Conducting a positive charge
Feb 25, 2013 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Every organization has its low point. For Commonwealth Edison, it was in summer 2011 when a storm left more than 850,000 people without power, some for days.
Customers flocked to the phones for information and were shocked to find that they were not only in the dark, but in the dark ages. They waited on hold for hours, only to hear the same message every 45 minutes. They couldn't find out when their power would be restored, what had caused the outage or how many other people were affected.
Residents raged about ComEd on Facebook and Twitter and to mayors, state representatives, and fire and police departments. Dealing with wires that blocked roadways, nursing homes without power and angry residents with spoiled groceries, these public officials turned back to ComEd -- only to receive misinformation or no information at all.
For soon-to-be-instated CEO Anne Pramaggiore, it was a blaring wake-up call: Customers hated the utility.
"We heard our customers loud and clear that summer," Pramaggiore said. "Everything else in the world is instantaneous, and they don't understand why they have to sit and wait without power or information."
Fast-forward to today, and customers can text, call, look online, use an iPhone or Android app or communicate with a ComEd representative on Twitter or Facebook. In less than a year, the company's smartphone app has generated more than 1 million transactions and 59,000 downloads.
"We're on a mission to improve service to our customers," said Pramaggiore, 54.
The good news is that the company has nowhere to go but up. Since 1999, ComEd has consistently ranked among the worst utilities in the Midwest for customer satisfaction in surveys conducted by The American Customer Satisfaction Index and J.D. Power and Associates.
Two months ago, the company had zero pending complaints for the first time in its history after working its way out of backlog in "the thousands," according to Miguel Ortega, director of customer technology and support for ComEd.
"Anne gets it," he said. "I've been around for quite a while. I've been through a lot of CEOs. She has made it a priority to put the customer in every aspect of our business, which is a huge cultural change."
The shift comes at a time when ComEd's parent company, Exelon Corp., is squeezing its three regulated utilities for revenue. The money Exelon receives for producing its mostly nuclear-powered electricity is not what it once was because of increased competition from natural gas and wind.
As a regulated utility that is paid by customers to deliver electricity regardless of which supplier they choose, ComEd is in a position to provide a steady, predictable stream of income to its parent if it can garner support from the General Assembly to pass legislation that will benefit its bottom line. But to get there, Pramaggiore must convince legislators -- the same ones who have spent years fielding complaints from constituents about ComEd's abysmal service -- that the company can change.
Legislation related to funding the so-called smart grid, passed into law in 2011 as part of the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, is making its way through Springfield and is worth about $1 billion to ComEd.
Within four years, Pramaggiore wants the utility that customers love to hate to be the utility that customers actually like, a plan she has spent countless hours communicating to every employee in the company.
"Whether you'll love your utility, I don't know. It's not the kind of business you ultimately love," said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board consumer advocacy group, a frequent opponent of ComEd. "We are encouraged and do think generally that her heart is in the right place. She does want to transform the company. Will that play out It's too early to tell."
While Pramaggiore's lawyerlike ability to boil down complex regulatory issues is impressive, her power lies in her charm. Gracious and savvy, she laughs easily and often, winning over opponents with humility and a down-to-earth speaking style that inspires trust.
Gloria Castillo, a personal friend of Pramaggiore and president of Chicago United, said her ability to listen is one of her greatest assets.
"Anne is really one of the highest-ranking women in energy anywhere in the country, but you never get the feeling that she thinks about herself in a way that's different," she said. "She's so striking. She has a unique ability to be so present in a conversation."
Indeed, Pramaggiore, a soccer mom who fits in at a Paul McCartney concert as easily as in a contentious hearing in Springfield, is disarming in her remarkable ability to appear unremarkable. She described her childhood in Dayton, Ohio, as a "quiet, suburban upbringing with good schools," with a father who was a civil engineer and a mom who was president of the local PTO.
Pramaggiore, a voracious reader, devoured books about the Vietnam War and Watergate, captivated by the larger social and cultural changes they wrought.
Eventually, that fascination with history and policy would lead her to a career in law. But not straight away. She majored in theater at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she excelled in costume design and makeup.
"I really loved the group dynamic," she said. "You always had this very clear goal -- that was, to get the play done and get it done well."
Pramaggiore went back to Dayton after college and "just got a job." Over six years, she worked her way up in retail management, first in Dayton and later in Louisville, Ky.
Her then soon-to-be-husband, Michael Harrington, whom she met in college, was in business school at Ohio State. When he got a job offer in Chicago, she jumped at the chance to move.
"I didn't think I wanted to do retail forever," she said. "I pretty much decided I wanted to go down a different path."
She entered law school at DePaul University, a decision that would eventually lead her to work on antitrust law at McDermott Will & Emery. Impressed by her knowledge of competitive markets, ComEd recruited her to its legal department in preparation for a soon-to-be-deregulated electricity market in the state.
For the next 12 years, Pramaggiore won roles that afforded her greater and greater responsibility, rising to chief operating officer in 2009.
On becoming CEO, she said: "Nobody ever says, 'You're going to be the person.' They say, 'You have the potential,' and then they test you."
In retrospect, she said, she can see that Frank Clark Jr., ComEd's then-CEO, and John Rowe, who was chief executive at Exelon Corp., systematically exposed her to diverse parts of the business.
"There was no guidebook," she said. "But I had guides. Frank and John were those guides."
