Rick Riley’s fascination with electricity began at a very young age.
“It all started when I was about four years old,” the CEO of Entergy Arkansas says from inside his office, atop Simmons Tower in downtown Little Rock. “We had this Christmas tree, with all the lights around it. There was a socket on the bottom that didn’t have a lightbulb in it. I put my index finger in that socket.
“So,” he laughs, “my fascination with electricity started at that point.”
By the time he was in the ninth grade, Riley knew he wanted to be an electrical engineer. And he would pursue that dream at Lamar University in his hometown of Beaumont, Texas, earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in engineering management.
After graduating, he began his career at Gulf States Utilities in Beaumont, serving as a transmission and distribution engineer. He was there for five years before leaving for the Fina Oil & Chemical Company in Port Arthur.
“When you’re young, you expect to be the CEO in five years, but I wasn’t,” he jokes. “So, I was lured by big money to Fina… Then, I began to realize that my first love really was electricity. I knew if I wanted to move up, I needed to be in an industry that was more in my wheelhouse.”
Riley joined Entergy as a senior lead engineer in 1995. A year later, he was named manager of engineering field services, system protection and control. Riley continued to climb through the utilities giant, being named director of transmission policy in 1999, vice president of transmission regulatory compliance in New Orleans, then director of transmission and distribution operations in Mississippi. During that span of time, he also managed to get a master’s degree in business administration from Tulane University.
A Rich Tradition
When asked what has kept him so committed to the industry, he refers to its rich history. His office is a museum dedicated to electrical engineering. He takes pride in every artifact, showing them off with great enthusiasm. There’s a large wooden plank used to hoist linemen up powerline poles in the days before bucket trucks. He says he wants to hang it from his ceiling. There are faded metal plaques from plants that no longer exist, old glass insulators on nearly every surface and so much more.
“As you can see, I just love the history of the electric power industry,” Riley says. “Our founder, Harvey Couch, started here. And if you look at what he was doing, it wasn’t just about running a power company and making money. It was about helping Arkansas grow.”
On trade missions to New York and Chicago, Couch would bring along with him a bushel of sweet potatoes grown by his “Uncle Buck,” says Riley. Couch would wrap each sweet potato with tissue paper that featured recipes and information about Arkansas. Riley keeps one of these tissue papers framed inside his office.
“He was trying to extol the virtues of Arkansas by saying, ‘this is a great state, has a lot of farming. My uncle Buck has a potato farm,’” says Riley. “So, he would wrap yams in those little tissues, and he’d bring a whole bushel to investors, with recipes. There was such a noble purpose.
“Without us, the world would be completely different. We make the economy go,” he adds. “I love the history. I love what we do. And along the way, I realized that I could make a difference to the people who work for me. It gives me a platform to lead, and be in an industry I love with such a noble cause.”
A Platform to Lead
Riley says he takes an approach to leadership that he didn’t see a whole lot of as he was climbing the ladder. When asked who had the most impact on him as a leader, he says everyone played a part – even the authors and characters of the books he read along the way. Several books are stacked high on his desk, and Riley has read each of them in just the past few weeks.
“I’m really an amalgamation of a lot of different leaders,” Riley says. “In the fifth grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Hit, and she was really big into reading. We had a contest – and I’m very competitive – to see who could read the most books. I read 126 books, and I was probably 20 or 30 books ahead of the next competitor.
“So, I’ve learned from teachers, coaches, bosses and even books,” he adds. “I took from what I liked and even from what I didn’t like. My management philosophy can really be distilled down to the golden rule: treat others with respect, like how you want to be treated.”
And that’s just what he does. Riley says when he was first coming up in the company, employees were more likely to avert their eyes when passing a CEO in the hallway.
“It was stuffy,” he says. “It was command and control, do what I tell you. I’ve found that it just doesn’t work. I don’t think it really worked then, but I know it doesn’t work now. Really, my leadership has evolved by observing a lot of different people.”
Facing Industry Challenges
According to Riley, the energy industry is changing rapidly. And keeping up, while also looking ahead, is one of the biggest challenges facing Entergy today.
“The biggest challenge we face is recognizing that our industry is going to be changing. It’s changing already,” he says. “But 10 years from now, we don’t really know what it’ll look like. But along the way, we have to keep running the railroad and doing it well… I have to make sure we’re always doing the right thing and safely.
“We have to keep an eye to the future,” Riley adds. And that’s what Entergy is doing, with a pair of solar farms in the works – one that will be in operation in Stuttgart beginning this summer and another awaiting approval in Lake Village. “We’re evolving from a generation base. We started in 1913 burning sawdust… Through the years, we’ve added coal into the mix. We have our nuclear plant in Russellville. We have all these different types of traditional generation sources, and now we’re looking at solar and maybe even wind in the future, looking at all the environmentally friendly generation.”
