Above photo: Fidel Marquez helps a group of high school students wire a solar panel during last year’s Solar Spotlight program (photo courtesy of ComEd)
“How did you get your Start in the Grid?” is a monthly feature which focuses on longtime industry leaders talking about their careers, personal hobbies and thoughts about the future of the profession. The latest story features Fidel Marquez, who is senior vice president for legislative, governmental and community relations with ComEd.
For earlier “Start in the Grid” stories, see links at the bottom of this story.
How did you get your start in the power grid?
“I got my start working in the energy industry as an intern at ComEd for three consecutive summers. I was a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology at the time, and ComEd offered me a permanent position right before I entered my senior year. I’ve been working at ComEd for a total of 36 years.”
What was the toughest part about that first job?
“When I was hired full-time at ComEd, I started in the testing department. It was the same department as my first internship and I loved it! After that summer, I could tell it was what I wanted to do. We were responsible for the commissioning of new equipment, systems, substations and power plants, and for troubleshooting when things didn’t go right.
“The toughest part about that first year was learning the language of the energy industry. It is a lot of jargon and acronyms, but the people in the industry speak it as fluently and effortlessly as if they’re speaking English. Imagine being in a different country, where you have no idea what language is being spoken and there is no Google app that interprets the language for you. So, you have to ask a lot of questions, which is a great learning tool.
“The second toughest part was dealing with the realities of working in an industrial coal-fired power plant. Safety is critical, and it can be very scary working in a high-stakes environment. That is why ComEd is so focused on providing an abundance of training for our workforce to ensure the safest environment possible.”
Within your long tenure with ComEd you’ve still managed to make some dramatic career changes. Tell us a little about those?
“I started at ComEd as a field engineer in fossil power and nuclear power plants, as well as transmission and the distribution grid. I started off my career being very field- and hands-on oriented, which gave me the tremendous opportunity to understand at a very deep, technical level how a power plant works.
“While working as a field engineer, I was afforded the opportunity to go back to school. I was working on my masters in electrical engineering and power systems, but in my very last semester of graduate work, I was asked to take a position in human resources. My initial reaction was, “What did I screw up? What did I do wrong?” As it turned out, I wasn’t being punished. The company needed to hire a large number of engineers, and they felt it was important that someone with a technical background direct the hiring process. I learned a lot about the importance of human resources, as well as met, networked and worked with top executives at ComEd.
“One of my biggest transitions was when I went from the vice president of transmission and substations to taking on the role of vice president of external affairs. Going from a very technical role to one where the primary focus was the development and nurturing of external relationships was a big change. I learned how important external relationships are to ComEd operations, and how engagement with communities is crucial. Today, I head our government and community relations, where I engage directly with the policymakers regarding the policies it takes to run this business in Illinois.”
What are the most important things you’ve learned from that variety of experience?
“I’ve learned that as a leader, it is so important to have a breadth of experiences. We do need technical expertise in some areas, but to be an effective leader having a breadth of experience is important. You have to understand how each part of the organization works with the rest of the company to deliver the best service possible. Being directly responsible for different tasks in the organization gives you a much deeper understanding of how every role is critical.”
What keeps you intrigued by this business? What would you say to someone about why they should be attracted to working in the grid?
“We are in a very fast-changing, important time for our industry. Barring some changes in material science and efficiency improvements, the industry and the technology has not changed that significantly in the past 100 years. Now, the digitization of our world is causing significant changes in our business.
“Before, energy companies depended a lot on scales of economy to deliver efficient service. They built large power plants, and the more sales that were made, the cheaper it was for that next kilowatt hour to be sold. We now have distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar panels, as well as increased customer demand for reliable, safe, affordable, clean and resilient energy. It’s really changing what we need to do to continue to serve our customers.”
If you had everything to do over, what would you do differently in that early part of your career?
“The one thing that I would do differently would be to become more familiar with our customers. Early on in my career, I was solely working in the power plants, which is probably the farthest away from the customer you can get. Becoming more customer-focused in the early part of my career would have been more beneficial as I progressed. We have a huge focus on this now at ComEd, and it’s transforming how we serve our customers and meet their needs.”
What do you do in your off time that means the most to you?
“In my off time I really enjoy spending time with my family. I have three adult children, and spending time with them and hearing about what they do is very satisfying in a proud parent type of way. I also volunteer with several organizations like Easter Seals, which provides help for people with disabilities, veterans and military families, seniors and caregivers. Seeing them smile, laugh and feel like they’re contributing to society and their communities is tremendous.
“But to truly unplug, I get on two wheels on a motorcycle and go out to an open road. I do it as often as I get the opportunity to. I rode my motorcycle to work today. Sometimes, I even ride in a suit—but always with safety gear on!”
You also are known for your efforts in helping bring minorities into the utility workforce. Tell us a little about why this is personal for you and also what ComEd is doing.
“The customers and communities we serve are very diverse. Our success is dependent on the success of our communities and understanding how to better serve our customers requires us to have diverse perspectives. As a minority myself, I understand how important exposure is. It’s always been my goal to provide the next generation with opportunities to succeed and open doors for people who just need a shot to prove themselves. I pride myself on making this happen.
“ComEd’s culture breeds a diverse and inclusive workforce. I believe a company can’t reach its full potential without diversity. More than 50 percent of ComEd’s executives are minorities and our recruitment efforts through programs like CONSTRUCT, which gives women and people of color training opportunities to work in the construction and utility field, makes ComEd’s commitment to diversity evident. And just as it is necessary for our talent to be diverse, our business partners, contractors, vendors and service providers must also be diverse. In 2016, 33 percent of our supply spend was a growing diverse supplier base.
Editors Note: Any grid company—utility or vendor—which has a good candidate for this series can contact Rod Walton, senior editor, at [email protected]
Previous “Start in the Grid” Stories: