One Bright Bulb
The CEO of Entergy Louisiana and Entergy Gulf States has mastered the industry she loves
The business model for a retail store or a restaurant is pretty easy to understand, but a utility business, as a quasi-public institution, is a strange beast. Luckily for us, E. Renae Conley, the president and CEO of Entergy Louisiana and Entergy Gulf States for the last decade, has mastered her industry and keeps the lights buzzing bright throughout our state.
A bank can turn down a loan and a boutique can target a narrow demographic, but by law an energy company has to open its doors to all. Because each utility is the only game in town, the business is highly regulated to protect the best interests of customers.
“Within their assigned territory, utilities have a responsibility to provide reliable power as economically as possible,” says Conley. “Then, regulators allow us to earn a capped, average rate of return. Each year, we file our annual costs and revenues. If we’re in the approved range, the rates are not changed. If we’re above that, energy rates are lowered, and if we’re below it, the rates are increased.”
This average return allows the utility to be viable and to qualify for the financing that funds its high annual costs. Since power plants and transmission lines don’t come cheap, Entergy always seeks investment. Even after a costly event like a hurricane, investors need to be reimbursed, because if they aren’t, Entergy will have a rough time raising capital for the future.
“We’d like the power to be on all the time,” she says, “but the system is so vast and has so much exposure to animals and the weather. In a case like Gustav, we worked to get the lights on as quickly as possible. All our creditors pay attention to these situations. After Katrina, Entergy New Orleans had to file bankruptcy. It had bills to pay but no customers.”
The structure of Entergy Corp. is somewhat complex, containing a number of independent utilities operating throughout Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Conley is actually in charge of power everywhere in Louisiana except Orleans Parish proper, but Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard parishes are in her jurisdiction. Her duties are wide ranging—entailing regulatory filings, employee supervision and meeting with customers, in particular with the management at large industrial facilities that demand a lot of power.
“If the power is off in your house, it’s inconvenient,” she says. “But when it’s out at a big plant, it affects their business and can interrupt important services. Entergy maintains an involved relationship with our major customers. We develop contingency plans, and field personnel are in constant contact with them.”
Conley also spends time on community initiatives. She sits on a number of boards concerning economic development for the state and its population, regarding education, housing, job creation and standards of living. Initiatives geared to low-income residents aim to help them pay their energy bills while also seeking to eliminate root causes of poverty. This work is good not just for the community, but also for growing Entergy’s business. After all, the better Louisiana is doing, the more people the state attracts, which is how Entergy grows its customer base.
Conley herself is a transplant. Born in Kentucky, she grew up in Indiana and went to college and business school there. “I had the good fortune of coming out of school and working for utility. I didn’t set my sights on it, but it ended up being a good match for me,” she says. “I think that’s probably because I’m more service-oriented than profit driven. But I have a responsibility to maintain a viable business, too. This industry requires you to balance the two and stay grounded to what people’s life experiences are.”
An important moment in her career came when an Indiana company for which she served in the investor relations department faced a hostile takeover, and she and her colleagues successfully thwarted it after several intense months. “Professionally, I learned to never give up,” she says. “For myself, it clarified how much I enjoyed this industry and believed in the importance of what we do, that I need to work for a company that has the values and belief systems that I do.”
According to her, Entergy fits the bill as well. She was hired in 1999, again for investor relations. Like all utilities, Entergy needs investors, but it did not have a close rapport with Wall Street at the time. Her experiences with the hostile takeover attempt gave Conley thorough knowledge of the terrain. She became CEO less than two years later.
And she’s been enchanted with her new home. She has two adult children who also settled in the state, one of them in New Orleans with Conley’s grandchildren. “Louisiana gets in your blood when you’re living here,” she says. “It’s a breath of fresh air. And I love the weather. I don’t know how I ever lived in cold. I love the diversity of the people and the culture. When I first came down here, I thought the food was so spicy. But now when I visit my mom in Indiana, I have to take a bottle of Tabasco.”