It's a good thing Sandra Meyer thrives in stressful situations because that's what she walked into when she became president of Duke Energy Ohio and Kentucky last April.

 

Meyer arrived in Cincinnati as the Duke-Cinergy merger became official and headquarters operations were consolidating in Charlotte, N.C. It signaled the end of an era that began with the incorporation of Cincinnati Gas, Light & Coke Co. in 1837. The corporate cultures of two long-standing companies from decidedly different parts of the country suddenly were mixed. Employees worried about their jobs being eliminated.

 

About a month into her new position, Meyer announced plans for the first electric rate increase for Kentucky customers in 14 years. It also was a time of historic rises in natural gas rates throughout the region. Collectively, it was enough to create a little stress.

 

"It's been pretty chaotic," Meyer admits about her first year on the job. "I think the most challenging part was coming into an area where we've got a rising rate environment. I was a new face, a new name and oh, by the way, we've got rising prices. Just the association that it had to do with Duke coming in"”which it didn't"”but to the general population that's just a natural belief and a challenge."

 

But true to her laid-back nature, Meyer took it all in stride. "I'm best at leading in a chaotic environment," says Meyer, who speaks softly with a pleasant twang that reveals her southern roots. "I have a tendency to keep cool and communicate well during these times. I think it's just not getting wrapped up in the small stuff"”and keeping the big picture in mind."

 

SMALL DREAMS,

BIG RESULTS

When Meyer was growing up, her big picture was simply getting a modest job. After discovering she was too short to be a flight attendant, she set her sights on becoming a secretary. "I had no big dreams," she explains.

 

But Meyer's father, a petroleum engineer, encouraged her to attend college, so she pursued an accounting degree at Louisiana State University. "He was quite disappointed because he wanted me to be an engineer," Meyer recalls. "I was willing to go to school, but I had to choose my own career path."

 

Meyer entered the energy business straight out of LSU, accepting a junior accounting position with Texas Eastern. Some 12 years later, she was named the oil and gas exploration company's chief accounting officer. Texas Eastern was acquired by PanEnergy, where she served as both controller and treasurer until it merged with Duke Energy. She became corporate controller for Duke as well, but eventually decided she wanted a change from finance, and entered retail services in 2001. She was a Duke Power group vice president (for customer service, sales and marketing) when this promotion came her way.

 

"That (moving from finance to marketing) was a risky and refreshing change that has led to my current position," she says. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever expected to be here. Starting out my career, a step or two up was the furthest I could ever see."

 

Fostering Open Communication

Meyer describes her management style as a direct approach that fosters open communication. She took that philosophy out to the business community to explain Duke's stance on rate increases.

 

"The (rate increase) filing in Kentucky came just a couple months after arriving, so we scheduled customer forums with Rotary clubs, the Chamber of Commerce"”whatever avenues we had to make sure there were no surprises," she notes. "The one thing you don't want to do is hide. You have to get out there and explain the situation and that's what we did. We met with our large business customers. It wasn't welcome news, but we walked through what the implications were and focused on communication."

 

Meyer explains that while customers generally understood increased demand and rising raw material prices were driving the retail prices up, they were disappointed because it was unanticipated and, therefore, not budgeted.

 

"The single biggest thing I heard loudly and clearly is that they need to be able to plan their business," Meyer observes. "First and foremost, they want reliability of price and no surprises, so we've implemented pricing forecasts that we share with business customers. We try to get them out in the fall, so when they're doing their budgets for the next year we can minimize any surprises," she explains, adding that Duke recently implemented a more aggressive energy conservation outreach program for both residential and commercial customers.

 

Settling In

Meyer says she's now well settled in Cincinnati, a city she's found to be very warm and welcoming, with a strong sense of history and community. She also feels the company's Cincinnati-based employees have adapted well to the post-merger environment. She believes the previous Cinergy-PSI Energy merger was helpful in soothing the anxiety over the uncertainty that's inevitable during significant change.

Long-term, she is confident the Duke merger will benefit Greater Cincinnati in a number of ways. "There could be economies of scale for different things we purchase, so lower cost is one of our benefits that will come from the larger purchasing power," Meyer predicts. "We also have more call centers now, and when the weather is bad here it may not be bad in Charlotte, so we have in-house capabilities to respond quicker than we otherwise might have been had we been a smaller company."

 

That responsiveness was put to the test when the February ice storm slammed the Tristate, knocking out power to as many as 122,000 Duke customers, some of whom were in cold darkness for days. "The merger allowed us quick access to 125 line workers from the Carolinas to assist with power restoration in the Greater Cincinnati area," Meyer noted later. "In addition, we implemented some emergency planning procedures that helped in storm preparation. Overall, with restoration efforts required for more than one-third of our customers, we responded very effectively in getting all power restored in three days."

 

As for the future of the energy industry, Meyers expects to see further consolidation as companies seek merger-related cost savings to meet the challenges of producing affordable and environmentally responsible energy as demand rises. She's well aware of growing pressures on utilities companies to reduce greenhouse gases.

"It's not an easy thing to do," she concedes. "There are a lot of conflicting priorities, and you have to find the right balance. One of the industry issues is aging generation aspects, and increasing demand, so we're entering into a period where capital demands for generation are on the plate. That's the perfect time to focus on what are the alternatives to help minimize the spending.

 

"One good thing about rising prices is that it tends to equalize the advantages for renewables versus traditional sources (of energy)"”it kind of closes the gap," she continues. "I'm particularly attached to and proud of our leadership in the environmental area, and being more proactive in supporting public policy for a couple of reasons. If it's done properly, then we'll have a level playing field. And we think that's important to our customers, because the rules need to be written in such a way that they don't disadvantage our region and our company as it relates to other suppliers. We're particularly interested in a vibrant economy in the places where we do business and, therefore, we want to ensure that we're competitive."

 

Whatever the future brings for Duke and its customers, expect Meyer to stay calm and focused. "I truly try to find time to put all this aside so when I am here, I'm fresh," she says.