The latest “How did get your Start in the Grid” features Russ Vanos, Itron’s vice president of sales and marketing for Global Software, Services and Smart Cities. For earlier “Start” stories, see the bottom of this story. Online interview by Rod Walton, senior editor of Electric Light & Power.
Q. How did you get your start in the power grid?
”I was working summers as an intern at Washington Water Power, which is now Avista Utilities, during college. After a couple of years, I was getting married and needed a job. Washington Water Power paid better than being a teacher (I wanted to be a football coach) and I had the opportunity to work full time.
“I was in a job rotational program when I got the opportunity to join a work stream that was working on an onsite billing concept. The onsite billing concept later became the formation of a company, Itron. I transferred from Washington Water Power to help with the startup of Itron as employee number six.
“My first job was to sell the concept of onsite billing to utilities. I had a young family at the time and resisted leaving the security of Washington Water Power for a startup. I accepted the job based on the promise that I could later return to Washington Water Power if things didn’t work out. But in the end, working at Itron turned out to be a wise career decision. I’ve worked here for 37 years, working my way up from sales to management to executive leadership.”
Q. What was the toughest part about that first job?
“Two things come to mind. First, to sell this new concept to utilities around the country, I was required to be away from my young family for months at a time. With young children, that was very tough. Secondly, I had never worked as a sales person and I didn’t have a deep understanding of the utility industry. I had to learn how utilities work and how to sell at the same time.”
Q. Do you remember what you learned from a mentor that might have helped you progress the most?
“There are two things I remember as a young person. The first was to never be a victim and never quit. That was helpful as a salesperson just learning to sell. As a startup with a new concept, we were told “no” a lot. We could have very easily said this isn’t going to work; but instead, we learned to not be victims.
“It’s easy to say, “this is happening to me” or “it’s out of my control.” I had a mentor that would not allow that kind of thinking no matter what. As result, we learned to be creative and always look at problems as opportunities. The second was to listen to the customer and that the customer was always right.”
“We kept fine tuning our offer to meet customer needs until we hit the mark. If you ask enough questions and listen to the customer, they will give you the road map to success. Because of this experience, I became a huge customer advocate throughout my career.”
Q. How did your career progress?
“Over the course of my 37-year career at Itron, I’ve held various positions in sales, marketing and operations. In recent years, I served as vice president and general manager of sales and marketing for energy. Then I was vice president of marketing followed by senior vice president of business development.
“In 2015, I assumed my current position as vice president of sales and marketing for global software, services and smart cities. In this role, I lead Itron’s global software and services teams to enable true solution selling in collaboration with our electricity, gas and water business lines. I also help oversee Itron’s the Internet of Things and smart cities initiatives.”
Q. What is it about this business that excites you most about the future and keeps you there?
“I believe technology and software give our industry the potential to completely change how we create, deliver and optimize energy and water. We can truly change our world and become much more clean, green and resourceful. We can change people’s lives and secure a better world for my grandchildren.”
Q. Is there anything that worries you about the future grid?
“Old school thinking worries me. It’s critical that the industry opens its thinking to the possibilities; otherwise it won’t achieve the bright future that it can.
“The current regulatory mindset will not allow us to change to fully take advantage of today’s technology. Therefore, we will end up not truly serving customers in the way that we can and the way they deserve.”
Q. If you had everything to do over, what would you do differently in that early part of your career?
“Probably listen to myself a little more and pursue my dreams more aggressively. Think more before speaking. And help those who can’t help themselves earlier in my life.”
Q. What is your favorite hobby when you’re off the job?
“Skiing in the winter; lake in the summer. Lately that’s expanded to now spending time with my grandkids doing those same activities.”
Editor’s Note: “How did you get your Start” is a monthly feature focused on how grid experts learned their craft in the field. We are always interested in a good story, but looking for those who got their start outside the office. If you are interested in nominating someone for the series, email Rod Walton at [email protected] and include a very brief bio of your nominee.
Previous “Start in the Grid” stories: