An interview with USMA’s 2020/2021 President
In honor of USMA’s 25th anniversary, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Julie Elliott, incoming President of USMA and Contracts Manager, Salt River Project. She shared some thoughts with me on the utilities industry today: how it has been impacted by the pandemic; how USMA is pivoting in response; and how it will continue to provide the experience USMA members have to come to expect.
Sarah Holliman (Sarah): Tell me a little about yourself.
Julie Elliott (Julie): I spent nearly 30 years in land development and construction before joining the utility industry. I have been with Salt River Project (SRP) for the last 12 years and am currently serving as the Contracts Manager for the Generation Engineering team for Major Projects. One of the most significant things I’m working on right now is retiring and decommissioning the Navajo Generating Station to turn the land back over to the Navajo Nation. It’s been quite the project, and I’m honored to be part of the team doing this important work.
Sarah: What personal interests have you spent a little more time exploring since the pandemic began?
Julie: I do a lot of crafting and enjoy everything from crochet, sewing and cooking to woodworking, gardening, fishing and hunting. I also like to prospect for gold and get out and get lost in the desert! With two grown daughters and three granddaughters, I have plenty of time and companions to enjoy it all. I like to teach myself how to do things. For example, I taught myself how to can and have done a lot of that with my granddaughters. It is important to me to learn these skills and to pass them on. As a volunteer, I have been cooking for those in need in my community with friends at a local church. So many people in the restaurant and hospitality industries have lost their jobs – this is one of the ways I’m trying to support our local heroes.
Sarah: How long have you been part of the USMA Board?
Julie: I joined the USMA Board in 2015. I attended the 2014 USMA conference in Nashville with my Senior Director who was on the USMA Board at the time, Carrie Young. As she became busy with work responsibilities, I was asked to take her SRP seat on the board.
Sarah: Tell me about the USMA Board.
Julie: The USMA Board currently has 46 members – 23 are from utilities and 23 from suppliers. The balance of utilities and suppliers has been important to USMA from the beginning and it’s something that makes us pretty unique. Utility supply chains work hard to ensure engineers and crews have the materials and equipment they need to provide reliable power to our customers. Utilities, together with suppliers are also at the forefront, developing new technologies and creative solutions to meet efficiency and sustainability goals, keep rates low and improve the services we provide. Joining forces as the Utility Supply Management Alliance to develop our annual conference, we bring experts on both sides of the equation together to address current concepts and issues. The conference provides participants the opportunity to confront concerns impacting their businesses, share ideas and solutions and look toward the future. Networking opportunities allow them to form new relationships, collaborate on issues and discuss opportunities throughout the year. Working together is an imperative.
Sarah: Do you think the importance of staying up to date with the industry has been changed by COVID-19? How has COVID-19 impacted the industry?
Julie: One thing that hasn’t changed in the new world of COVID-19 is that people still need reliable power. Keeping abreast of industry changes is more important than ever. Literally, overnight we saw our revenue and customer base change. Much of the historical revenues for utilities come from businesses that were suddenly no longer operating. Many office buildings in the Phoenix metro area are still nearly vacant. Businesses are closing. And, in many cases, people who still have jobs are working from home, so revenue streams shifted.
On top of that, many residential customers have lost their jobs and now can’t pay their bills. Utilities have suspended disconnects for non-payment and are assisting customers in finding resources. This requires us to consider many different scenarios. As an industry, how do we support our customers when we no longer have the same revenue stream? And how do we deal with the situation when businesses come back online over time – some completely, others slowly and some not at all? What if COVID-19 resurges and there is no effective vaccine? How are our communities going to see their way through these events financially? Like many other businesses, utilities have cut costs and found more efficient ways of doing things. Working together with our communities and suppliers, utilities will employ innovative solutions and help our neighbors manage through these challenges.
Most utilities are not allowing their employees to travel. Many are not replacing people as they retire or leave the company. And because employees are required to do more with less, teams are tapping into more creativity. At SRP we’ve reduced our facilities expenses with many of our nearly 5,000 employees working from home. We’ve weathered the storm pretty successfully so far and have kept the lights on – for our customers and ourselves. So, in short, the utility industry is looking for ways to economize, support customers who are struggling and employ more creative ways to meet efficiency and sustainability goals during these challenging times.
