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Life on the Wild Side

Sometimes seemingly random events deliver an opportunity greater than any that could be imagined. Here is one such opportunity that arrived in a most unusual way.

The date was Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006. I was attending an ABB-hosted gala at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, held during the week of the biannual CIGRÉ conference. Hundreds of guests drifted through art galleries, sipped wine and nibbled on pastries. I found myself checking out 17th century tapestries while chatting to a man who was getting a drink for his wife. I took a glance at his name tag that read “Rob Trimble, TXU Electric Delivery.”

I'd been keeping an eye on this Texas utility, which is threatening to set the pace for the entire industry. John Wilder, CEO of TXU Corp., has this utility living on the wild side. You might recall that in 2004, TXU outsourced its call center and accounting functions along with approximately 2700 employees to Capgemini Energy. Now TXU Electric Deliveryy is entering into a joint venture (JV) with InfrastruX Group, a national contracting company. TXU Electric Delivery announced it will transfer up to 2100 of its 3700 electric delivery employees to the 50-50 JV.

The first thing that popped out of my mouth when I met Trimble was, “Is this Wilder for real?” Trimble, the president of TXU Electric Delivery, is one of those old-time utility guys who tells it like it is. He acknowledged that the JV had raised the hackles of union officials who launched a membership drive, and there were several other interested parties who have questions about just how the JV will actually work. But Trimble was also confident the JV made good business sense and would ultimately prove to be advantageous to those employed within the joint venture, while delivering the desired value to TXU customers and shareholders.

A bit of a skeptic, I asked Trimble, “What about reliability and customer service?” His response: “Rick, that is a given. But instead of me trying to convince you of anything, why don't you come to Dallas and check us out for yourself?” That was one invitation I was more than happy to accept.

When I arrived at the TXU Electric Delivery headquarters several months later, I met with TXU Electric Delivery employees in Dallas, Irving and Fort Worth who were engaged in activities as varied as engineering, system operations and crew dispatch. As with any company in a state of flux, I met people who were rightly concerned about their future, but I also kept being surprised as I ran into individual after individual demonstrating a high level of enthusiasm for whatever the future may bring. Clearly, change was in the air.

I first had dinner with Trimble and Jim Greer. Greer is vice president of asset management and engineering, and is also leading the TXU Electric Delivery Broadband over Powerline (BPL) initiative. Unlike other utilities, TXU Electric Delivery doesn't want to own the BoPL system or provide retail communications services. Instead, it wants broadband access to enable advanced metering and enhanced equipment monitoring. CURRENT Technologies (Germantown, Maryland, U.S.) is responsible for the build out of the broadband network over the TXU Electric Delivery system. Crews are now installing the various couplers, routers and bridges that make up the broadband network. On the customer side, TXU Electric Delivery is now in the early stages of having 400,000 Landis+Gyr meters with BPL capability installed.

The next morning I met with Brenda Pulis, the senior vice president of T&D operations for TXU Electric Delivery. She will become the president and COO for the new JV when it begins. When I asked what excited her about the JV, Pulis responded: “We will be able to grow the business by adding new clients. Otherwise, if we had stayed within the confines of TXU, we would face the future of getting smaller and smaller and smaller.” Pulis sees real synergies available stating, “The incoming TXU Electric Delivery staff have intimate utility knowledge, while the existing InfrastruX staff have incredible large project construction skills.” Pulis surprised me with information that the InfrastruX JV would actually be doing work for CURRENT Technologies to build out the broadband network — its first non-TXU client. How cool is that?

Next, I drove over to Fort Worth to meet with Mike Guyton, vice president of customer and community relations. Guyton's comments on the JV: “From the beginning, our communications team has been on the road, explaining the concept behind the joint venture to city and county officials in all our service territories. The No. 1 concern voiced was whether their electrical service would be adversely impacted. But we are ensuring them that the same people in the same trucks will deliver the same service to the same customers. You won't see any difference int he level of service.”

Whether Trimble and the electric delivery team remain in high gear or find the need to shift into lower gear to go up steep grades or around obstacles, don't look to see them shift into reverse. A bump or two in the road doesn't intimidate him because Trimble knows that opportunities bring difficulties — and it is only in overcoming these difficulties that a new breed of utility is born.

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