2015 Pittsburghers of the Year
This year, we honor three people who represent vital aspects of our city's heart while helping to propel it forward in three very different arenas: Karen Wolk Feinstein, Billy Porter, and Morgan O'Brien.
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A Personal Investment in the Future
By christine h. o’toole
photography by Becky thurner braddock
Morgan O’Brien never forgets where he came from, and that has helped Pittsburgh to head in new directions.
As president and CEO of Peoples Natural Gas, he leads a rapidly expanding utility in a sector that was barely a blip on local radar a decade ago. He’s been instrumental in helping to create the region’s strategy to take full advantage of the local gas windfall — thinking ahead on how to leverage those reserves to create sustainable growth and jobs for the next generation of Pittsburghers. But his real talent is putting the region first, rolling up his sleeves to tackle tough projects with long-range payoffs.
As the immediate past president of the powerful Allegheny Conference on Community Development, you might expect O’Brien to spend his days closeted in hushed negotiations with government and corporate honchos. You might not expect to find him backing a door-knocking program to help Braddock’s poorest residents afford winter heat or laying the groundwork for world-class energy research at local universities.
O’Brien, 55, has done that and more. This affable Pittsburgher, born and bred in Baldwin Borough, is an energetic and effective change agent. Working with the Allegheny Conference, he forges alliances with international corporations such as General Electric and tough-minded community leaders such as Braddock mayor John Fetterman. He sees Pittsburgh as a leading energy center that is building a healthy and diverse economic base on innovation and technology. Now, that vision is going viral, in large part due to his personal commitment to make that happen.
“Morgan’s all about making this a better place to live overall,” says Richard Harshman. The chairman, CEO and president of ATI, a Pittsburgh-based manufacturer of specialty materials, succeeds O’Brien as chair of the Allegheny Conference this year and also has worked with him as a fellow alumnus and trustee at Robert Morris University. “He is a consensus builder without being arrogant or confrontational. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like him. He treats people with respect. So, he’s hard to say no to. That makes him successful.”
O’Brien earned his accounting degree at RMU’s downtown campus while working part-time as coordinator of the school’s intramural program. He’s been a go-to team player ever since.
After a meteoric career at Duquesne Light, O’Brien became its CEO at age 41. “For a Pittsburgh kid from a blue-collar, first-generation family, to become head of a public utility right here — that’s the American dream, right?” he says with a laugh.
One of O’Brien’s first assignments there was to oversee the sale of the utility’s power plants, co-owned with Ohio’s FirstEnergy. Adroitly structuring a deal that harvested the most valuable assets, he offered regulators an ingenious plan.
“I convinced them that money [from the sale] would go against what our ratepayers would have to pay. We ended up with $1.3 billion — almost twice what people expected we would sell for,” he recalls. By the early 2000s, Duquesne Light was able to reduce rates by 25 percent.
The solution was vintage O’Brien. “It was good for investors and good for customers — who didn’t like that?” he asks. “We married the strategy of helping the region grow and making the company more valuable. That resonated. The board got behind it.” He honed the firm’s focus on economic development with new industrial customers and real estate developers.
“My perspective was, when the region does well, the company does well.”
In 2006, the University of Pittsburgh named O’Brien a trustee. “I engaged with Pitt because it was important for the region and company,” he says. “I worked with the chancellor [then Mark Nordenberg] on funding challenges with the state legislature and helping the university grow. Pitt was an important customer for Duquesne Light. But it was also a driver of the region’s economic rebirth, through eds and meds. Being engaged with that was important.”
O’Brien recognized that advanced research would bolster new energy-related businesses attracted by the Marcellus and Utica shale gas plays. He supported Pitt’s creation of the Center for Energy at the Swanson School of Engineering in 2008 and chairs its advisory council of CEOs from the region. The cross-disciplinary think tank examines power generation, renewable solutions, smart grids and energy storage.
“He was huge in helping us,” recalls Brian Gleeson, the center’s founding director and now chair of the mechanical engineering and materials science department at Swanson. “He convinced others to join him on the advisory board and formulated a plan on how it could contribute. As we recruited top academics from other institutions, they met personally with Morgan as well. He was instrumental.”
Today, the Center for Energy lists 100 affiliated faculty, boasts $22 million in research grants and has enrolled 1,500 students in its certificate programs. Those highly educated grads comprise a critical supply chain for the growing energy sector.
During O’Brien’s tenure with the Allegheny Conference, both the local and national economy gained steam. The organization began to see the payoffs of a strategic goal: a strong regional workforce. The conference already had built its “Imagine Pittsburgh” job-search site, now listing more than 20,000 positions. It had backed agile training programs for new jobs in the energy industry. Those programs helped the region to pass an economic milestone this year: southwestern Pennsylvania now boasts the highest employment numbers in its history. At the same time, the city’s median age of 32.8 is its youngest since 1980.
“We’ve got more jobs, more people working and we’re younger. That’s all good,” says O’Brien. “The challenge is that 100,000 jobs don’t get filled” as local boomers retire.
With four grown children living and working in the city (he and his wife Kathy live downtown), O’Brien has a personal stake in keeping Pittsburgh’s youthful talent around.
