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College of Business and Economics
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Drive MS3161
Moscow, Idaho 83844-3161
Phone: (208) 885-6478
Toll free: (800) 960-3033
Email: cbe@uidaho.edu

UEC students from 2011

UEC Generating Leaders

By Stacie Jones

NV Energy executive Punam Mathur faced a daunting learning curve when she walked into the utility industry for the first time two years ago.

“I came from 13 years in gaming and hospitality,” says Mathur, who was recruited from MGM Mirage to NV Energy to head up the Las Vegas-based utility’s human resources department. “I had never done anything that remotely touched utilities.”

During her initial months in her new vice president position, she focused on building her understanding of the complex utility business, working to “put the pixels of information together that created the larger picture,” she says. Shortly after her first anniversary with the company, Mathur’s CEO presented her with a career-changing opportunity.

“He gave me the gift of going to Moscow, Idaho, for three weeks,” she says.

In June 2010, Mathur traveled to the University of Idaho campus in Moscow, where she joined the ranks of the more than 2,200 utility professionals, from more than 100 companies around the world, who have completed the nationally renowned Utility Executive Course (UEC).

Offered through the College of Business and Economics, UEC is an executive education course that draws approximately 50 students each year for three weeks of intensive industry and leadership training. The full-immersion program combines a faculty of top industry leaders with a carefully crafted curriculum that addresses the latest industry issues.

“For someone who is trying to get their roots established as a new leader in the industry and to build their understanding of the overall business – with all of its facets and dimensions – UEC just hits the bull’s-eye,” says Mathur, who now holds the title of vice president of employee and community
engagement at NV Energy.

In addition to three, frequently referenced, four-inch binders stored within arm’s reach in Mathur’s office, “I’m a copious note taker,” Mathur says, UEC provided another valuable takeaway.

“As a new entrant into the industry, it was difficult to establish a professional network, because when you work for a monopoly, there’s no one else doing the same thing in your community,” she says. “The UEC was an outstanding opportunity to develop a network with other professionals who are similarly motivated and working in the same industry.”

 NV Energy CEO, Michael Yackira, who is also a member of the UEC faculty, “is a strong believer in the value of the course,” Mathur says. The company selectively identifies two to three employees for the program each year.

“As a company, we rely heavily on the class as a critical tool in the development of emerging leaders,” she says.

If popularity is any indication, other utility companies consider the UEC an important asset in their tool box, too. UEC saw one of its largest classes this year, with 58 attendees from 36 companies. Participants represented a variety of disciplines, including technology, finance, engineering, marketing, general business, regulatory affairs and environmental services.

In June, Linda Jones, director of corporate communications for Avista Corp. in Spokane, Wash., became her company’s 135th graduate of UEC. With more than 20 years in utilities, Jones is no stranger to the industry. However, she says UEC offered the ideal environment for exchanging ideas and learning, and “cemented the need to look at the business from a broader perspective.”

“It’s clear to me that in this time of rapid change, it’s more important than ever to understand how one decision affects another in our business,” she says. “We really must work together to address the many challenges facing us.”

For the Industry , by the Industry

In 1954, alumnus and Idaho Power Company executive, Robert Sessions, approached his former business professor at the University of Idaho about creating a management development program for the utility industry. Professor and renowned economist, Erwin Graue, led a team of faculty and industry leaders to develop what has now grown to become the oldest and largest industry-specific program in the country.

“The UEC exemplifies our commitment as a college and our mission as a land-grant university to serve the needs of industry,” says Jack Morris, dean of the College of Business and Economics. “UEC started because we listened to what our external stakeholders said was important. After 58 years, we are still listening so that we can continue to deliver on our promise of preparing utility executives for the next generation of the industry.”

Mike Hunter, alumnus of the College of Business and Economics and longtime supporter and former instructor of UEC, served as assistant in 1974 and 1975 to then director of the program, accounting professor Bob Clark, while completing his master’s in business administration at the University of Idaho. He recalls at least three other universities offering competing courses at the time, all of which no longer exist.

“The main reason for UEC’s success is that it was created for the industry, by the industry,” says Hunter, whose UEC experience as a graduate student sparked a lifetime career in the energy industry. He is currently President of Southcross Energy, LLC, a natural gas pipeline and processing enterprise, headquartered in Dallas, Texas.

