Gary Gibson started at City Utilities of Springfield as an intern. That was three decades and several promotions ago.
Come December, he’ll move up once more, this time into the top job, following the retiring Scott Miller. The official date is Dec. 20.
Gibson, CU’s current associate general manager of customer operations and communications, got the nod out of more than 20 applicants to become the 10th general manager of the municipal utility company since its start in 1945. Utility officials say it was a unanimous decision by the CU Board of Public Utilities.
“We impact our customers every second of every day. It’s critical to get the right person in there,” Miller said at an Oct. 17 news conference announcing Gibson’s appointment. “I’m excited for Gary to be getting this opportunity. He’s going to be great in this role. I’ve watched him grow and develop over the last decade.”
Miller was hired as GM in 2011 – also a CU promotion, from his general manager of electric supply post.
Miller said he’d work with Gibson, a CU full-time employee since 1991, over the next couple of months to help him transition into his new role. He’ll be in charge of a company which recently had its fiscal 2020 budget approved by Springfield City Council. The big numbers in his sights: $643.5 million in projected receipts and $588.7 million in expenditures.
“He truly has built a strong culture of reliability,” Gibson said of Miller at the news conference. “I plan to build on that foundation. I am excited and humbled, both, for the opportunity to get to lead.”
The move comes with some initial savings for the utility company.
Gibson will earn $308,000 in his one-year contract that is evaluated annually by the Board of Public Utilities. Benefits include a vehicle allowance. Miller’s current contract pays $470,815, and it started at $295,000 when he became general manager in 2011, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.
CU board Chairman Joe Reynolds said Gibson’s strong technical background in electric, gas, water and broadband areas, coupled with his passion for customer service and community engagement, were keys to him rising as the top candidate for the 11-member board.
“From my perspective, he had a vision for the utility and its future, as well as leadership experience,” Reynolds said.
He said national search firm Mycoff Fry Partners LLC was brought in to help find a successor as soon as Miller announced his retirement in June. Mycoff also provided service for CU during the prior GM search, he added.
“It was my desire not to lose any time to getting the word out,” Reynolds said, noting the board wanted the best candidate for CU, be it external or internal.
With Gibson, the last three CU GMs have been internal hires.
In an Oct. 22 interview, Gibson said Miller gave executive committee members like himself opportunities to lead in projects. That, in turn, gave him confidence to apply for the GM post – something he decided against in 2011, when he served as director of distribution.
“I’ve always looked at every job of whether I can provide value in the position,” he said. “With the opportunities that Scott’s been able to give me over the past couple of years, I really think I can provide a value.”
Gibson graduated in 1991 from Missouri University of Science and Technology with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He interned with CU in 1990 and said he fell in love with Springfield. After college, he started at CU, moving up the ladder as he worked in the gas and water departments before becoming the director of distribution in 2006 – just before the 2007 ice storm.
“It was kind of like learning by fire,” he said of the storm that knocked out power to approximately 75,000 people, some for up to 14 days. “That was an incredible experience to see how our employees came together to get our community power restored.”
From that storm, Gibson said the idea to implement an advanced metering infrastructure project was born. AMI allows two-way communication between CU and electric, gas and water meters, collecting hourly usage. Staff also are able to communicate remotely with the meters to get current reads as well as disconnect and reconnect power.
It took several years for the $50 million project he helped lead get the green light, Gibson said, as the company sought to budget for the expenditure as opposed to raising rates to pay for it. The project started in 2015, and all electric meters should be installed around March 2020, he said. Gas and water meter installations are expected to be complete by 2023.
Another major initiative with Gibson’s fingerprints is just ramping up.
In August, CU officials announced a $120 million fiber network expansion through its SpringNet division in a public-private partnership with CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL). The plan consists of $90 million in debt financing and another $31 million capital improvement allocation, according to past SBJ reporting.
Officials say the project is expected to make Springfield a gigabit city. Gigabit broadband refers to high-speed internet that runs at a gigabit per second.
“I feel fortunate I was part of getting that project kicked off,” Gibson said, adding Dean Thompson is now in charge of the SpringNet division. Gibson previously served as associate director of economic development and SpringNet before taking on his current associate general manager role.
The project involves the build-out of over 1,000 fiber route miles in addition to 700 currently in operation. Gibson said the project, scheduled to start next year, would take two or three years to complete.
CU also is looking into investments in its transit sector, as Gibson said it secured a grant this month to fund two all-electric buses as a pilot project. Estimated cost for the bus project is $1.87 million, said CU spokesman Joel Alexander. A nearly $1.5 million Federal Transit Administration grant covers 80% of the project. CU’s match is $6,082, which doesn’t include upgraded infrastructure, Alexander said, adding the buses won’t be in operation until late 2020.
Investments in fiber optic and transit are part of the company’s goal to keep up with rapidly changing technological demands, Gibson said.
“Technology is changing, the energy marketplace is changing, and our customers’ expectations are changing,” he said.
To partly address those expectations, a new customer engagement platform will be coming next year, Gibson said. That will include a new website and customer portal that will make it easier to pay bills, set up payments and find company information. Rollout is planned for mid- to late-2020.
“We need to continue to look for new programs and new ways to engage with our customers to provide value,” he said. “I want us to be out in the community every chance we can.”
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