Utilicorp United Inc.
Utilicorp United Inc.
Incorporated: 1926 as Missouri Public Service Co.
Sales: $1.07 billion
Stock Exchanges: New York
A family-operated company, UtiliCorp United Inc. is a rarity in the energy utility industry in that it has demonstrated an ability to remain focused on the energy business while achieving uncommon growth. UtiliCorp attained this status by undertaking a managed program for diversification that has avoided areas of further government regulation and turned what was once a primarily rural utility into a major player in the industry.
UtiliCorp’s history began at the turn of the century in rural Kansas, where a farmer and miller named Lemuel K. Green began dabbling in property and banking transactions. In the waning years of the 1890s, he traded a collection of homestead and timber claims in Graham County for a flour mill in Lenora, Kansas. Within three years, Green had amassed sufficient capital to purchase the water-powered Alton Roller Mills that had employed him some years before, and turn over the Lenora flour mill to his father and uncle.
In 1902 Green sold the Alton mill, using the proceeds to establish a modern steam-powered milling complex, called the Solomon Valley Milling Company, in the more populous locale of Osborne, Kansas. This new mill was equipped with an electric power generator, which enabled Green to produce and sell electricity, an enterprise that had long fascinated him.
By 1908, at the age of 48, Green decided to wholeheartedly pursue the rapidly growing power generation business. He sold the Solomon mill and purchased the H. M. Spalding Electric Light Plant, a poorly run power company in nearby Concordia, Kansas, for $21,500.
At the time it was purchased, the Spalding company operated only from dawn to midnight—the power supply was flickered at 11:45 to warn customers of the impending blackout—and remained closed on Sundays. In order to provide electricity around the clock, Green negotiated a deal to buy power from a nearby flour mill that was equipped with an electrical generator. Meanwhile, Green put his sons, Ralph and Lawrence, to work in the company, setting utility poles and stringing power lines.
At this time an important advance was made in electrical lighting equipment. The traditional carbon filament light bulb, fragile and inefficient, was replaced by a new kind of bulb with a filament made of tungsten. As these bulbs became widely available to customers, the demand for electricity greatly increased.
Soon, dozens of towns near Concordia were asking for electric service. Green organized the community leaders, and offered to string transmission lines to their towns if they would fund the construction. The communities issued bonds to cover these costs and before long the Spalding plant was serving 22 communities throughout northern Kansas. In addition, Green’s success in securing large supplies of water—required for running the generating facilities—enabled him to sell the surplus in the city of Concordia. Still, with plenty of excess generating capacity, Green began a series of publicity campaigns to increase customer purchases of electrical appliances.
In 1916, sensing an opportunity to capitalize on his investment, Green sold the Spalding plant to a New York investment group headed by A. E. Fitkin & Company, for $550,000. A short time later, during a visit to Pleasant Hill, Missouri, about 20 miles southeast of Kansas City, Green discovered yet another untapped market for electricity.
The local power company, the Reeder Light, Ice & Fuel Company, served Pleasant Hill, but had not yet penetrated the areas surrounding the growing town. Green purchased the company, naming it the Green Power & Light Company, and set out to expand the operation.
Adding generators and stringing new power lines were elementary problems. An expanded plant, however, would require vast quantities of water. Not wishing to use the low-grade, iron-rich well water prevalent in the area, Green purchased a tract of land that included a small river and dammed it to create Lake Baldwin. The lake not only fed the plant, it also provided surplus quantities of water to the residents of Pleasant Hill.
In 1922, searching for new opportunities to expand, Green constructed a second generating station near Clinton, about 50 miles south of Pleasant Hill. Additional expansion, however, would require financial resources that were not only beyond the means of the family, but also the local banks, and even the Kansas City loan company they had retained. The only alternative was to take the company public. Green Power & Light became the West Missouri Power Company in 1922, with shares sold to the public and a variety of other interests.
The company and its rival in the area, Kansas City Power & Light, settled on service boundaries in 1922. This arrangement cleared the way for additional acquisitions by West Missouri Power Company, including a franchise, in 1924, to serve the city of Nevada, Missouri, and its electric street railway. Within the next few years, the company was serving 56 communities south and east of Kansas City, and had an interest in the Ozark Utility Company, itself serving 35 towns in southwestern Missouri. In addition to generating electric power, the company now also provided manufactured gas.
In a dramatic move in late 1926, however, Lemuel Green negotiated the sale—once again to the Fitkin group—of West Missouri Power Company, which was to be merged with the Missouri Public Service Company (MPS). Sensing that orange juice would become the next American craze, Green purchased 2,000 acres of orange grove property near Escondido, California.
Green died in 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression. Ralph Green, principal inheritor of the family business, sold the family interest in the Ozark Utility Company that year to concentrate on the citrus business his father had started. However, he remained deeply interested in the companies the family had built in Missouri. It was with much disappointment, then, that he watched them deteriorate under increasingly difficult circumstances.
In 1940 Ralph Green saw an opportunity to take back the Missouri Public Service Company, which had absorbed the West Missouri Power Company. The Public Utilities Act of 1935 caused many utility properties to be disposed of through federally controlled holding companies. Green, whose assets remained well protected during the Depression, was able to acquire a controlling interest in MPS—which was serving 100 communities in Western Missouri—from the Middle West Corporation.
