As chairman and president of Ameren Illinois, Richard Mark is responsible for energy delivery to more than 1.2 million electric and 816,000 natural gas customers. In this capacity, he has long witnessed the benefits of diversity and inclusion initiatives within the company. In 2017, Mark was named among the top 100 minority business leaders in corporate America by the Financial Times, recognized for his support of diversity and inclusion through training, employee enrichment, community outreach and supplier development.
From serving as one of the initial executive sponsors of Ameren’s Network of Minority Employees to his work forming the Illinois Utilities Business Diversity Council, Mark’s leadership in this area has been unwavering. Among his many honors and awards, he received the Leadership Award from the Springfield NAACP, the Visionary Award from the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and was named one of the Most Powerful Executives in America by Black Enterprise Magazine. Peoria Magazine spoke with Mark about Ameren’s diversity initiatives and how they have evolved in recent years.
What does Ameren Illinois do to promote diversity?
Diversity is something we live every day. It is built into everything we do. A company built on a foundation of inclusiveness creates opportunities for employees, suppliers and customers. I believe it’s a key reason why Ameren Illinois has been successful. Whether an employee is working in the Peoria operating center or out of a smaller community, they need to understand what our customers’ needs are, what their expectations are, and how to connect with them. It is very important that our employee base mirrors our customer base.
We think of diversity not only in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, but also in terms of thought and experiences. Our Employee Resource Groups (ERG) are cross-sectional groups of employees who work together to develop diversity and inclusion initiatives. They consist of employees who share a common interest or background, or work to overcome some of the challenges/barriers and opportunities a particular group might face. They provide an active forum for discussion and exploration of cultural differences and offer avenues to welcome new employees, develop professional skills, expand networks, perform community outreach and assist Ameren Illinois in reaching our business goals. A few of the company-sponsored ERGs include the Ameren Military-Veteran Employees, Ameren Network of Minority Employees, and Women Influencing Success in Energy.
How do you drive that focus on diversity?
One way is by putting a diversity coordinator in each of our six regional operating divisions. These folks work with our operating center leaders to build awareness and advocacy for diversity and inclusion in hiring, supplier development and training. They have a touchpoint with every one of our coworkers in that region, to instill the values of diversity across the business.
We also developed a video training series that features people from all walks of life who talk about their experiences and how diversity has played a role in their success. It’s a simple way to drive home key messages and keep diversity in the front of everyone’s thoughts and minds. Plus, the stories are interesting for our employees to hear. Viewing these videos and discussing them in work groups is a requirement.
When we’re hiring, we make a conscious effort to attract diverse candidates. We select the most qualified person for every role, of course, but we do so from a pool that gives careful consideration to diversity. Our hiring teams are also diverse. That’s something we instill with all of our supervisors and our hiring managers, and it’s a practice we do very well.
Ameren Illinois employs more than 3,000 workers, but you also hire contractors. How do your diversity initiatives apply in those areas?
One thing we realized is that it’s natural to keep using the same contractors that have done a good job for you over the years. However, the small businesses that are a foundation in the communities we serve need to have the door pushed open for them so they can compete for our business.
To get there, we’re changing the mindset of our managers and directors and purchasing group. It’s easy to get one big contractor to do everything, versus looking at a project and maybe breaking it into smaller pieces that can draw on the expertise of several smaller contractors. A great example is the construction of our new gas operations facility in Edwards. Ron Givens and his company, GIVSCO, a diverse company, were co-general contractors on the project. Overall, as a company, we have increased our annual diverse supplier investment from $94 million in 2013 to $361 million last year.
You hire out more than just the field work, correct?
Yes, most of our substantive work is in building and maintaining our natural gas and electric delivery systems. We engage with contractors to put up poles, string wire, install technology and metering, and perform trucking, hauling and construction. But we also need support in areas such as finance, legal, building maintenance and administrative services. We have made a conscious effort to look at diversifying our spending in those areas, too.
It’s looking at every piece of the business and asking ourselves, are there diverse firms that we can consider? A lot of times those firms in small communities have a lot to offer, but they never even imagine that a company like Ameren would need that type of service.
A simple example is with internal events. Our operating centers host training and safety meetings; sometimes they bring in food from area caterers. We’ll proactively seek out diverse companies to hire for these jobs. A while back, one of our groups had a celebration meeting and found a diverse company to make the cupcakes. It’s a small example, but it adds up.
It’s about demonstrating that we’re not just some big corporation. We’re the neighbors within those communities. We serve those communities and that’s how we want to view our customers.
Looking out a few years, where is this going?
We continue to evolve. One focus we are working on is economic development and how we can help some of the smaller communities and communities that may have lost their core industry and need to replace those jobs. A good example is the recent closure of some of the coal plants in our service territory. We’re looking at ways we can help supplement those job losses.
From a diversity standpoint, this is a great opportunity, because if we can help small businesses in some of these small communities—whether it’s a rural community or a struggling urban community—we help the entire region and the entire state. So, economic development is a key focus area to tie into our diversity initiative programs.
Another area we focus on is building bench strength for our future leadership. Our succession planning model identifies emerging diverse leaders, and we work hard to develop them. We can’t be complacent because diversity will be an important part of our success in the future. PM