Sarah: How has the global economy impacted utilities in North America?
Julie: We’ve seen a reduction in manufacturing all over the world because of COVID-19. As a result, the utility industry has struggled to acquire the materials and equipment we need…and the various utilities are all competing for similar materials. In Arizona we’re still seeing a lot of growth. Our residential real estate industry has been going strong even though we’re in a middle of a recession – but how do you provide all the equipment needed to build that infrastructure for new subdivisions right now? That is a challenge. Recent natural disasters across the country – hurricanes, tornadoes, extreme heat – make the challenge of securing necessary materials and equipment even more difficult. All these dynamics coming together at the same time are causing a fascinating complexity that we have to get through with creativity and flexibility. At the end of the day, utilities are just not good at standardization. There’s little consistency in materials and equipment across the country. We’ve all designed our systems, in many respects, a little bit differently. Some systems have been around for a long time. Other infrastructure is newer and more modern. So now we’re in this situation where we are competing for limited materials, but each utility may need them to be manufactured just a little bit differently to meet system requirements. As an industry, we may need to consider finding ways to utilize more standardized equipment to manage future demands of continued growth and new technology.
Sarah: Other than working from home, how has this impacted your people?
Julie: I think the biggest impact is the lack of personal connection. Look at young people in the industry. They have been trained to build relationships through face-to-face interactions. Now we are meeting on Zoom and Teams – allowing someone to literally mute you. The career ladder and how it is negotiated is changing. How do you effectively compete with others? How do individuals showcase their skills when it’s harder to build rapport? Relationships go a long way toward getting things accomplished when building a career.
Sarah: Is the pandemic rewriting business practices? Or just disrupting normal?
Julie: The pandemic is temporary…at some point, we’ll come out the other side. But there are a lot of questions we need to address before that occurs. What will the future look like and what needs to change between now and then? Utilities competitively award contracts to suppliers to ensure they provide customers with the lowest possible rates. Once awarded, the contract relationship plays a key role in ensuring reliable power delivery.
How are we going to manage our supply chains differently, when accomplishing these goals has largely been relationship-based? Can we create and maintain those same relationships virtually? Probably, but it’s not the same as shaking someone’s hand and looking them in the eye. We will all have to learn new ways of connecting. In the past, we relied on personal relationships and played off each other’s energy, concepts and ideas. When you are with someone and they have an aha! moment, you can literally see a light flash across their face…and when that happens, it is mind-blowing. Put that in context with the world today, where most people don’t even turn on their cameras. A lot of opportunity is lost when you can’t see someone’s face or read their body language. Often understanding is now dependent on a person’s writing skills – but a text or an email doesn’t replace that one-on-one connection. To build that trust now, we need to reframe our expectations and come up with alternative ways to nurture relationships.
Sarah: What is the greatest leadership lesson you've learned from the pandemic?
Julie: Don’t be afraid to challenge long-held beliefs and ideas. We are in a different time/place than we were a year ago. If you’re still fogging the glass, you have the ability to change anything. Work with others to find creative solutions to the problems and challenges you face and move forward. Be future focused. Don’t keep looking back.
Sarah: What is your greatest hope for USMA as you look towards the future?
Julie: We are leading the supply chain conversation for the utility industry and are facilitating forward-thinking conversations. There are technological changes on the horizon that we haven’t even envisioned yet, so my hope is that we – utilities and suppliers collectively – continue to solve problems, tackle challenges and write that future together.
Sarah Holliman is the head of marketing at The Trium Group, a consulting firm that operates at the intersection of strategy and leadership, and founder of Cantaré Creative, a marketing services company founded on the premise that marketing, when executed properly, is like a well-harmonized song. Prior to founding Cantaré, Sarah was the Chief Marketing Officer of the Sourcing Industry Group, a membership organization for Fortune 500 companies and the advisors that serve them. Prior to SIG, Sarah was the head of marketing for A.T. Kearney’s Procurement and Analytic Solutions line of business. Before making the shift to marketing, Sarah was a manager in A.T. Kearney’s financial institutions group practice and a business development officer and assistant vice president at NationsBank.