“The fact that the program has been going strong for nearly 60 years is incredible,” he adds. “It’s a true testament to the University’s leadership and its commitment to keeping this an industry-centered course that remains necessary and relevant to what is confronting utilities today.”

The utility industry has experienced dramatic change since UEC’s inception: from the build and grow era of the ‘50s and ‘60s, to the energy crisis and growth of nuclear power in the ‘70s, to computing technology in the 80s, to deregulation in the ‘90s, to the smart-grid technologies of today. Staying current with the industry is crucial to the program’s success, especially in an industry that “will change more in the next 10
years than it has in the last 100,” says Yvonne Sertich, director of the UEC.

“While UEC is grounded in its rich history of providing the industry fundamentals, we continually adapt the curriculum to address current industry issues,” Sertich says. “It’s really a new course every year.”

To develop the curriculum, Sertich relies on the UEC Advisory Committee, a group of industry leaders representing 16 organizations in all functional areas of the industry.

“We work with our advisory committee to ensure the course is current and focused on the key issues shaping the industry,” she says. “We meet with the committee biannually and work with them throughout the year on curriculum development.

” Recent topics covered in the course range from customer relationships, infrastructure challenges, renewable energy, an aging workforce, regulations and public policy, environmental issues, changing economics and more. The integration of new technology, known in the industry as “disruptive technology,” is also a top point of discussion.

“The industry is in the cradle stages of an enormous technology-driven transformation, from clean energy, to the automation of distribution and transmission systems, to consumer energy management products that are driving the industry for the first time ever,” says UEC advisory committee member Jim Kensok, vice president and chief information officer for Avista Corp. He’s also a 1999 alumnus and former instructor of the course.

In addition to identifying current industry issues, the advisory committee helps find and recruit UEC instructors. Selected for their mix of industry and academic experience, the high-caliber faculty is made up of leading industry experts, with nearly 95 percent currently working in the industry.

“We [the advisory committee] don’t change a lot, we finetune a lot,” Kensok says. “We strive to keep the core principles of UEC alive and intact with what the course was originally designed to be: a program for utilities designed by utilities.

” Kensok believes a key factor in the success of UEC is its steadfast commitment to providing a curriculum and student experience that stays true to the utility industry.

“UEC has encapsulated the unique culture, or DNA, of the industry, and it has done an excellent job of putting all the key ingredients together to create a premier executive leadership experience that not only stays connected to what’s going on in the industry today, but also prepares industry leaders for tomorrow,” Kensok says.

The utility industry’s DNA, he explains, is made up of three components: leadership, a shared passion for the product, and a strong professional network.

“Leadership in a utility is very different,” he says. “Change is constant and there’s a huge social responsibly that comes with leading this industry, on both the environmental side and community side.

“Second, there’s a huge passion in utilities for the reliable and safe delivery of our life-sustaining product,” he continues. “We are passionate about doing what’s right for our customers … We are one of the only industries that actually helps our customers use less of our product.

“Finally, the professional network in our industry is priceless,” he says.

A Worldwide Reputation

UEC’s industry-centered focus has helped earn the program an international reputation as the world’s premier utility executive learning experience, drawing industry leaders from a total of 17 countries, most recently from Bermuda, Malaysia, Thailand, Canada, Japan, and Barbados, to name a few.

“It’s the only program in the world specifically targeted to high-level leaders in the industry,” Sertich explains. “The strong international focus goes back to the beginning of the course, and we’ve had consistent international participation since. Our international participants value the opportunity to build a network of classmates in mid- to senior-level management positions from a wide range of U.S. utilities.”

The 2011 UEC included a participant from Chubu Electric Power Company, who shared with classmates his firsthand insights about the implications of Japan’s recent nuclear energy crisis.

“It’s a great opportunity for participants to learn from each other,” Sertich says.

The $12,000 registration fee for the course – which includes instruction, books and materials, in addition to lodging, meals, refreshments, educational field trips and other special events – makes UEC the highest value executive training available for today’s utility leaders, Sertich says. Participating companies receive a measureable return on their leadership investment.

“Many participants have risen in their organizations to become vice presidents, executive vice presidents, presidents, chief executive officers and board chairs,” Sertich says. “Attendees consider it an honor to get selected for the course.”