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"When you talk with people daily, you get a deep sense of what's important to them, and if you're wise, you remember those things." — Carey Lykins

Carey Lykins

The Power of Responsibility ...
and the Responsibility of Power

When oil and natural gas prices started soaring higher in 2008, Citizens Energy Group (CEG) chief executive officer Carey Lykins and his team had a decision to make: "duck and cover" and try to ride out the storm, or confront the issue head-on.

For the IUPUI graduate from the Kelley School of Business (BS 1973, MBA 1981), it was a no-brainer. Lykins hasn't risen through the ranks to the CEO's job for the energy provider by hiding from issues. The only question was how would CEG deal with a volatile issue in an uncertain time.

"We needed to get out in front of it, tell people why things were happening and most importantly, tell them there was assistance available and steps they could take to control the size of their gas bill," says Lykins.

The method CEG chose — weekly online chats featuring Lykins — broke new ground for the Indianapolis utility, which traces its roots back more than 120 years into the 19th century. The outcomes from the "Chats with Carey" also broke ground: they empowered customers.

"You could ask the CEO a question and get an answer," Lykins says. "People aren't used to having that opportunity. It gave us that interaction that is so often lacking in our lives. It gave us a personal connection, if only for a moment."

And though customers occasionally vented about the financial impact, a curious thing happened. "I got feedback from our customers, which I rarely have a chance to get. And we actually made decisions based on issues customers raised with me," he says.

Lykins is convinced the chats were more than an effective business tool; the "open-door" policy they represented treated customers like adults. In the end, the series proved to be the socially responsible thing for CEG to do.

Key to leadership style

Social responsibility is a crucial part of Lykins' management style of a utility, a public charitable trust.

"There is nothing as difficult or as important as effective communication in any relationship," he says. The chats reaffirmed his belief that people know that problems exist, whether personal or corporate. If you "tell them what you did and why you did it," people understand, Lykins contends. They may not like it, but they understand.

Lykins's determination to build strong, long-lasting relationships has been helped by a "strong team" of employees at CEG that has enhanced the utility's efforts to constantly improve customer relations.

Indeed, he believes his "biggest success was understanding that I couldn't be successful as a senior officer, let alone a CEO, unless I was willing to subjugate my needs and interests to those of the organization and other employees. When I learned how to do that, that's when I learned how to become a CEO."

That sense of purpose and community relations is reflected in customer satisfaction studies by J. D. Power and Associates, which have ranked Citizens Energy one of the best utilities in the Midwest in each of the past three years.

Good moments and bad

The road to that kind of success hasn't been simple or easy.

As he rose through the ranks, Lykins got to know the various aspects of the energy business. That helped him set the course for a move out of the declining coke manufacturing business and into the expanding steam and chilled water business. It also gave the company a more contemporary business mode and stronger financial profile.

But the same thing that was an advantage — years of getting to know the company's operations — had a built-in disadvantage. He also got to know many CEG employees, and when he finally realized that Citizens could not continue operating the coke manufacturing plant, he knew what the 2007 closure would mean.

"The hardest part of this job is to take away jobs, to close down an operation," he sighs. "It is gut-wrenching. I knew so many of those people."

Not surprisingly, Lykins didn't take the simple path to announce the decision. He met the men and women his decision would displace face-to-face.

"They are real people with real families," Lykins says. "When we met with them to tell them what was happening, I knew what it would mean. I knew those faces, and even families that would be affected." But he also knew the dangers of continuing an operation that drained resources from the company and delayed a shift to operations that might sustain others' jobs and reward Citizens investors.

"In this job, you have to be able to take the long view, even when it can be painful," Lykins says.

Ties to IUPUI

To be able to "take the long view" or any view of business management, Lykins decided to earn a business degree from IUPUI through the IU School of Business, now known as the Kelley School of Business. His academic career began before the current campus came into being.

"I was already working at Citizens as a pipefitter's assistant ("I dug holes") by day and took classes by night when I started. When I started, I was taking classes all over downtown," says Lykins.

After working outdoors through an Indiana winter in that first job, his next step was working the phones in customer service, which he still considers "the best preparation possible" for running the company.

"When you talk with people daily, you get a deep sense of what's important to them, and if you're wise, you remember those things," Lykins says. He later moved up to accounting and billing, became CEG's chief financial officer, and finally assumed the CEO's post in 2005.

Unlike some people who rise up a corporate ladder, Lykins had an inkling of what lay ahead.

"It occurred to me when I was 29 or 30 that I could pull this off, that I could end up running the company," he says. "Things just fell into place for me." One of the most valuable lessons he acquired along the way was to "learn how to think critically, and how to turn information into action," he says. But after earning his bachelor's in business and gaining "an invaluable background," Lykins found out that "the real world is different from a classroom, no matter how gifted your teachers are. For a long time, I tended to see things in too academic a view."

Perhaps the biggest of those lessons was the value of teamwork. "I had to learn that it isn't important to always be the one who is right," he says with a chuckle.

He later added his MBA to bolster his rise up the Citizens ladder, and "all the great experiences" he had along the way have encouraged him to stay close to his alma mater.

Surprising benefits

While "Chats with Carey" helped Citizens on a corporate side, there were some rather unexpected outcomes for Lykins on a personal level.

"I got letters from my third- and fourth-grade teachers, from our former babysitters, even my childhood friends," he laughs. "That amazed me, and it was a fun thing for me to catch up with people I haven't been in touch with for a while." He and his wife have five children, most living in Indiana. But one son lives in the Netherlands, and they have a daughter in Toronto, leaving the Indianapolis native mildly envious.

"Things have sure changed a lot since I was their age," he laughs. "These days, young people pick out the location they want to live in, then they get a job there. For me, Citizens was the best offer I received, so I stayed here!"

He's done his best through the years to make sure that "here" is an ever-improving city. During his "free time," Lykins has been active in community life. He's worked with such groups as the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Educational Choice Charitable Trust, Indianapolis Downtown Inc., the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the IUPUI Board of Visitors and the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership. He mentors young MBA students at Kelley, a process that invigorates him while enhancing the careers of a future generation of business leaders.

"It's been amazing to see Indianapolis grow, and fun to have a small part of that," Lykins says. "Whether it's Citizens or IUPUI or any other business in the city, we don't walk through this life alone.

"We won't make it if our neighborhoods are crumbling, if our schools don't work, if people just fly through on their way to and from the suburbs," he adds. "We have to work with one another, build on our strengths and make sure that future generations enjoy the same opportunities we've had."