Consumers Energy’s first woman CEO ready to take reins
Jackson — Patricia Poppe likes pointing out an old saying from an old Consumers Energy history book.
“There was a time to be a president at Consumers, you either had to have red hair or to have gone to Purdue.”
Poppe, 47, who is replacing John Russell as the company’s president and CEO in July, can check one of those requirements off.
“Well, I thought, I don’t have red hair, so I thought I better go to Purdue,” Poppe told the Jackson Citizen Patriot. “My dad worked for the company, so that’s why we lived here. He was really intent I become an engineer.
“I never dreamed that I would be in Jackson, and at Consumers.”
The Jackson County native and Napoleon High School graduate is the first female president in the company’s 129-year history.
While she views this as an unquestioned honor, Poppe pointed to the “deep bench” of women on the Consumers team.
“Our board of directors, once I join the board, will be 30 percent women,” she said. “The national average for Fortune 500 companies is 19 percent. When you have a diverse workforce, then the right people get the job and you don’t have to actually even keep the stats anymore about promoting enough women.
“The good news is that I’m not an anomaly, and I’ll be really happy when this is actually not news.”
Poppe graduated with a degree in engineering from Purdue, and then earned another degree from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
Both college experiences were consequential in breaking into roles and opening doors, she said. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, either, as both of her daughters study engineering -- one at the University of Michigan and the other at Purdue.
“I left for 20 years, saw the world and realized the most beautiful place on Earth was right here in Jackson,” she said from a conference room overlooking the Grand River and E. Michigan Avenue.
She previously worked as director of regulated marketing for energy optimization at DTE Energy, and spent 15 years in various management positions at General Motors -- where her husband, Eric, still works.
Poppe is Consumers Energy’s senior vice president of distribution operations, engineering and transmission, a role she’s had since returning to Jackson County in early 2011.
When her promotion was announced, Poppe said she had a call with investors who asked her if she planned on shaking things up or going with the status quo.
“I said, well, if status quo is having breakthrough performance in every operational category and improving our business year over year over year over year,” she said while taking a brief pause, ‘then expect more of the same, because that’s what we’re committed to.”
Once Poppe takes the reins, Consumers will be three months removed from the shutdown of its seven coal plants, in addition to facing legislation concerns and the battle over opening up the energy market.
In 2013, State Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, introduced legislation to deregulate the energy market in Michigan.
Shirkey, now a state senator, has said both Consumers and DTE Energy are taking advantage of the situation to push for a wholly, regulated “government-sanctioned monopoly.”
This is what confuses people when it comes to opening up the market to competition, Poppe said.
“We believe that energy should be fair and affordable for all people,” she said. “We think that a fully regulated market is the best way to do that.
“We know we can compete on the open market,” she added, “but the risk then is borne by the citizens who have to pay for the price swings. We know our neighbors, friends and families, who are our customers, can’t afford those swings.”
It’s been proven countless times that in states with full deregulation, it’s the customer who bears the risk of price swings, and not the supplier, Poppe said.
She understands there is a disconnect with the public on some of these complex issues, but believes if people knew the Consumers staff the way she does, feelings would be much different.
Poppe points to the company’s promise to Michigan.
While technically a slogan and talking point, she said she and the thousands of Consumers employees truly believe the promise “Serving Michigan.”
“I continue to be amazed by the commitment that the people who work for this company have for our community,” said Poppe. “It’s not a slogan. We believe that we have made a promise that we will be there on the coldest day of the year, darkest night of the year, and we’re going to deliver, and every one of my co-workers feels that way.
“To lead the team really feels like a big responsibility, but an honor. I really can’t believe that everything unfolded the way it unfolded.”
After her time is up as the first female president and CEO in company history, Poppe said she hopes her legacy is that Consumers got “our work done the first time.”
“The highest order of that legacy would be that our community believes our promise to Michigan,” she said. “We’re a Fortune 300 company. It’s easy to lump us in with all other corporations as the big bad other, so to differentiate ourselves as the kind of the company that our communities trust and believe in, is not an easy task.
“It’s one we’re up for because I know how my co-workers feel, and what they work on every day.”