An Electric Time for Business

The electric power industry has a reputation for being traditional and set in its ways. But in fact, it’s never been a more dynamic place to work, according to Nick Akins, president and chief executive officer of American Electric Power.

“It’s a great time to be in this industry,” Akins told students at the Tepper School of Business during the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series. “You can change the world. You can change the thinking. You can change the energy policy in this country.”

Akins, a 30-year-veteran of the industry, took the helm of American Electric Power on Nov. 12, 2011, in the midst of sweeping transformations in the energy landscape. “Even the regulators felt sorry for me,” he quipped.

He said his company, which serves 11 states mostly in the South and Midwest, is moving toward less dependence on coal as it retires older units in the coming years. At the same time, it will ramp up investment in shale gas and renewable energy sources.

“We not only have the classic resources of fossil fuels, but we have renewables and energy efficiency. On the other side, customer needs are changing in terms of usage patterns. We have to be to be responsive to them.”

Akins has steered the 106-year-old company toward continued growth by addressing environmental concerns, exploring diverse energy sources and imbuing the Columbus, Ohio-based enterprise with an entrepreneurial spirit.

That strategy has paid off: He said AEP has paid a dividend for the past 411 quarters.

Akins, who previously oversaw the generation business unit of AEP, is credited with overseeing many environmentally minded advances at the company. Thanks to his leadership, AEP’s Mountaineer Plant in West Virginia boasts the world’s first fully integrated carbon capture and storage validation project.

He also supports the development of new fuel sources, including Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale but adds that environmental concerns must be addressed. He likens shale gas production to the nuclear industry in that even small missteps could undermine public trust. “They really do have to make sure there is operational excellence around the way they drill so they can ensure resources for the future,” he said.

One of his many duties as an electric company CEO is meeting with politicians to help shape energy policy. “I spend an incredible amount of time in Washington, visiting Congress and the administration,” he said, adding that it can be challenging to navigate the sharply partisan political landscape.

Akins entered the energy industry in 1982 as an electrical engineer. He received numerous promotions before being named executive vice president of generation in 2006 and president in December of 2010. He had a solid technical background, but realized early on that he would have at least one major gap to fill.

“Recognize your deficiency,” he said. “Mine was in financial. As part of my plan, I moved over to mergers and acquisitions and learned that part of the industry.”

“I think that is what you have to do all along ... You have to have a burning desire for your entire career. Circumstances change. Technology is changing. You have to stay abreast.”

Akins, who enjoys music and the arts, also advised students to find balance in their lives. He also urged them to develop their interpersonal skills as part of a foundation for a successful career.

 

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Watch the presentation video

W.L. Mellon Speaker Series