In 1943 Green also gained control of the Missouri Gas & Electric Service Company, which served about 40 communities. Two years later, he added the City Light and Traction Company of Sedalia, Missouri, to his growing system of utility companies. With service levels restored and the company once again financially sound, MPS absorbed Missouri Gas & Electric in 1952. Also, after several years of providing manufactured gas at a substantial loss to only two communities, MPS converted to natural gas and expanded its gas business into 12 new communities.
During the 1950s, the company faced nearly threefold population growth in its service territory, fueled by suburban growth, new industrial parks, the baby boom, and the development of the new Mid-Continent International Airport. New demand for gas and electricity was easily met through an ambitious and carefully researched expansion plan that more than doubled the company’s capacity.
Ralph Green died in 1962, passing leadership of the corporation to his son Richard Green, who was named chairman of MPS in April 1963. Under his leadership the company saw somewhat slower, but steady growth, remaining a primarily suburban and rural power utility. During the 1960s MPS—as well as other utility companies—became increasingly encumbered by mounting state and federal regulations. In what would become a fortunate strategic move, MPS steered clear of adding the nuclear-powered facilities that promised such tremendous returns on investment, but at high start-up and regulatory costs.
MPS entered a turbulent period beginning in the early 1970s. Battered by high interest rates and inflation and an adversarial, if not hostile, relationship with regulators, MPS found itself unable to exercise control over its markets or effectively manage its risks. The virtual end of OPEC control over world energy markets in 1979, however, brought about more favorable economic conditions, while the 1980s heralded an era of pro-business regulation under the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
In 1982 Green’s son, Richard, Jr., assumed the position of chief executive officer. Demonstrating a fiery entrepreneurial spirit, the younger Green made a bid to acquire the Kansas-based Gas Service Company in 1983, but lost. Deciding to postpone his acquisition plans, Green instead formulated a business strategy that clearly identified the company’s regulatory, weather, and general economic risks. Rick Green also asserted that MPS would concentrate solely on energy generation and related businesses; diversification into non-energy assets was to be strictly avoided. By 1985, a reorganization was in order. The Missouri Public Service Co. shed its geographically specific name and was reborn as UtiliCorp United Inc.
While he was opposed to diversifying UtiliCorp’s business, Green did, however, seek to diversify the company’s regulatory risks and boost its winter sales. With this in mind, he set out to purchase gas and electric franchises in seven states and British Columbia. This was achieved mainly through the acquisition of People’s Natural Gas, along with its gas marketing subsidiary PSI Inc., from Enron Corporation.
Aquila Energy Corp.—as PSI Inc. was later renamed— was made a subsidiary of UtiliCorp, and in addition to its marketing functions, expanded into such related, but unregulated, areas as natural gas storage and transmission. By 1990 Aquila was responsible for 21 percent of UtiliCorp’s earnings.
UtiliCorp achieved its expansion—while avoiding a substantial increase in debt or customer rates—by continually offering shares of stock for sale, although it did reduce the Green family’s stake in the company. Initially the offerings were made through local markets because the company was considered too small to interest Wall Street investors. As the company expanded, however, it also developed greater financial clout that enabled its shares to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange and allowed it to more easily secure backing for new projects. UtiliCorp also began an effort to increase employee ownership of the company to 25 percent, in the belief that it would increase employees’ stake in the success of the company.
UtiliCorp made its largest acquisition, up to that point, in 1991. Further pursuing its expansion strategy, the company engineered the takeover of additional electrical utility operations in Kansas and Colorado from Centel, a local telephone company that sought to concentrate on its core business. The addition of these operations boosted the number of UtiliCorp customers to nearly a million, and increased the company’s assets by almost $260 million. Other areas of growth included entrance into European markets. In 1992 UtiliCorp entered into a joint venture to distribute and market natural gas in the United Kingdom, and the company was also bidding for a contract to build power plants in Portugal.
Though UtiliCorp’s growth will certainly continue, it will most likely be at an increasingly slowed pace. With utilities and energy-related operations in 44 states, British Columbia, and Europe, UtiliCorp has accomplished much of what Rick Green set out to achieve. With his impressive record of successes in an industry as traditionally staid as the energy utility business, the leadership of UtiliCorp by this fourth-generation Green will prove interesting to watch.
Aquila Energy, Inc.; UtilCo Group, Inc.
Green, Richard C, The Missouri Public Service Company: A Saga of Free Enterprise, Princeton, New Jersey, Newcomen Society in North America, 1967; Cook, James, “Big Is Better,” Forbes, January 21, 1991; “UtiliCorp United: Diversification Succeeds Beyond its Architect’s Dreams,” Barron’s, June 10, 1991; Kohn, Bernie, “Utility Firm’s Transformation Could be Model for DQE,” Pittsburgh Press, July 3, 1991; Rosenberg, Martin, “UtiliCorp Looks to Europe for Expansion Possibilities,” Kansas City Star, May 7, 1992; UtiliCorp United: A Strategic Plan for Building Value, Kansas City, Missouri, UtiliCorp United Inc., 1992; UtiliCorp United: 1991 Annual Report, Kansas City, Missouri, UtiliCorp United Inc., 1992; UtiliCorp United: 1992 First Quarter Report, Kansas City, Missouri, UtiliCorp United Inc., 1992.