2021 Most Respected Business Leader Kevin Greiner: Growth and Engagement
A shrewd acquisition vaulted Kevin Greiner’s company to a billion dollars in revenue, nearly tripling its numbers and swelling its customer base.
Kevin Greiner describes Gas South’s December 2020 purchase of Florida-based Infinite Energy as “a big challenge and a wonderful opportunity.” A challenge because it increases revenue and adds customers; an opportunity for the same reasons, with the prospect of growing the company’s capabilities and influence.
Gas South, headquartered in Atlanta and owned by Cobb EMC, is now the largest retail natural gas marketer in the Southeastern United States. It is both a retailer and a wholesaler – it buys and sells gas and owns storage facilities. Greiner, the president and CEO, has led the company from its beginning in 2006 when it operated only in Georgia and served mostly residential customers. Before the Infinite Energy acquisition, it had about $350 million in revenues; now the number is close to $1 billion with about 425,000 customers.
As it has grown, Gas South and its CEO have earned a reputation for community engagement, with a pledge to give back 5% of the company’s profits to organizations that help children.
“One of the things we really love about our focus on children is the very strong equity lens we are using to decide what sorts of initiatives do we want to fund for kids who do not have the opportunities that they deserve and need,” Greiner says.
Greiner is current chair of the YMCA of Metro Atlanta and past chair of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and the United Way of Greater Atlanta campaign. For his leadership in the energy industry and his involvement in the community, Kevin Greiner is Georgia Trend’s 2021 Most Respected Business Leader.
Gas South has done three previous smaller acquisitions but passed on others before pursuing the Infinite sale, significant in that it brought a larger company into the fold. “The acquisition of Infinite is by far the largest and most transformative, adding to our customer base, augmenting our capabilities, bringing on a really talented group of employees,” Greiner says.
Because of the pandemic, the entire deal was done virtually – months after the sale, he still had not met the Infinite leadership team, headquartered in Gainesville, Fla., in person. Still, the two companies complement each other, he says. “Our origins are mostly on the residential side. We started as a retail player. Infinite started as a natural gas wholesaler and trader and moved into retail, including residential.
“Now it’s coming together – a full service natural gas marketer that serves customers of all shapes and sizes, from individuals to some of the largest industrial customers, even other energy traders and utility companies that are serving customers throughout the Southeastern U.S.,” Greiner says. That includes large customer bases throughout Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas and a smaller presence in a few other states.
“Over time we’re going to be integrating Infinite customers into Gas South and will serve customers under one brand in Georgia,” he says. “We’ll have a broader set of capabilities, really bring the best of what both companies do to the table.”
The Gas South name will replace the Infinite Energy brand in most markets and will mean a name change for the event venue Infinite Energy Center in Gwinnett County.
Greiner got into the energy business, specifically natural gas, for reasons part environmental, part economic.
“One of the things that attracted me early in my career is that [natural gas] is a really clean fuel. It’s lower-carbon than many other fossil fuels, but also generates very low emissions,” he says.
He finds the business side exciting as well. “I’ve always been intrigued by competitive energy markets,” he says, and the prospect of differentiating a commodity, largely through customer service.
“Our gas is not going to make your food taste any better or heat your home any better or dry your clothes any faster,” Greiner says, “but because we are offering a commodity, we always need to be thinking how do we ‘de-commoditize’ the customer experience. I find that to be a fascinating challenge as does our team – in essence to provide a commodity which has no differentiation but provide exceptional differentiation when it comes to service.”
Energy is traded like other commodities, providing what Greiner calls “a real opportunity to create real economic value. That’s a really important part of our business – trying to provide the right types of supply and risk management solutions for our customers – whether they be folks actually using gas in their own homes or own processes or whether they be utilities purchasing gas for their own customers.”
Greiner prides himself on knowing every employee in the company. The Infinite acquisition, coming during a time of limited contact, makes that task tougher. “It will prove a challenge,” he says. “We have about 250 employees; so does Infinite. But I think it’s important to connect with our employees, to learn a little about them, their families, their passions, their interests. I’m really energized by it.”
Crucial to Greiner’s view of his industry and his own leadership style was an early career experience with Enron Corp., the energy behemoth that collapsed in 2001. Greiner characterizes it as “one of the big flameouts of U.S. corporate history.”
He and his wife had just returned from a posting in Germany with a two-year-old when the company’s bankruptcy put him out of a job. “I learned a lot about the energy business but also learned a lot about how not to do it,” he says. “Enron was a company that wasn’t very well organized. It was moving probably too fast and in too many directions and also played fast and easy with the rules, obviously. One of the things I was able to take away was if I was ever in a role of leadership, there were a lot of things I would do differently. Those lessons end up as valuable as what you take away and say you want to emulate,” he believes, especially for young people just beginning their careers. “Some of the best lessons are where you say, ‘That’s how I will never do business.’”
From Enron, he moved to Atlanta and went to work for the Southern Co., which sold off a natural gas business to Cobb EMC that became Gas South. Greiner was offered the CEO position of that company, with 160,000 customers and some 40 employees.
