Former Wisconsin Energy Chairman Reflects on Industry Changes
It’s been eight years since Dick Abdoo stepped down as Chairman of the Wisconsin Energy Corporation, of which We Energies is a subsidiary.
But the Michigan native, who started his career as an electrical engineer, has not totally distanced himself from his past work.
Richard Abdoo now sits on the board of directors for Menomonee Falls-based ZBB Energy, which designs and manufactures energy storage and power control products.
Abdoo started in the utilities business in the summer of 1963 as a summer student engineer. Once he climbed his way up the corporate ladder, he became the youngest CEO in the utilities industry.
When he first started, the goal of the electric company was to get electricity everywhere possible regardless of the means they used to make it happen.
“The federal government offered certain incentives to build transmission lines and pipe plants,” Abdoo says.
But throughout his tenure, the electric companies faced the consumer movement and the environmental movement, which made Abdoo rethink how to get the electricity available using resources acceptable to the standards. Such options were nuclear energy, solar power and wind power.
While transforming the energy industry is great, Abdoo says a complete overhaul isn't likely to happen.
"If you stood back and said, 'We’re going to start over, and we’re going to design a system that uses more solar, more wind, that allows you to put your windmill up in Grafton, and transport the power to Milwaukee,' you could do it – it would be cost-effective. The system wasn’t designed for that," he says.
Many outside of the energy business might not realize that keeping electric resources safe is a major factor for energy companies. Abdoo says the FBI made a visit to his office once or twice a year to discuss the safety of his company and its resources.
Even though the electric company was on top of its safety and security, the case of Matthew Brown, who crawled into an unlocked transmitter and lost his life, reveals that safety must remain a top priority.
Looking at Milwaukee’s economy and businesses, Abdoo says it has changed from a “metal bending and manufacturing” economy to one that is a technological and service industry, a transformation that can be seen throughout the country.
He says, though, that in order for the United States to keep its position in the world, manufacturing businesses need to be kept here instead of outsourced.
Our conversation was recorded on the 6th floor of the University Club in downtown Milwaukee.