Mary Powell, former CEO at Green Mountain Power (2 min read)

Mary Powell, voted in 2019 as the best utility executive in the United States, has led Green Mountain Power for 12 years, before stepping down in January 2020. We talk to her about her artistic background, being the “accidental executive”, and her firm belief that the Green Mountain Power “needed to become the Ben and Jerry’s of the utility world”.

CHARGE: Mary, tell us about your background?

Mary Powell: I am from an artistic home. I grew up in New York City as the youngest daughter of an actor. Having graduated from a specialized High School for music and art, I then went on to a liberal arts college. I call myself “the accidental executive” because I’m not one of those people whose dream was to be in corporate America. It was quite the opposite – you could say I fell into it.

CHARGE: How did you become CEO of Green Mountain Power?

MP: I went to work for an amazing start-up in New York City that grew from $200 million to $3.5 billion in the seven years I was there. By then I was in my late twenties and had decided to move to Vermont. Again, I had a bias against being in corporations and started two businesses. I was offered the job at Green Mountain Power and after turning it down numerous times, said yes, and then was inspired and empowered to lead a dramatic reinvention of the company and the culture.

CHARGE: What were some of the changes you introduced as CEO?

MP: I remember reading prior to being hired that the company was asking for a big rate increase, of around 16%. At the same time, during my interviews, the culture within the company struck me as bloated and bureaucratic. The company was actually under a lot of financial distress. I pitched to the then CEO, a complete and absolute transformation of the company. We drove around $8 million out of the corporate cost structure, shrunk the workforce from 340 to 190 people, sold all the corporate offices and moved into a service center. It had a colorful warehouse feel and by the time I became CEO years later, I ended up sharing a stand-up desk with 3 people. We built the biggest wind farm in Vermont and made Rutland, Vermont, New England’s solar energy capital. And in a real David and Goliath move, we acquired the state’s largest investor-owned utility, which was twice our size. In parallel, our customer satisfaction ratings went up from 60% when I joined, to 94% when I left. I would call it an absolute cultural transformation.

CHARGE: Do you think you were able to achieve all this because you came from a non-utility background?

MP: Yes. I remember my COO saying that what made me so effective as CEO was a disdain for the traditional utility. To give you an example, every utility office I had visited in the United States, used some version of brown, gray, blue or black, as part of their corporate identity. But, if you visit Green Mountain Power you see really vibrant primary colors. We have a yellow wall, a red wall, an orange wall. I was really focused on how to bring color, creativity, and that sense of energy within the building, energy to the people providing a service to the customers. So for the first five years if you asked our average employee “what is Mary up to, what is the company trying to do”, they would say “trying to become an un-utility.”

CHARGE: How did you convince people in your company to take branding seriously?

MP: I am a firm believer that your brand is the result, not the beginning. I remember saying to the previous CEO “we need to become the Ben and Jerry’s of the utility world.” Their phenomenon is based on building a culture and a brand around their products, that made you want to love them. So my first message, right up through my last message, has always been “culture eats strategy so how do we go about creating an organization that is doing things, which makes customers want to love us”. In other words, as we’re a monopoly utility franchise in Vermont, how do we become the company that people will write to the regulators about, saying “I want to be able to become a customer of Green Mountain Power”.  To me it would mean that we’ve created that much love.