ceomonkhead.jpgFellows learn from inspiring Brooklyn business pairing

What can 42 Mays Fellows learn from a monk? The same things, perhaps, as the head of the Northeast’s most successful energy company.

The Fellows ended their weeklong learn-and-lead tour of New York businesses this spring break with a session at Brooklyn’s century-old KeySpan Energy, the fifth-largest distributor of natural gas in the nation. KeySpan’s unlikely success story begins with a marriage of commerce and spirituality in the form of CEO Robert Catell and his advisor and rank-and-file intermediary, former monk Kenny Moore.

“He acts as a true conscience; his job is to tell it like it is,” Catell told the Fellows gathered in his corporate meeting room. “Through Kenny, I have come to discover that what’s good for the spirit is likewise good for the company.”

You may not think a former monk would have much insight into the energy commodities business. But if you think of business the way Catell does, you’d see the value in having a people-oriented ambassador on hand who intrinsically understands and interprets employee needs—especially in the rough-and-tumble energy industry during the transition to deregulation.

ceoandmonkbook.jpgCatell came to rely on Moore as a corporate ambassador and ombudsman in the early 90s, just as then-Brooklyn Union Gas (KeySpan’s predecessor) was facing a shift from gas monopoly to the competitive market created by deregulation. Change doesn’t start with a beginning, but with an ending, Moore thought. So how to mark the transition to lean and mean, merger-ready energy company from comfortable, home-grown gas utility? With a company funeral, Moore decided, complete with tombstones leftover from Halloween.

Employees and managers jotted down what was ending for the company, placing their notes in one urn that Moore blessed. Then they shared what was up and coming for the company’s new role. A stork borrowed from Valentine’s decorations represented the rebirth of the company.

“People are dying to be connected and involved,” Moore said. “So, get them involved. Commitment cannot be mandated. It has to be invited.”

Moore is also guilty of a stealth employee-gifting campaign: every Friday morning, he strolls to a nearby Brooklyn florist and orders an anonymous bouquet and balloons for employees who perform well or go out of their way to help others. “If you recognize someone’s contribution, you’re tapping into something powerful,” he told the future business leaders.

KeySpan CEO Robert Catell (top) and his corporate ombudsman, former monk Kenny Moore.
Facing an acquisition
At no time were the company’s values under more question and its employees more unsettled than during the series of mergers that took place in the 90s and early 2000s to help build KeySpan into the powerhouse it has become.

Today, a looming acquisition with Britain’s National Grid will turn KeySpan into the third largest energy delivery utility in the U.S. Though that will lead to shake-ups within KeySpan’s structure and organizational chart, more funding will be available to invest in existing infrastructure. And in the end, KeySpan customers will see smaller bills.

“But, how will that affect the corporate culture you’ve worked so hard to build?” Senior marketing major Michelle Baggett asked.

She was one of the first students to quiz Catell on the acquisition’s impact as soon as he arrived to the Fellows session, fresh from a meeting to discuss just those details with New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Before the visit, Fellows students had read Catell and Moore’s 2004 book The CEO and the Monk: One Company’s Journey to Profit and Purpose, and many were eager to meet the leadership team that managed to prioritize people and culture alongside pursuit of profitable business.

“This sounds simple, but most mergers are unsuccessful precisely because they don’t lead the cultural changes correctly,” Catell told Baggett. It takes time to develop a culture, and it will take time to graft KeySpan’s culture into the climate already in existence at National Grid, he explained. “I see it as a partnership, and a work in progress.”

For the Fellows, the lessons in what keeps a business vital and real—the love and commitment of its employees—were a striking case-in-point. The humanity of business, Baggett later mused, is “key to everything, isn’t it?”

“You who are preparing to enter the world of business must aspire to be a force for good,” Moore said. “You’re embarking on what is probably an impossible journey, but remember that increasingly what goes on in commerce is not a contract, it’s a relationship—a relationship with all the people around you.”

Read all about it

  • Find Catell and Moore’s book on Amazon