It’s as inevitable as death and taxes. In good times, when the economy is booming, experts warn that another downturn is just around the corner. Money is cyclical, and the stock market can’t maintain record breaking margins forever. What goes up, must come down. So, it’s not a question of if, but when. The unavoidable reversal is coming, and with it, a whole array of problems, not just for the business community, but for the customers who rely on their services and the employees who serve them.
Gas South knows all about this roller coaster. In 2008, the economy tanked (like you didn’t know this already). A bunch of customers could not pay their bills, had bad credit, and were unable to qualify for monthly utility services. So, what did Gas South do? This week, President and CEO of Gas South, Kevin Greiner, joined us to discuss how coming together and forming a partnership with Milton Little Jr., President and CEO of the United Way of Greater Atlanta, changed their approach to this problem.
Both organizations learned a valuable lesson about partnership. The utility company found a like minded leader which helped them advance their desire for community engagement, and the charity located a benefactor that would provide a high profile and a long-term commitment to both the consumer and their own employees.
Do Good Work
From the very beginning of his tenure as CEO, Greiner wanted Gas South to be different. “Very early on, we recognized that we could be a different type of natural gas company,” he said, “one that was really engaged in the community in a very meaningful way.” Looking for a collaborator in this cause, the “logical” choice became the United Way. So, sat down with Little, and the two hit it off right from the start. “We both saw that we had a really strong commitment to Atlanta,” he points out, and the two started brainstorming ways to make the city a better place.
It was an easy decision for the long established charitable organization. “One of the things we saw at the United Way was a new, young, aggressive CEO,” Little states, “who had an opportunity to really grow an exciting business in a new field.” It also helped that both men were from Long Island, New York. In no time at all they agreed on the strategy. “It was an opportunity to grow Gas South’s footprint,” Little points out, “Kevin had really great ideas, great enthusiasm, and he had a lot of runway.” They realized that they had a lot of new paths, and new directions they could follow.
Greiner also factored in the United Ways standing as a business entity. “It’s the preeminent health and human services and education organization here in Atlanta,” he points out, “and Milton is recognized as a true leader of the non-profit community here.” As they began talking, it was clear that there was an immediate concern that both companies could address. “This was 2008,” Greiner says, “the economy was on the skids. We were looking for ways to serve credit challenged customers more effectively.”
Have it Make Money
The result of all their discussions was something called the ‘Pay As You Go’ program. It’s a prepaid kind of situation where customers are billed in advance for the gas they expect to use, and it is something Gas South offers to this very day. “Milton gave us great advice,” Greiner says, “they’re speaking with folks who are struggling, that have experienced recent financial hardships and are trying to get back on their feet.” Together, Gas South and the United Way began looking for a way to serve customers that provided dignity and respect, but that could also work as a business proposition.
“The philosophy I bring,” according to Little, “is how do we find a way to operate at the intersection of a business, commercial interest, and its community responsibility agenda?” Greiner enjoys this aspect of their relationship, as well as the United Way’s willingness to try things a little bit “outside the box.” This meant working together to benefit the Gas South team members as well. “We have a service of an assistance to our employees,” Greiner says, “where they self identify as an employee.” Once the company understands where the request is coming from, they provide the help needed. “We’ve made funds available,” he adds, “and they get a nice concierge service around the help the United Way usually provides to the general population.”
Of course, in business, the bottom line is profitability – and Greiner has been very happy with the results. “It has to be (profitable); we’ve been doing it now for seven years. Well actually, going on almost ten years,” he adds. “One of the really cool things about pay as you go is, after a year of good payment history, the customer automatically moves to our regular rate plans. So that’s something that we felt was really important. It’s great, it’s been a good program.” In fact, Gas South has found that this option drives more business to their doors. It’s also provided them with a reputation of being people-oriented and caring.
Set an Example
Along with tax relief and help with utility bills, Gas South and the United Way are developing more programs to help the community. “One of the things we recently announced,” Greiner states,” was a commitment to give 5% of our profits to children in need. It really does increase our charitable giving as a company.” But there is more to it than that. “It gives us more capacity to work with organizations like the United Way on some exciting initiatives,” he says, “and it’s a pretty big commitment.”
It’s about setting an example for other companies to follow. “We need to be more thankful to the community,” Greiner says, “because at the end of the day, the reason we exist is to serve and to serve customers, and to create great careers for our employees. So that commitment to community really resonates well.”
Little couldn’t agree more. “Every study that’s ever been done says that a company that provides not only a great place to work…benefits, great pay, great opportunity for advancement, but also has a commitment to community and facilitates their employees’ engagement in community,” he states, “is a place that has higher retention rates and more likely to attract the kind of talent that they want.”
It’s all part of the Gas South philosophy. “Giving to the right organizations is really important, but also aligning that philanthropy with our volunteer efforts is really important,” Greiner says, “we’re going to give money, but we’re also going to give time and resources and our talents, as employees, which is a really important piece of it too.”
Working together, these companies are proving the value in collaboration and community engagement. While both benefit, they are also prepared for the next inevitable crisis. That’s what keeps them on solid ground. That’s what makes them a benefit to both their customers, and their employees.