President & CEO of family energy business keeps up with changing market while maintaining traditional company values.
The acronym has remained the same, but from initially representing “Interstate Gas Supply” to “Introducing Great Solutions,” IGS continues to redefine itself.
And a few things haven't changed since Scott White, now president and CEO, founded the company in 1989 with his father.
“There's all of these different influences that are constantly impacting, positively or negatively, the price of energy … and our job is to be energy experts, to educate our customers and then give them actionable items that they choose to either do or not,” White says.
“And that really has not changed since day one. That's always been our role and that's where our original philosophy is: If we're going to make a commitment to a customer, we better darn well make sure we can actually deliver on that. That was our vision, the reason why we decided to go on our own,” White adds.
Marvin White had already enjoyed a 40-year career at Columbia Gas, rising from entry level to the president's office, before he and his son created IGS. Scott White had just earned a bachelor's degree in business from Ohio University and was looking for a little workplace experience before continuing on to law school.
The elder White, who died last September at age 91, “retired (from Columbia Gas) after having a stroke, and retirement didn't sit well with him,” his son recalls. “He wanted to be active; he wanted to be productive and to keep busy. He enjoyed accomplishing something. So his motivation was to just meaningfully occupy his time, doing something.”
That “something” now employs more than 700; enjoys annual revenue of $1.1 billion; and serves more than 1 million commercial, industrial and residential customers in 11 states. And Scott White is content that his law school plans never materialized.
He admits to joking with his kids—two in college and a high school freshman—that “I could have been somebody someday.” That joke and his easy demeanor are clues to his humble persona.
He is not shy, though, in talking about the advances IGS has made and the future it sees for itself. Rebranding the company's signature abbreviation reflects the way IGS has pivoted as it has grown.
“We've still got our roots in our values. That's always been the same, but what we do and how we've evolved has gone way beyond selling natural gas, and that's where you get ‘introducing great solutions,'” White says.
“The thing that's the same is, we formed a business from scratch, so we know what it's like to have no customers and to figure out how to position yourself in the marketplace and continue to serve and solve the customers' problems. What's different is going beyond gas and getting into some new business lines.”
As natural gas price controls were relaxed, IGS began as a natural gas wholesaler to commercial and industrial customers. Then deregulation opened up new markets, and IGS added retail sales and residential customers by the late 1990s. Other energy sources—compressed natural gas and electric—have been added to the mix, along with renewable sources such as electricity produced from solar, wind and hydro generation, as well as landfill gas and biomass.
Even with all of its focus on energy sources, White says IGS is really a provider of credible, actionable information to its customers.
“What links all the different types of products and services that we would hope to be able to introduce at some point, what ties them all together is they would be delivered through our relationships with our customers, so that's what we're going to focus on,” he says.
Despite its pioneering and forward-thinking business model—or actually because of it—the way IGS is going about maintaining its customer relations is something of a throwback to bygone days of Fuller Brush salesmen. In the past three years, IGS has brought on a sizable new sales force to develop and maintain those relations.
“We used to do a lot of mail. We've done telemarketing. We've gravitated more toward one-on-one conversations and we're developing, which is different than our peers, what we call Home Energy Consultants and we've got over 200 of them,” White says.
“These are basically taking the old door-to-door model and changing it by investing in our employees, with salaries and not being commission-only, and turning them into careers. It has been a much more effective way of reaching our customers and truly educating them and continuing that relationship.”
This is critical, White says, “because we firmly believe that over time there's going to be a broader set of products and services, so customers and their experience with us is very important and it's worth it. We can invest in this sales force.”
IGS sees its energy consultants as a key continuing link to customers. “They're not transient. They live in the neighborhood and they're career and hopefully they're going to be the same person that you talk to two and three years later,” White says.
“It's a lot harder to have your own internal sales force. It's a lot bigger commitment financially and managerially, to have to think about hiring 250, but these folks, once they're on-boarded and trained and given the right materials, they can have a much deeper and intelligent conversation with the homeowner, so we feel like it was the right thing to do even though it was a big commitment,” he adds.
Residential represents about half of IGS' customer base. In addition to following up with existing customers, the home consultants also make cold calls. White attributes the company's sales philosophy to Doug Austin, executive vice president and chief sales officer. “Doug, he's been with me for 26 years, he likes to say, ‘Everybody's a customer, just some are not buying from us right now.' That's a nice approach that we tell the HECs to take.”
Austin was IGS' employee No. 4 and the only non-family member to be an owner.
Decisions about where and how to invest in the business are made carefully and with a long-term view at IGS, White says, explaining it is important to manage risks in the volatile business.
