When Nicholas Akins became CEO of American Electric Power (AEP), he knew it was time to make strategic changes at the giant utility. He made a commitment to shift away from coal power to natural gas and renewable sources like wind and solar. Akins decision was transformational for the 110-year-old company.
That was in back in 2010. And it was long before America’s national debate on climate change and President Trump’s pledge to revive the coal industry.
Akins tells Fortune’s Susie Gharib that it was his belief he was doing the right thing because AEP’s big customers wanted to run their businesses on clean energy.
“Our organization had run its course. We couldn’t continue the way we had done business the previous 110 years, let alone the previous ten years,” Akins explains. “Today it’s absolutely clear, and even then it was absolutely clear for us to be successful we were going to have to focus on what customer expectations are, not doing what we think is best for the customer, but reaching out to the customer as a partner and focusing on what that future of energy could be.”
Under Akins’ leadership, AEP dramatically reduced its coal business from 80% of its energy supply to 47%. Natural gas is now nearly 30%, while wind and solar account for 13%.
But Akins adds that the path to hitting those numbers took a serious leadership commitment on his part to sell doubtful AEP employees and executives on why the new clean energy mission was the right way to go.
“There were supervisors and there were others in the organization, ‘well, this is just the latest fad. It’ll go away. We’ll continue doing business the way we’ve always done it,’ ” he says. “We have to prove over and over again my commitment and managers’ commitment to ensuring that we continue this process. And we have.”
Now Akins is determined to make another important change at AEP. He wants to speed women’s progress up the corporate ladder into top positions in the company. He believes that gender diversity will help AEP “come up with better solutions” for the complex issues the company is tackling. So far he’s pleased with the results. As Akins puts it, “The introduction of women on my C-Suite team has really engaged the entire group in different ways than we thought possible.”