It grew, despite the fact that its parent company, Cobb EMC, had some tough times of its own in the late 2000s. Those involved lawsuits, an expensive settlement and indictments on charges of theft and racketeering (later dismissed) against a long-time CEO, who resigned as part of a settlement.
The subsequent change of leadership bolstered Gas South and “really helped to turbo-charge our growth,” Greiner says. “Starting in 2012, that’s when our growth really took off. The inflection point was really 2012.”
A part of that growth involves sustainability. Gas South has partnered with its parent company on a solar installation at Cobb EMC’s Marietta headquarters, a project that largely powers the campus and some nearby homes; the company is looking into other investments.
Greiner notes that Cobb EMC has the largest solar portfolio among energy co-ops east of the Mississippi River. “We’re definitely very excited to work with [Cobb EMC] to see what types of new roles we can play in investing in and creating new solar opportunities, particularly in the Southeastern U.S. We expect it to be part of our future. We’re still forming our strategy about where we play in the renewable energy space. We’ve got a lot of experience with solar, and we’re excited about that.”
Greiner sees, too, what he calls “a really nice opportunity with renewable natural gas (RNG) – basically methane produced from agricultural and waste sources, landfills or poultry farms to create methane emissions.” The opportunity, he says, “is to take that methane and clean it up to pipeline-quality standards and put it in a natural gas pipeline. We think RNG has a really bright future for working with a number of industrial customers and utility partners and energy services companies.”
Existing infrastructure could be used to move RNG, he says. “We have the ability to move natural gas, whether renewable or traditional, through interstate pipelines and utility systems. The ability to match buyers and sellers of RNG is a really nice opportunity.”
Still another likely project involves green hydrogen. “There’s a lot of talk about hydrogen,” Greiner says, “how natural gas pipelines could be repurposed to move green hydrogen and blend it into the traditional natural gas sources. Hydrogen can be blended into natural gas to the tune of about 15%, so over time as we see more demand and more opportunity for hydrogen to really power a greener economy, we see a real role for natural gas marketers and natural gas utilities to play a big role.”
Existing pipelines, he says, make it possible “to think about a future where there could be RNG and hydrogen also being mixed into traditional natural gas, something everybody in the industry finds really exciting.”
Gas South’s growth has spurred the company’s commitment to community engagement. “We consider ourselves to be a purpose-driven organization,” Greiner says, “but Gas South never articulated its position until 2016. We came together as a leadership team and landed on our purpose as being ‘a fuel for good’ and what that means for customers and employees.”
At that time, the company made a commitment to give back 5% of its profits to organizations that help children. Part of that direction was driven by Greiner’s interests and involvement.
“As CEO, I have the opportunity to help to steer what our purpose, what our philanthropic focus would be. I’ve tended to work in education and [with] children in need” including his current stint as chair of the Atlanta YMCA, which this year will recognize Gas South as its corporate partner of the year.
But there is more to the focus on children, Greiner says. “As a company we have a long-term horizon we’re looking at. We expect to be around for a long time. Investing in children can take a long time to pay off. We want to work to provide opportunities especially [for] kids from lower-income and disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s an important place for us to prioritize.” And a place where long-term investment is needed.
The company encourages employees to volunteer, using their skills or serving on boards, and provides paid time off to facilitate those efforts.
“The pandemic is a time for us to really step up and support communities impacted,” Greiner says. Gas South committed $1 million last spring, working with the YMCA, the Atlanta Community Food Bank and the Health and Energy Assistance Team (HEAT) to help fund child care, healthcare and food distribution for hotel and restaurant workers.
“We look for ways we can really target our funding, target our efforts to get the biggest bang for the bucks. Our focus and our size [give us a] way we can truly make a difference.”
Climate change will continue to be “a big issue for all of us to wrestle with,” Greiner says of the energy business, citing efforts to continue to curb greenhouse gas emissions and encourage alternative, non-carbon sources of energy.
He believes the natural gas industry can do more in terms of capturing emissions – “whether that’s producing natural gas at the wellhead, transporting natural gas through the pipeline, ensuring that leaks are kept to a minimum, there’s a lot in the natural gas business we can do to ‘green up’ our operations as an industry.
“I do think we’re going to continue to see a need for a lot of different energy forms,” Greiner says. “The notion that we really need an ‘all of the above’ strategy in the U.S. that combines clean fossilfuel-based forms with the emergence of renewables and other alternatives is going to be really, really important.”
He sees both change and innovation ahead. “It’s really incumbent on all of us to figure out how do we each contribute to a more sustainable future while we continue to look at ways we can meet the country’s energy needs in a clean and sustainable manner.
“As a natural gas marketer,” Greiner says, “we’re going to be in a position to participate in all of that. I think our business will evolve and change. Probably the future for Gas South is to consider ourselves an energy marketer rather than specifically tied to only one energy form. I think there will be an opportunity for us to diversify and meet needs throughout the Southeast.”