Tur­lock, she was "impressed with the consistency of high opinion of his leadership and his understanding of the electricity industry. ... They felt that he had the energy and the intellect and the innovative spirit to embrace this job." While Turlock is smaller and far more rural than Austin, Smiley said she felt confident that Weis has what it takes to "scale up" to Austin's standards and "lead a major transition." Though Weis has overseen four rate increases in his 10 years at TID, Smiley noted that TID has remained one of the state's "lowest-cost utilities," adding, "I think he will be sensitive ... about the need to remain affordable as we go through this transition."

Stakeholders here at home also say there's reason for cautious optimism. Smith, who was one of a group of environmentalists to participate in a recent conference call with Weis, says he appreciates his accessibility and green credentials, notably his concern about global warming and the costs of coal (which could force AE to act sooner than later if the recent threat of a lawsuit requires expensive pollution prevention upgrades at the Fayette Power Plant; see "Fayette, Don't Spray It" for more). While Weis "may not understand the opportunities here in Central Texas and how far we've come with our vision," says Smith, he grows "more comfortable" with Weis the more he speaks with him and is hopeful that he has the tools "to quickly get it and be able to lead this transition." It remains to be seen whether the city manager will agree. At press time, city spokesman Reyne Telles said that Ott was still in the "deliberating process."

Lest you thought the search for AE's next GM couldn't get more complicated, here's one more question that's up in the air: how to pronounce Weis' name. Weis says that in the past he has tended toward his father's pronunciation (which rhymes with "geese") but that his daughter pronounces the name with a long "i" (as in "ice"). Just as AE is in transition, so may be its likely next chief. Weis says that once he gets to Austin, he just might go with his daughter's preferred pronunciation. How's that for a visionary paving the way for the next generation?

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Austin Energy, Larry Weis, Marc Ott, Joseph Parker, Martha Smiley, Tom "Smitty" Smith

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