He also acknowledges that embracing diversity and welcoming immigrants must be a regional priority.
“Our workforce is naturally shrinking. Without people coming here, we can’t thrive,” he says bluntly. “We want our kids to stay and have jobs. We want to take care of our own. But we haven’t been engaged in getting other people to come here.”
O’Brien, the son of Irish immigrants, thinks our history provides the answer. “Think of how Pittsburgh was formed — all kinds of different people came here because they could afford to raise their families here and have good jobs,” he says. “My father came a quarter of the way around the world to find work and always taught us we shouldn’t take it for granted. He came to Pittsburgh to work as a truck driver, with an eighth-grade education and a G.E.D.”
He knows that his family’s work ethic is shared by thousands of families in the region and beyond. “Our challenge is to go back to our roots and embrace people from all over the world,” he says.
Since joining Peoples in 2010, O’Brien has made other contributions to the health of the workforce. He brought 300 customer-service jobs back to Pittsburgh from North Carolina and led the acquisition of two other natural gas suppliers, Butler-based Phillips and Equitable Gas. With 700,000 customers, Peoples now is the largest natural gas-distribution company in Pennsylvania and serves parts of West Virginia and Kentucky for the first time. As such, the firm confronts major environmental issues.
“There’s a changing tolerance on environmental issues — no longer is coal acceptable to the public,” he says. “Our region wants a cleaner environment and also wants to take advantage of this incredible fuel source. We help people play both sides of that fence. We want to be a role model for the rest of country from an environmental perspective.”
Throughout the company’s rapid expansion, O’Brien has embodied community service as a core value. As 2012 chair and current board member of United Way of Allegheny County, he demonstrated his personal commitment. He led the committee that put into place its free 2-1-1 Southwest Helpline, which connects people in need with community, health and disaster assistance in 11 counties, and he remains an enthusiastic evangelizer of the services it provides. He urges Peoples employees to support charitable causes of their choice, and he says the company’s mission is for every employee to come to work each day with the intent to improve customers’ lives.
“We’ve energized the folks working here. We’re going to take care of this region. We’re going to be engaged. We’re going to be a company that does anything the region needs us to do, to make the best place possible.”
In November, Peoples unveiled improvements to an outreach program that gives low-income families assistance in paying utility bills. While the LIHEAP program has been available through local utilities for decades, it struggled to enroll all of those who are eligible.
Working with Braddock’s Free Store and other nonprofit organizations last winter, Peoples invested another $100,000 to spread the word. An active door-knocking campaign helped residents to apply for help — and was so successful that it will be replicated in more local communities next year. Now O’Brien wants Peoples to apply that lesson to other social services.
“If you can’t pay their utility bill, guess what? You’re probably having trouble feeding your family. You’re probably having trouble paying your rent. We can partner with food banks or with the United Way to help people more broadly. That feels like a natural evolution” in the firm’s community service commitment.
The rush to drill wells across western Pennsylvania is only the first stage in reaping the rewards of natural gas. Typically, O’Brien has thought ahead to the next strategic move: developing the region as a center for advanced manufacturing. In November 2014, General Electric announced that it would invest $32 million in a new advanced manufacturing facility in Findlay Township to develop and implement 3-D printing, as well as other innovative technologies. Its doors will open by the end of the first quarter, according to GE.
In explaining GE’s vote for Pittsburgh, Barbara Negroe, leader of the conglomerate’s additive manufacturing team, explained the factors that landed the region a huge competitive asset.
“We chose Pittsburgh because of the robust [research and development] in the area, proximity to industry and high-skill machinists, access to many of the top universities working in additives today, and accessibility to many of our GE businesses, with our location being so close to the airport,” she said during an April news conference.
Morgan O’Brien credits retired PNC chairman Jim Rohr, a board member at GE, for sparking the firm’s interest in the region and ensuring its concerns were addressed. But O’Brien’s patient spadework at the Allegheny Conference also was key.
By tirelessly supporting university research as well as local firms, championing a highly skilled workforce and urging public officials to improve transportation and transit, he arguably created the conditions for one of the region’s biggest economic wins to date — one that will pay dividends for decades to come.
Christine H. O’Toole is a frequent PM contributor as well as an active travel writer who covers stories about Pittsburgh, the region and the world. She wrote our 2014 Pittsburgher of the Year story on the Fred Rogers Company.
5 things we should know about you?
- ‘I’m a son of an Irish Immigrant.’
- ‘I’m a huge fan of Pittsburgh and love to brag about the city.’
- ‘I believes the best days for this region are ahead of us.’
- ‘I’m a big sports fan ... particularly of Pittsburgh teams.’
- ‘I’m professionally very focused and determined on accomplishing goals.’
5 things you’d like to see in Pittsburgh’s future?
- ‘Better public transportation.’
- ‘Better air service to more cities.’
- ‘Better integration of our education and training systems with employers.’
- ‘State government that helped to move the region forward.’
- ‘A holistic energy plan for our region that integrates our innovation, technology and natural resources to build the best economic and environmental energy plan that could become a model for the rest of the country.’