Wes Kelley became only the fifth CEO in the seven-decade history of Huntsville Utilities on May 30. Born in Gadsden but raised in Texas and California, he graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan and has been in the utility business for 20 years. He came to Huntsville from his position as executive director of the Columbia (Tenn.) Power and Water Systems.
Kelley and wife Sundown have two daughters, Haven, a fourth-grader at Monte Sano Elementary, and Kadee, a second-grader at Monte Sano.
Huntsville Utilities is a rarity in that it is owned by the City of Huntsville rather than by a private entity or stockholders as are a majority of utility companies. It is the 16th largest municipal gas provider in the U.S. and 18th largest municipal electric provider in the U.S. Not to mention, it operates the oldest municipal water system in Alabama – founded in 1823.
Kelley recently sat down with City Blog senior writer Mark McCarter to discuss various facets of Huntsville Utilities, its relationship with the City and the future through fiber optics.
On working for a utilities company:
One thing I love about utilities is that it is concrete, fundamental work. I had friends that I went to college with who went to (Washington) D.C. law firms in this and that and the other thing. I know they’re doing important work, but I can see the value of the work I do every day, and I can see the value of the organization that I help lead, and that gives me a sense of fulfillment.
On utilities being taken for granted:
We are transparent to the customer at our best. We provide essential services that they rely on to do their work. There’s the old public power line: That we provide comfort, convenience and commerce.
On the relationship with TVA:
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) got into the business of providing electricity (during the Roosevelt Administration) to power the valley and to really raise the Tennessee Valley up out of economic depression, and I would say on that front, mission accomplished.
Our rates are low compared to many regions of the country. We have a partnership with them to make sure that their plans and finances are in order because their costs ultimately flow down to our customers. So we try to keep good lines of communication going.
On advantages of being a municipal system:
It’s about local control. Huntsville Utilities exists to serve City of Huntsville, Madison County and its customers in this area. We do not have to please distant shareholders. We do not have to worry about what’s going on on Wall Street. We just have to worry about what’s going on in our community and in City Hall.
The Mayor and the City Council provide not only leadership for our community, but they helped guide the future of this utility through their process of reviewing our budget, setting our rates and being involved in many of the critical decisions that confront the long-term infrastructure investments that Huntsville Utilities undertakes on behalf of the City.
On the importance of customer service:
One of the things that inspired me when I came to Huntsville Utilities is I quickly found out that the mantra in the organization is to do what’s right for the customer.
You don’t always see that in a utility. Sometimes, they’re really focused on whatever the cool engineering project is of the day, but here the heart and soul does seem to be the customers and doing what’s right to serve them and help them solve their problem and certainly not be an impediment to them enjoying this great quality of life we have here in Huntsville … If there is a way that we can facilitate the customers’ daily transaction with us and make it frictionless, or as nice and painless as it can be, we’re all about adopting any new technology or features or systems that our customers would find beneficial.
On fiber optics:
Electricity was a newfangled convenience 100 years ago. And it took the bold ambition of a TVA to really bring it out into parts of this region, but now, of course, it’s completely indispensable to life as we know it. And high-speed communication is following that same path.
We were preparing to do a major investment in fiber to serve our own internal needs. … Along the way (Google reached out and) said, “Well if you’re already running fiber that level throughout this community, maybe we can make it worth your while to run a little bit more.” The system is setup such that it not only benefits Google but any communication provider that would like to take advantage of this infrastructure. As a matter of fact, we encourage multiple communication partners to take advantage of this fiber infrastructure.