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The Corner Office: Edward Graham, South Jersey Industries

by Samantha Melamed

Edward Graham, CEO and chairman, South Jersey Industries

Since its beginnings a century ago as Atlantic City Gas Company, South Jersey Industries has evolved, surviving dramatic shifts in both the regional economy and the global energy market. Today, the publicly traded energy services holding company, which encompasses South Jersey Gas, South Jersey Energy Solutions and SJI Services, employs more than 600 workers and serves 343,000-plus residents across seven South Jersey counties. In recent years, the company has been a top performer in the energy industry—with shareholder returns of 42 percent in 2010—as well as part of the KLD Global Climate 100 Index, which tracks companies that are leading the charge against climate change. But while SJI has pipelines into homes across the region, the company’s chief executive prefers to fly under the radar. Edward Graham, who also holds the title of chairman of the board of directors, has been with the company for nearly 30 years, starting out as an accountant and working his way up in the increasingly complex energy industry. Graham shared his outlook on SJI’s future, the energy business and what he sees as the keys to good management.

How has the industry—and your company—evolved in your time with SJI?
The industry has changed dramatically over time, but there’s a wide range of how much companies have changed. In the ’90s deregulation began to take place within the industry … we’ve been able to make changes in our organization to take advantage of those changes. Many of our peers are still operating in the same way as they did 20 years ago, but we’ve restructured how we earn our profits. Today, we profit from how many households we serve, as opposed to how much gas we distribute—and with that change we’ve been advocates of conservation and embraced saving energy, and delivering energy in the most technologically advanced way, as the drivers of our business.

What are the biggest challenges ahead for your company?
We’ve developed a strategy and a portfolio of opportunities, so it’s not the opportunities that are really the challenge ahead—it’s making sure the depth of talent really exists to exploit those opportunities…. We’ve made a commitment to develop our human resources area for management development, looking to advance talent so that we grow within while augmenting that with partners and new hires.

Describe your management philosophy.
Surround yourself with talented people. We’re in an industry that has been stodgy and lacked growth for years, and now the opportunities are there … so building those relationships is vital.

What do you see as the secret to staying competitive?
Constantly be willing to change, and put people in positions to succeed. As I see my job, it’s to put our talent in positions to take advantage of opportunities and to make sure the risk is properly managed. We’ve diversified our business quite a bit, but diversified into energy products—something we know—so that we’re not depending on any one thing for our success each year. But the key is we’re staying with what we know. We’ve witnessed others’ experience where they ventured outside electricity or energy and really had very little success. Things that we offer outside the utility are generating electricity from landfill gas or providing solar power. We have the talent and knowledge to pursue that.

Conservation is obviously a concern in your industry; what’s your approach to going green?
When you look at our strategic plan the focus is conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. We sell those products, we profit from doing that and we apply them to our operations ourselves. We have solar on the roof of our corporate headquarters for example. We were one of the first utilities in the country to change how we profit, so that we actually profit from conservation. We use the latest technology in our solar fields, we even generate electricity from landfill gas and we’re looking at biofuels. We see a great path to profit really by being green.

What do you think is the key to fostering innovation?
Innovation is fostered by putting talented people in a position to succeed and empowering them to explore opportunities, and not dictating what we’ll consider pursuing. We’ve explored a host of things…. You’ll find things that you’d think you wouldn’t be interested in doing, if put in the right structure, can work very well for you.

Any piece of business advice you received that has served you well?
Be open minded and ready to change your approach. Don’t assume the model that exists today is the model that will exist tomorrow. You have to continually embrace change, which is a difficult thing to do, but if you do then opportunity will usually accompany it.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 4 (April, 2011).
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