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New CEO of Vt. Gas vows company will be more transparent

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Posted on January 15, 2015 |
By Zach Despart



SOUTH BURLINGTON — Vermont Gas Systems President and CEO Don Rendall doesn’t have the biggest office at the company’s headquarters in South Burlington.

In fact, he doesn’t have an office at all. Rather, he set up his desk in the second floor reception area, by a row of windows that overlook Swift Street, and gave the administrative assistant that had occupied the space her own office down the hall.

Rendall, who began as the company’s chief executive Jan. 1, said the choice to forgo the typical trappings of a CEO is part of his commitment to fostering an open relationship with employees, state regulators and the public.

“My goal is a very open management style, in terms of working with all of your team members on a day-to-day basis,” Rendall said. “I’m very focused on results and accountability, and holding myself accountable for delivering on my goals and helping others deliver on theirs.”

Rendall joins Vermont Gas after a turbulent 2014, during which relations became increasingly strained with residents who live along both Phase I and Phase II of the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project pipeline route going from Colchester to Rutland. The utility also drew the ire of Gov. Peter Shumlin and regulators when it announced two massive price hikes for Phase I, and put Phase II (from Middlebury to Ticonderoga, N.Y.) on hold.

Rendall didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that shepherding the massive infrastructure project — of which only Phase I has been approved — through a complex regulatory process with substantial public opposition, will not be easy.

But the new boss, sitting in front of his sparse desk in a crisp white shirt last Thursday morning, was upbeat about the prospects of the project and his tenure at Vermont Gas.

“The opportunity to lead this team of 140 members to achieve our goals is a fabulous opportunity to contribute to this company’s great legacy, and to contribute to Vermont’s energy future,” Rendall said.

Rendall, who completed his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth College and earned a law degree from Duke University in 1981, is no stranger to managing public utilities. For 12 years, he served in a variety of roles at Green Mountain Power, most recently as the Senior Vice President of Financial and Strategic Affairs.

He said his experience with GMP instilled in him a commitment to managing Vermont’s energy future in a responsible way, which he now brings to Vermont Gas.

“It is important for me, on a personal level, that we look at our energy future in a focused, disciplined way to meet the imperatives of our economy, to provide Vermonters with all the benefits that a strong infrastructure can provide,” Rendall said.

Asked what he saw as the biggest challenges facing the company, Rendall said he likes to think of obstacles as opportunities, of which there are many.

“The biggest opportunity for this company is to continue to serve what’s hovering around 50,000 customers in an incredibly positive way, and to advance that customer service,” Rendall said.

He also said he’d like to incorporate new technologies as they become available, and to expand to more customers while lowering the cost to transport natural gas to homes and businesses.

Rendall said he sees the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project, which, if completed, would bring natural gas from Chittenden County to Rutland as well as to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, as a way to give customers a choice between energy sources. That competition will, in theory, save consumers money.

“With that opportunity comes the challenge of doing that in a really smart way, and cost effectively,” Rendall said.

The new CEO, who moved to Vermont in 1984 with his wife, Sandy, who works in a private law practice and also as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Vermont, acknowledged that some Vermonters have lost faith in Vermont Gas’ ability to manage the pipeline project, and said burnishing the company’s public image is a top priority.

“It’s so important that our customers, that our regulators, that our policymakers and Vermonters across the state have confidence in this company,” he said. “There’s no doubt that our Addison-Rutland project has raised questions about confidence, and our goal, all 140 of us, is to build from where we are to a place where we have the confidence of Vermonters across the state.”

Rendall said he believes the company has the trust of its 50,000 customers, and said the company has a “very strong reputation of delivering on its promises of being there when our customers want us.” He said he hopes to build confidence in the company as it hooks up new customers along the proposed pipeline route.

STUMBLING BLOCKS

The most recent stumble, however, came in mid-December when Vermont Gas announced a second multi-million-dollar price increase for the Phase I project. Critics pounced on the second price hike as an example of incompetence and mismanagement by Vermont Gas and the firms it subcontracted work to. But Rendall, who despite not officially being the CEO yet, defended the increase to reporters on Dec. 19, saying he was confident the company would be able to convince regulators and the public that it acted, and will continue to act, in a responsible manner.

“The reason I’m so confident is that over the last eight weeks I’ve gotten to see the team in action, and I’m confident the team is acting responsibly,” he said. “I’m confident that when we have the opportunity to tell that story in the context of the Public Service Board proceedings, that we will be successful in helping everyone who is involved understand what we did, why we did it and that it was done in a very responsible way.”

Meanwhile, the pipeline project has been controversial in Addison County since it was proposed three years ago, and Vermont Gas’ headquarters has played host to several protests that have resulted in arrests. Project opponents even demonstrated at the private home of former CEO Don Gilbert last fall.

But despite the polarizing nature of the project, which continues to play out in heated discussion at public meetings and on opinion pages, Rendall said he welcomes debate on the pipeline.

“I’m a very strong believer in focused, rigorous discussion, debate, evaluation of important projects and policy goals,” he said. “This is an important infrastructure project for Vermont.”

He’s even willing to bet the company will be able to convince skeptics of the project that it is in the best interests of Vermont’s energy future.

“Hopefully, through that debate we will come to the conclusion, if not a 100 percent consensus, a strong consensus, that bringing this kind of cleaner, more affordable energy service … advances so many of the goals we have in communities and at the state level,” Rendall said.

Just eight days into the job (though he began the transition several months ago), Rendall said he’s found his new position to be exactly as he envisioned.

“It’s everything I expected, which is an incredible group of people working incredibly hard, and aiming to work together to achieve all of our goals on behalf of customers,” he said. “It’s been a very fulfilling time for me, personally.”

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