Facing Leadership Challenges
In addition to challenges that face the industry as a whole, Riley said he also faces challenges from a leadership perspective. He addresses that challenge by meeting with his employees as often as he can.
Entergy Arkansas has 25 regional network offices throughout the state. Riley visits each at least once a year. “I can’t be everywhere. But I find that the more I go out, the better things tend to work out,” he says.
The company also conducts an employee survey each year, called the Organizational Health Index. Three years ago, he says, the results were low compared to peers. But last year, the index put Entergy among the top of their class.
And Riley encourages his employees to do what they love, even if that means working somewhere else.
“For me, that’s huge,” Riley said of employee satisfaction. “Our employees spend so much of their time at work. If they don’t enjoy their job or who they do it with, it makes for a long day. And if they don’t enjoy it, I encourage them to find a place where they do. If you don’t believe you’re serving a noble purpose and like what you do, make a change. Life is too short.”
Safety is Key
When interacting with his many employees across the state, Riley says he always focuses on four key messages.
“Safety is first,” he says. “What they do is dangerous work. The second is customer service. We want to make sure we’re delighting our customers and providing a high level of reliability. The third is to make this a great place to work. I emphasize that wherever I go. We have to enjoy each other, watch out for each other. Be inclusive of all the diverse backgrounds of everyone around you. When I was in Mississippi, diversity even extended to what college you went to – Ole Miss or Mississippi State. And number four, we’re not a nonprofit business. So, we do have to make some money along the way.”
The most important of these four keys, though, is safety. Riley says he aims to reduce workplace injuries among his linemen by changing the way they approached their tasks. He recently gave a presentation to several hundred linemen supervisors, where he relayed the teachings of Nobel-prize winning psychology professor Daniel Kahneman, whose book Riley also keeps in his office.
“I went through a presentation to show them how our minds operate,” Riley says. “We have a System 1 and System 2. System 1 is how we normally operate. It’s how we use rules of thumb to figure things out. If I say ‘bread’ you would say… ‘butter.’ It’s automatic. A lot of what we do is on automatic. System 2 is more complex, more rational, more self-restraint. It also does the complex calculations and can notice when things aren’t what they seem to be.”
The goal, he says, is to get more people operating on System 2. And so far, it’s working. As a corporation, Entergy had their best year ever last year, in terms of workplace injuries. “But even one injury is too many,” Riley says.
New Year, Similar Goals
Riley says his goal for 2018 is to continue improving in every aspect of operation. And that includes reliability to the customer.
“We always want to improve our reliability. We measure that in the average number of outages,” he says. “We had a 20 percent improvement rate over the past year, but I want to keep improving and get the number down.
“We also do a customer satisfaction survey, and our satisfaction level is right around 80 or 82,” Riley adds. “I’d like to see that get higher.”
Another key goal for Riley is to develop leaders within the company. “We need to develop the leaders that we have,” he says. “I want to keep the bench strength strong, so that as people retire, we have someone who’s ready. Ideally, you’ll always have one or two people ready to go, rather than always having to look outside.”
In addition to leading Entergy Arkansas, Riley is also the chairman of the state Chamber of Commerce and an active participant in the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. He uses his platform within his corporation to promote economic development in the state and prosperity for its residents.
“Harvey Couch was trying to grow Arkansas,” Riley says. “Economic development is a big thing for us. We stay very involved. And so is charitable contribution. We try to do a lot for the communities we serve, whether it’s through education or helping the lower-income communities. One of the programs we run is the Power to Care, where we ask employees and customers for donations to help those who struggle to pay their electric bills.”
It’s also critical to develop the workforce, Riley says. Entergy’s workforce is aging, requiring a transfer of knowledge from the old to the new. And there are thousands of positions left unfilled across the state, due to a lack of a trained workforce.
“Here, there are probably 5,000 to 10,000 jobs that we can’t fill,” he says. “The skill sets aren’t there to fill those jobs. When I was growing up, everyone was told that you had to go to college. But there are some really good, high-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. One of the things we’re trying to do, in conjunction with the state chamber, is to change that mindset.”
Riley encourages Arkansans to pursue a job they enjoy, regardless of whether or not it requires a college degree. “If you can make a good living doing something you like to do, that doesn’t require a four-year degree, then go do it,” he says. “Mechanics, electricians, linemen, these are all great careers. And it’s all a part of economic development.”