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News & Press: FOCUS

Leading Consumers Energy into the Future

Wednesday, July 5, 2017  
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Patricia K. Poppe assumed the reins as president and chief executive officer at CMS and Consumers Energy in July 2016. She is a Jackson native and has spent the last six years at the Jackson-based utility. Poppe sat down with FOCUS magazine recently and shared her thoughts about Consumers Energy today and into the future.

FOCUS: You are the first female CEO in the 130-year history of Consumers Energy. Big deal? Little deal or not deal at all?

Poppe: I guess it’s a big deal. [Laughs] It’s a big deal – but I’m not alone. We have a great team of women executives on our board and within our company. In fact, we are identified by Ernst & Young as the number three most gender diversified utility in the nation, both as a result of our board makeup as well as our executive team. So it’s not a surprise that a woman would lead Consumers Energy, given our gender diversity within the company, but it certainly feels like an honor for me to be able to lead this great company.

FOCUS: You have been a big supporter of energy efficiency programs. It seems counterintuitive for a utility company to support programs that would lower its own sales. Why so much focus in this area?

Poppe: We have a commitment to people, planet and profit – and so in this case, our commitment to reducing energy use is part of our focus on both affordability for customers (people) – if they use less energy, their bills are more affordable – and for the planet, because the cleanest kilowatt is the one we don’t use. Our obligation is to Michigan and having the most cost-effective energy supply is what we believe helps Michigan grow. We don’t succeed on the backs of our customers, we succeed when our customers succeed – whether they’re businesses, families or young college grads looking to come to Michigan and stay here – so we need competitive prices to make that a reality.

FOCUS: You have experiences in lean manufacturing which you are utilizing at Consumers. This is innovative for the utility industry. How is this helping the organization cut costs and be more efficient?

Poppe: Well, as a nod to our Michigan tradition and our automotive industry, we think that lean manufacturing has great applications for our company – though I will tell you in talking to my peers at other utilities across the nation, we don’t see it being applied like this elsewhere. We think it does create a comparative advantage for Michigan to have its energy company really focused on reducing or eliminating waste, at the same time that we’re improving the quality of service – which is the spirit of lean. Some people think lean is just about cost savings but it’s actually waste elimination and value creation for our customers. Finally, we have three goals around lean manufacturing: we want to get it right the first time, we want to get the job done on time and we want to do it for the lowest cost possible.

FOCUS: Historically, the utility industry has not always been as customer focused as other industries. That is changing. You have spearheaded the smart energy initiative. How is that program and others improving the customer experience?

Poppe: When we launched our smart energy program, we took it as an opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to our customers. We knew we would be at every customer’s home exchanging their meter and we wanted to create a positive customer experience. We are finding that customers who have gone through the meter exchange process have significantly higher satisfaction with us, which was a great lesson for us. We told them what to expect, who to expect, what time they’d be there, how the experience would go, and we delivered on those promises – and our customer satisfaction for people who have received their upgraded meter is improved by almost 40 percent, so we’re excited about the potential that program has provided for us to meet our customers where they are and improve their service.

FOCUS: You were instrumental in the enactment of the 2016 energy law, which includes the new renewable energy standard and encourages the adoption of new innovative energy technologies. How do you see this legislation impacting Michigan going forward?

Poppe: We think it is a really good policy for Michigan, and we congratulate the legislature and governor for getting it done. It featured bipartisan legislative support and wide support from industry and interest groups. We know that companies are making decisions where to locate every day, and they’re picking Michigan more and more often – we think this legislation makes it really clear that we have a commitment to a modern energy delivery system. This legislation allows us to both commit to affordable prices and more renewable energy – so we are excited. There’s a 15 percent renewable portfolio standard as part of that legislation and we expect to easily achieve that 15 percent and probably go beyond it because of our customers’ demands for more and more forms of cleaner energy.

FOCUS: You are a big supporter of FIRST Robotics and STEM. What do you feel businesses should do to help move the meter in STEM and STEAM education in Michigan?

Poppe: Well, we do love FIRST Robotics. My own kids participated in it and my husband is a mentor – so it runs in my family. Additionally, our company is a huge supporter because FIRST Robotics has figured out how to make science, technology, engineering and math extremely fun. This is not a science fair – there are mascots, music and stands in competitive arenas where the robots are going head-to-head, and it is very exciting. We have found for our company that by engaging with FIRST Robotics, we’re able to identify, attract and recruit young talent – but more importantly, by funding the program, we’re getting more kids into it so the pool of talent is growing in Michigan. We’re proud that Michigan has more FIRST Robotics teams than any other state in the nation, and part of that is due to our contributions – every new middle school team in the state gets a grant from Consumers Energy, and we think we’re an important part in creating that pipeline that leads now to more high school FIRST Robotics teams in the nation.

FOCUS: What does the next five years look like for Consumers Energy?

Poppe: One of the exciting developments for us is the implementation of our Consumers Energy Way and its application to our generation replacement strategy. We’re at an inflection point in our industry, retiring seven of our twelve older power plants, but that supply needs to be replaced. The landscape of the energy industry for Michigan is in transition. And so we deployed this methodology, or this mindset we call Clean and Lean, that we’re increasing the amount of renewable energy, encouraging customers to use less energy and doing what we call peak shaving or demand response. We have a new program called Peak Power Savers that allows customers to reduce their bill by using less power at peak times, so the whole state actually saves as we’re replacing infrastructure. We build fewer power plants and save everybody money, and customers also save at home because they’re using less energy – so it’s a win-win. And again, we think having the most competitive prices in Michigan is critical to Michigan growing, and so we really want to be very price competitive and attract companies and families to grow and succeed here. 

Click here to download the July issue of FOCUS. 

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