March 18, 2013

CMP chief Sara Burns thrives amid change and challenge

PHOTo / Tim greenway
PHOTo / Tim greenway
Sara Burns, president and CEO of Central Maine Power Co., stands in the company's energy control center in Augusta. CMP monitors and controls Maine's high-voltage electricity grid depicted behind her in the center.
PHOTo / Tim greenway
Sara Burns, president and CEO of Central Maine Power, in her office in Augusta

Sara Burns, Large Company Business Leader

Title: President and CEO, Central Maine Power Co.

Age: 57

Favorite place outside of work: Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia with my husband and sons

Leadership icon: Other leaders I work with on the boards of several community organizations

Maine's biggest challenge: We need to develop longer-term strategies for addressing critical issues and stick to them. We can't be successful if we don't have a clear vision of what we want and at least a five-to-10-year plan to get there.

Maine's biggest opportunity: Global companies invest here because they see value in our resources and people. That's an opportunity, not a threat.

Best business advice: Build a strong team within your company, and be open to good ideas from outside your company.

Central Maine Power Co.

Address: 83 Edison Drive, Augusta

President and CEO: Sara Burns

Founded: 1899

Employees: 900

Revenues, 2011: $602 million

Contact: 1-800-565-0121

Sitting at the head of a boardroom conference table on the fourth floor of Central Maine Power Co. headquarters in Augusta, CEO and President Sara Burns faces an impressive line of crystal glass awards anchoring the center of the table.

Three honor CMP for being No. 1 in business customer satisfaction in J.D. Power & Associates' annual review of 95 of the largest utility brands across the country. Since 2008, the global market research firm also has given CMP the top ranking four times in its residential customer satisfaction survey. Add to the lineup several awards from the Edison Electric Institute in 2012, two recognizing CMP for its fast and safe service recovery in Maine following Hurricane Sandy and the previous year's Hurricane Irene, and a third for helping utilities in New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey recover from those storms.

In the estimation of CMP customers and its peers, then, Burns and her 900 employees are doing some things right.

But Burns isn't one to rest on laurels. That forward-looking energy has marked her tenure leading Maine's largest utility, for 15 years as president and eight years as CEO. And what a tenure it's been. During that time, the company sold its generating assets as mandated by the Maine Legislature and navigated two ownership changes. And it continues to roll out its $1.4 billion Maine Power Reliability Program, a five-year upgrade that is the largest construction project in Maine's history and the most extensive bulk power project ever undertaken in New England.

"It's nice to get trophies, but all they really mean is that every day we need to keep getting better at what we're doing," she says. "Every day we improve."

Hired by CMP in 1987 as director of risk management, Burns steadily rose through the ranks and became president in 1998. She was named chief operating officer just before the Ice Storm of '98 in which 340,000 of CMP's then-520,000 customers lost power. Burns says that unprecedented natural disaster was without question a baptism by ice, if not fire. Even now, 15 years later, she says it colors her outlook on the critical importance of doing everything possible to minimize power outages for CMP's 600,000-plus customers. For example, CMP now pays for a seven-day weather forecast with individually tailored projections for each segment of its service territory.

"Storms are part of our business," she says. "They can overwhelm you, as the '98 ice storm clearly did, or you can have a systematic way of attacking them," she says. "We now have an emergency management plan that's been vetted, tested and implemented. We have an emergency response team that's outstanding. Both the plan and the team are flexible … They have to be: Each storm is different."

Flexibility isn't only a hallmark of the utility's emergency management plan, it's a trait Burns says she's made a point of cultivating in herself and her management team.

"If you reflect on those 15 years I've been in a leadership role, the most significant changes we've had to deal with have been massive changes," Burns says. "My role became all the more important as one of keeping everyone focused … Change is very hard. Some people will resist it."

In becoming CMP's president, Burns says she realized early on that all eyes would be on her, looking for hints about whether some of those massive changes — such as the acquisitions by Energy East in 2000 and Iberdrola in 2008 — would be good for the company, its employees and customers.

"Employees, when they see me, are always trying to gauge how I feel … am I optimistic?" she says.

Burns acknowledges that 15 years ago, when she assumed CMP's presidency, she had only an inkling of how much that role requires her to be an agent of change.

Luckily, Burns says, she's had excellent role models, especially among CMP's board of directors. When she was hired as a middle manager, she attended board meetings. Its roster at the time, she says, was like a "Who's Who" of the state's top business leaders — including Leon Gorman, former chairman of L.L.Bean; the late Bob Reny, founder of the Renys department store chain; and the late Buzz Fitzgerald, former CEO of Bath Iron Works. Watching and listening as they analyzed problems, challenged assumptions and made recommendations, she says, provided a firsthand primer on effective leadership that continues to influence her today.

Another key mentor, she says, was former CMP President John Rowe (1984-89), whom she recalls would tell his management team what he was trying to do and invite their ideas on how to make that happen. In her own case, Burns says, she makes a point of meeting regularly with rank-and-file workers to hear their concerns and solicit their ideas — as she did in a 6 a.m. meeting with CMP's safety team in early March. In that meeting, she invited each worker to imagine being the safety director for 24 hours and having the power to implement any change they thought would improve the company's commitment to safety.

"What would you do?" she asked them, later acknowledging that out of that discussion came several good ideas.

Burns' emphasis on safety appears widely held in the company. In 2012, CMP marked 2 million employee hours without a lost-time accident — a trend that's continued through the first quarter of 2013.

With CMP at almost the mid-point of its five-year Maine Power Reliability Program, Burns is now able to catch a breath — for a moment — and reflect on the economic benefits of that project, as well as the two-year, $192 million Advanced Meter Infrastructure project, completed last year.

Between the two projects, the utility spent more than $500 million in 2012 — supporting between 2,700 and 3,000 direct jobs and up to 900 indirect jobs, with as many as 275 Maine companies involved in some fashion. This year, CMP expects to invest another $430 million in the reliability program and the ongoing upgrade of its power grid, which won't be completed until late 2015.

Planning for that upgrade, Burns says, began in 2006. She was well into making the business case for that massive investment with CMP's then-owner Energy East when the company was purchased in 2008 by global energy giant Iberdrola. That meant making the case again to the Spanish company's board of directors and its shareholders, and battling competing projects from 40 other countries served by Iberdrola subsidiaries. After securing the new owner's financial backing, she had to persuade ISO New England, the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that the project was necessary. Next came meetings in the 72 Maine communities where permits were needed to go forward with the project.

"I had to set a limit of no more than three meetings a week," Burns says. "It was a very important part of that whole project: Talking with our customers and making sure they understood the reasons for doing the upgrade."

And the benefits once the upgrade is completed?

"No. 1 is reliability," Burns says. "That's numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5, too."

CMP already is seeing a return on its installation of 620,000 smart meters and the corresponding 11,000-square-mile wireless communication network. Hailed by the U.S. Department of Energy as a "success story," those meters set the stage for CMP customers to gain better information on their energy use and eventually access new options, such as time-of-use rates, that encourage more conservation and energy efficiency in homes and businesses.

Looking ahead, Burns says being the leader of a regulated utility requires her "to always set the bar higher" for CMP's delivery of electricity at affordable rates and a reasonable ROI to its owner and investors. And that gets back to the lesson she learned long ago about making sure the company's goals are understood and embraced by its 900 workers.

"Employees are the engine," she says. "I'm proud to be associated with all our employees. They do an extraordinary job."

Meet the 2013 Business Leaders of the Year at our annual awards reception May 9. Register here.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reflected the number of J.D. Power & Associates customer satisfaction awards Central Maine Power has received. It won its third from commercial customers in 2013.

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