In Conversation with Eric Schouest
Cleco’s Vice President of Marketing & Government Affairs discusses his professional journey and the future of the energy sector
Tell us about yourself. How did you get started on your career path? I entered the energy industry in the early 1990s with Louisiana Gas Service Co. (now Atmos Energy). I spent eight years with LGS working as an account manager at the residential and commercial levels learning the business. I eventually was asked to join the industrial account management side of the business, where the size of the customers was much more significant regarding their natural gas energy needs. This is where I was initially introduced to natural gas commodity trading. In the late 90s, I was recruited to go to work for Texaco Natural Gas/Bridgeline Pipeline Co. working in the deregulated natural gas sector. I eventually moved to Houston and was assigned to a joint venture between Texaco and Enron as a Texaco employee. I worked on the trading floor in origination and commodity trading to include natural gas storage. In 2001, I was recruited by Cleco Marketing and Trading to enter the electric power business. It was a logical step for many at the time to transition from natural gas to power, as the natural gas commodity was one of the primary fuels to generate electricity. I have been with Cleco since. The Cleco opportunity allowed me to bring my family back to Louisiana, which was a huge enticement because my wife and I were born and raised in the New Orleans metro region.
Were you always interested in the energy sector? It really was an opportunity that came up from a neighbor. A neighbor, who worked for LGS, asked me to consider applying for an open position at the company because I was very sales focused. I bit into it pretty hard once I began to understand that all business revolved around and was dependent on some form of energy to operate. I had no idea how complex the energy industry was and how integrated all the supply chain and building block compounds are in everything we touch and consume.
At Cleco, you lead efforts in both marketing and government affairs. What’s your approach to managing such seemingly different initiatives? Having both marketing and government affairs connected eliminates the silos that are created when they report to different leadership, business units, etc. When they are allowed to merge together, it creates efficiency and improves productivity when collaboration is immediate and connected to the same strategy. If economic development and marketing are struggling with a permit or a government process/ordinance, etc. creating headwinds for a new customer or an existing customer to grow, the government team can address this via public affairs and the legislative and/or federal levels immediately. In addition, the government affairs team is an extension of marketing/economic development when it comes to lead generation and intel.
Apart from your role at Cleco, you’ve been a board member for GNO, Inc. and the Northshore Business Council, as well as a representative for the Louisiana Legislative Advisory Task Force on economic recovery. Why was it important for you to serve the community in these specific arenas? It offers our company insights into assisting our existing customer base and connecting to a broader community of regional leadership, creativity and collaboration. Personally, it is an opportunity to engage and stay connected to the larger metropolitan areas Cleco does not service. I’ve always encouraged our employees to get involved in two areas outside of the specific job description in your career: 1) something that assists our customers and our company and 2) something that simply gives back to our community.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career, and how did you overcome them? Moving seven times in my career. The oil and gas and energy sectors require mobility to take on learning opportunities and advancement. It requires a strong family unit, and I’m blessed to have one. It takes patience, and it takes timing related to introducing change. Going through Hurricane Katrina as a new first-time general manager with Cleco was physically and emotionally the most challenging year of my life. I was responsible at the time for marketing, operations and government affairs for Cleco’s eastern district (St. Tammany & Washington Parishes).
What do you consider your greatest professional victory? Supporting, in every way, our “Blue Shirts” (that’s what we call our Power Line Technicians) who physically do all the work in restoring power safely and timely getting the lights back on to bring business back up for thousands of customers following the major hurricanes that have hit our service regions. Katrina stands out as the most impactful. I, along with our teams of employees, slept on the floor of our offices for a month during that restoration effort for our St. Tammany and Washington Parish service regions. Our entire transmission and distribution systems were significantly damaged. Cleco received the Tammany Award from the St. Tammany Chamber for outstanding company of the year regarding our efforts to bring the community back to normalcy.
What’s one business lesson you wish you’d known at the start of your career? Timing. Knowing when to introduce a new idea or concept, or knowing when to go against the grain. The timing is not always that “live moment in the meeting.” It requires patience and care in messaging. The message maybe isn’t for the entire group, maybe just one or two colleagues with fact-based comments in a calm environment/different setting.
When you consider the future of the energy sector, which focus areas do you think hold the most potential for industry growth and expansion? Electrification, which is the replacement of technologies that use fossil fuels with technologies that use clean energy sources, is upon us. The demand for renewables and carbon management are a huge opportunity for the Gulf Coast region of the country, specifically Louisiana with the oil and gas talent and the abundant workforce that is capable of transitioning to emerging technologies, while maintaining our existing “all of the above” energy sources. Monitoring adoption rates and trends of what end users want, related to a host of clean energy sectors, will be critical to growth in our energy intensive region.
In 2021, Cleco announced its own Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) framework. How do you factor in that initiative with your marketing work? With your governmental affairs work? Events like the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme temperatures and natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods have demonstrated how interconnected the world is, and as a result, there’s a renewed focus on sustainability all over the world. However, sustainability is about planning for the future, so it’s more than preservation of our natural resources. Our ESG framework explains what we’re doing to protect the environment as well as what we’re doing to manage social relationships and govern responsibly. Cleco Power is reinvigorating both its marketing and economic development strategies to support economic growth and our electrification initiatives, across our 24-parish service area, recognizing that industry electrification and renewable energy impacts require a strategy reset.
Through a focused, customer-centric strategy, Cleco is offering value-added solutions to our customers, while helping our communities grow through investment and job creation. This includes approaching targeted industries to bring new suppliers and manufacturers to the state and working with regional economic development organizations and national site location consultants to highlight the many advantages of its service territory. Leading these efforts for Cleco Power is Richard Cornelison who brings 27 years of experience in economic development from Oklahoma Gas & Electric. Cornelison has twice been named one of the top 50 Economic Developers in the country and has had success across all industry sectors. With a renewed focus on these activities, Cleco Power officials are partnering with key organizations to ensure growth and stability for the economy of Louisiana.
What role might other local organizations focused on economic development, workforce training and job creation play in the industry’s success? Workforce training to adapt to the emerging energy technologies will be crucial to a sound and balanced energy transition. A robust state- and locally-led strategy that continues to update its economic development target sectors. COVID and supply chain issues have changed the way companies will operate. Reshoring of manufacturing should be a primary focus, for example. Solar panel and battery manufacturing, along with the hydrogen hub focus of the Gulf Coast region, are tremendous opportunities. It is critical that regional economic development organizations gain the training and feel connected to the larger metropolitan economic development organizations. The leadership of GNO, Inc. is on point and critical to educating and driving change and acceptance of new economic development target sectors. The sectors and targets will continue to change and will put immense pressure on our infrastructure. Infrastructure improvement and de-risking are key to attracting site-selectors and their quality clients to our region.
When your schedule allows for downtime, how do you stay refreshed and energized? I love sporting clays. It is my favorite pastime, and I have been actively competing and shooting since college (I was a member of the University of New Orleans Skeet Shooting Team). It is a thrill to introduce someone to a sport you can do your entire life. I also have been riding a Harley Davidson since I was 25 years old. I make an annual trip to the Smoky Mountains to simply get away. I am an avid boater and on the water with family and friends along the Gulf Coast when time allows.
Eric Schouest oversees marketing, business development and governmental affairs for Cleco Power LLC, from the company’s Mandeville office. Cleco Power is a regulated electric utility of Cleco Corporate Holdings headquartered in Pineville, Louisiana. These operations are supported by 1,300 employees who serve approximately 290,000 customers across Louisiana. Schouest spoke with REGION about the lessons he’s learned, challenges he’s overcome, his biggest successes and his vision for the future of this critical industry.