“Energy is a very dynamic field, and it's going through a lot of changes, so we're intentionally positioning ourselves to be continuously monitoring what might be getting developed out there. … Our role is to understand new technology, new products and services as they become available, and then understand how to bring them to our customers. So things like solar panels on their roof, intelligent thermostats, maybe batteries and automation are all things that are out there and at some point can be introduced to customers in a way that is digestible to them and makes it easy; that's how we see our role. And we're very patient,” he says.
Sometimes the company's long-term view means short-term losses. White says the owners' philosophy is “we'll make good by the customer even if that means sacrificing some short-term profits. And I have the luxury of operating it that way, because if we take care of the customer, they're going to appreciate that.”
One of the challenges White has faced, and apparently dealt with successfully, has been to step back from being directly engaged in the day-to-day work of the company. “In the first 15 years of my career, I was more of a doer. It's been more in the last five to six years that I look at myself differently in terms of my role. That's allowed us to expand. It had to be that way,” he says.
With the creation of a strong executive team, White says his role now “is simply to make sure that we're all aligned with the same vision and that we coordinate our efforts and keep the unit together.”
To enable him to make that transition, IGS first had to mature and become stable enough “to maybe take on new initiatives,” White recalls.
About the time the company was reaching that point, he read a couple of business books that were influential, White says. One was Jim Collins' Good to Great. The other was Halftime: Moving From Success to Significance byBob P. Buford, with a foreword by Collins.
“I realized that if I want to keep being an active doer, it might make me feel good about my day, because I contributed to the efforts of the company. If I kept doing that, then we'd never be able to grow and evolve into other things. So I had to let go of being the contributor and (become) comfortable letting other people be the ones that are scoring the points and figure out how to go sit on the bench. I'll say the players I have are a lot better than I was,” White says.
There has been some external validation of IGS' expanded focus and direction. One of the awards displayed in White's corner office is a 2013 honor naming him an EY Social Entrepreneur of the Year. And the company's energy-efficient Dublin headquarters at 6100 Emerald Parkway was the first central Ohio project to achieve LEED Platinum certification, in recognition of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It has also been a Columbus CEO Top Workplaces winner.
“Our vision is an engaged society seeking positive changes in the way we manage and consume our energy resources,” White says.
“I like it when our people are recognized, a lot of my executives and other people, and I like it when the company is recognized as one of the best places to work. That's probably one of our greatest accomplishments because that tells me we have a healthy culture,” he adds.
The positive vibe of people who like where they work is apparent within seconds of walking in the front door of the IGS headquarters. Visitors are greeted warmly not only by those at a reception desk but also by others passing through.
“It's intentional. We're proud of that, proud of our culture,” White says.
Camaraderie extends outside of the office as colleagues follow The 6100, a rock group made up of IGS employees, to local venues including King Avenue 5, Lazy Chameleon and Local Roots. Putting on events several times a year that they call Covers & Cocktails, the band collects a $10 cover charge, plays popular songs that people don't “have to think too hard about” and donates all proceeds to charity.
Past beneficiaries have included Ronald McDonald House Charities, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio, Junior Achievement and Pelotonia.
White is the drummer—his instrument of choice dating back to college days as a percussion member of Ohio University's famed Marching 110.
“I like the creative outlet of playing music, so that's a lot of fun,” White says, and the band has been “a great way to build relationships with people in the building from different departments and have a good shared experience. It's been a lot of fun for all of us.”
Another development White sees as important for positive workplace culture is the late 2014 creation of IGS Impact, a community investment program to support employee volunteerism in addition to charitable contributions from the IGS Foundation. Company executives had been thinking of formalizing charitable giving about the same time a group of employees proposed an initiative to encourage volunteer involvement.
“As we realized we were more of a sustainable enterprise, it made sense to be more methodic in our efforts toward philanthropy, so we hired a director of community investment and gave them some direction and some resources, and now I feel like it's becoming more part of who we are,” White says.
The first community giving report for IGS Impact says 75 percent of employees participated in volunteer activities in 2015 and 97 percent agreed company-led volunteer projects enhance their experience as an employee. The initiative allows some volunteering on company time and provides matches of up to $250 for employee contributions to eligible nonprofits.
One of White's favorite volunteer activities is teaching Junior Achievement classes. He's on the JA board but also likes that having business people talk with students might “introduce kids to nontraditional ways of thinking beyond academics that hopefully would spark some interest in careers.”
For himself, White jokes, “I don't think ‘achievement' was part of my vocabulary of any sort in high school.”
Maybe not, but he still could “be somebody someday.”
Mary Yost is the editor.