In the mid-2000s, she was asked to co-lead a team that ultimately would determine how power would be purchased on behalf of ComEd's customers post-deregulation. It was a high-profile battle, rife with politics, and Pramaggiore found herself under attack. It was one of many times she not only met but exceeded Clark's expectations.
"Some people react very poorly when they're not only professionally but personally attacked," Clark said. "She focused on how to fix it. I was very impressed by it."
Shortly thereafter, they placed her in charge of external affairs, a role that connected her with 415 municipalities in the service area. By then, she had seen nearly all sides of the company.
"The other piece of the puzzle was media," she said.
When a major storm hit in 2007, "I remember Frank said that morning: 'You're doing a press conference with the mayor, and they're going to talk about the impact to the city of Chicago.' And I'm like: 'When is this ' He said: 'In about 45 minutes.' I'd never done anything like that."
Pramaggiore was smart, Clark said, but so are a lot of people. Leaders will be under a microscope, they'll be challenged, and when necessary, they need to be able to take blame. In her, he saw a woman with a vision that others believed in.
"You know how you identify a leader " he said. "People are willing to follow them."
After deciding to meet directly with thousands of employees last year, Pramaggiore agonized about whether to ask the rest of her executive team to join her. Senior managers were already stretched thin working to implement sweeping regulatory changes.
"It was a challenging year. People worked really, really hard. I really had to think hard about whether I took people out to do an employee roadshow," she said. "But I finally decided, 'You know what You don't get another chance to be new.'"
Ultimately, Pramaggiore realized, there could be no way to communicate with customers if she couldn't get the employees fixing the outages onboard. This remains a difficult task for a company that has historically focused on operations and metrics.
"It's the old mode at work -- get there, get stuff done, get the customer back on, but don't really let them know we're getting them back on. We think that just because we did it as quick as we could, that makes everyone happy," said Bob Johnson, director of emergency preparedness at ComEd.
In the middle of a storm, in the dark, in lightning, Pramaggiore was suddenly asking employees to take an extra step before getting out of their trucks: Think about the customers on the other end and type into a computer system exactly where they are, the cause of the outage and when power might come back on.
Employees, she learned, were concerned they would be held accountable for anything they typed into the system and so they preferred not to enter anything at all.
Meanwhile, customer service representatives told her that their performance was judged on managing call volume quickly, and they felt they had to "break the rules" to help customers.
Her team has been working to change what some called a culture of fear.
"There's always a few who have their hands folded up and say, 'Eh, I don't know. I don't play on those computers,'" Ortega said. "It's a journey, you know "
Customers weren't the only ones on her relationships-to-repair list. At the urging of the Northwest Municipal Conference, a consortium of suburban mayors that produced a white paper on their complaints with ComEd, Pramaggiore laid plans last year for Joint Operations Centers that would open temporarily during severe storms.
Pramaggiore did 22 employee roadshows in 2012, not to mention numerous public speeches, television interviews, meetings with legislators, public hearings and municipal round tables with suburban mayors.
"I don't know how she does it, but she's everywhere and in front of everyone, and she's got some amazing stamina that I don't know that I've really seen before," Ortega said. "She's just such a relatable person at all levels. She can talk to people in the trenches and she can talk to people at the higher levels. She's not naive or assuming."
Pramaggiore is a 4:30 a.m. riser who admits her phone is the first thing she checks upon waking. She said that during an intense round of sessions in Springfield, she would shoot home for a soccer match, only to return the next day. She rides horses in her time off, an exercise she says grounds her because it demands complete attention.
Wilmette Village President Chris Canning said summer, when storm season is its most violent, will be the ultimate test of Pramaggiore's initiatives.
In August 2007, Wilmette was at the epicenter of a storm that caused power outages in the village that lasted six days. Though ComEd hosted a conference call with area mayors in an attempt to communicate, "I just hopped off because it was utter chaos," Canning said. Angry residents marched into Village Hall and interrupted news conferences to demand answers.
The July 2011 storm aftermath looked too much like it had in 2007, Canning said. But he has seen changes at ComEd that make him optimistic, most notably Pramaggiore's willingness to sit with mayors and implement changes that show she has really understood their concerns.
"She clearly has a vision for where she wants things to go," he said.
Personal: Lives in the northwest suburbs with husband Michael Harrington, president of Oak Ridge Investments in Chicago, and son Jack, 16. They have a husky named Snoopy; a black Labrador, Buddy; and a cat, Hedwig.
What she's reading: "The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World" by Daniel Yergin. "I like reading books that have that big picture -- what's happening in the world, what's happening economically -- the big dynamics."
On leadership: Recalls advice from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield at the annual Chicago Leadership Prayer Breakfast in 2011. He said the most important and oft-repeated question in the Bible is, "Where are you " The rabbi's point, she said, was that the question "makes you look outward. It makes you look at what's going on around you and at people around you and not to be so self-centered."
Number of speaking engagements in 2012: 118
Board connections: Serves on the board of public company Babcock & Wilcox Co., as well as those of the Art Institute of Chicago, DePaul University, Chicago Botanic Garden, Chicago Urban League and Lincoln Park Zoo. Member of The Chicago Network and The Economic Club of Chicago.
On riding horses: "It's pretty intense. When I ride, I can't think about anything else, because it takes all my attention. You know, you've got this 1,500-pound animal who -- they're flighty. A paper bag blows across in front of them, and they're running the other way at 35 miles per hour. So you really have to have your wits about you."
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