Lisa Keels: customer energy efficiency at LG&E and KU
She's been an automotive engineer and a seventh-grade math teacher. Now she educates utility customers, contractors and colleagues
Lisa Keels manages customer energy efficiency operations for energy company LG&E and KU Energy LLC (Louisville, KY), which serves nearly a million customers across Kentucky. Her team manages a portfolio of energy efficiency programs intended to reduce energy and demand.
"We have programs that do on-site analysis for both residential and commercial/business customers," she explains. "We have an air conditioner test and tune-up program, a demand conservation program, commercial and residential rebates, and a refrigerator recycling program. We also provide energy-saving information for builders and new home purchasers."
Much of her day is spent supporting her team to ensure programs are delivered as intended. Keels helps internal customers like customer service representatives, the legal department and corporate communications understand the programs offered by the company. "Our employees often need to answer customers' questions about our programs, so we make sure they have the information they need. They're great ambassadors for us."
Keels also interacts with external customers. "When someone needs more information than our call center can handle, I get involved."
Engineering dreams from the start
She's been in her current position for four years, and with LG&E and KU since 2002, but before LG&E and KU, she was in the automotive industry.
Keels was born in Pontiac, MI, and always wanted to be an engineer. "I was exposed to math, science and technology through a program called 'Upward Bound,'" she explains. Upward Bound is a U.S. Department of Education program that supports high school students from low-income families and families in which neither parent has a bachelor's degree.
Keels attended Eastern Michigan University (Ypsilanti, MI), and earned a BS in manufacturing technology in 1986.
"When I got to Eastern, I realized I didn't want to be in engineering. I was more of a people person and wanted a career that would allow me to interact. I changed my major from pre-engineering to manufacturing technology because that degree bridged the gap between management and engineering. It allowed me to take engineering courses as well as all the management courses."
Starting in the auto industry
Keels applied to all of the big three automakers, and landed at Chrysler Motors as a process engineer.
"A process engineer monitors vehicle assembly, and ensures that workers are performing their tasks using the right process. When they aren't, it has to be reported because any noncompliance could lead to misuse of inventory or impact safety and quality.
"Nobody liked seeing me coming," she recalls with a laugh. "I was just a young kid, and people thought, 'You're never going to make it.'"
Keels was the only female process engineer on the team. "It was challenging, but I was confident in what I was doing. I built strong working relationships with the other team members. You have to get the people you're working with to realize that it's a win-win situation, a learning opportunity, not a 'gotcha.'
"Being a woman in that industry was not the norm, especially when I started," she points out. "But it can be a help because it's healthy for a company to hire diverse employees with different perspectives."
Soon after she started at Chrysler, Keels enrolled at Central Michigan University (Mt. Pleasant, MI) and earned a masters degree in administration in 1989.
Moving up and around
Meanwhile, she was moving up in Chrysler. She was promoted from the assembly plant to a management position at Accustar, a subsidiary that developed wiring harnesses for minivans. Accustar was sold to Japanese firm EWD Yazaki, where Keels managed a small staff that gathered warranty data and conducted investigations to reduce future warranty issues.
In 1995, her husband joined Mercedes-Benz and Keels relocated to Tuscaloosa, AL. She took a job with General Motors' Delphi Automotive Systems. For three years, she was a wiring designer but was promoted to lean manufacturing manager, again with a small team reporting to her. "I identified and eliminated waste in the system," she explains. "Once the auto industry got a grasp on quality, we looked to reduce cost."
In 2000, the family moved to Louisville, KY. Keels joined Ford Motor Company as a superintendent at its assembly plant.
Choosing to teach
She was only at Ford for about six months. "I had small children, and I decided it was time to make a choice for the best interest of my family," she says.
She became a seventh-grade math teacher in the Jefferson County public school system. "It was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable jobs that I have ever had," she says enthusiastically.
Keels considered staying in teaching, but it would have required another degree. "I enjoyed teaching but I wasn't interested in returning to school," she remembers.
So Keels responded to a newspaper ad for a warehouse inventory supervisor at LG&E. She got the job, and five years later moved to audit services, making sure everything was compliant and process-driven.
Keels says there are similarities between the automotive and utility industries. "Compliance, inventory management, and identification and reduction of waste are applicable in any industry," she points out.
"I like the utility industry and the challenges it offers," Keels says. "And I enjoy working in customer energy efficiency. It's a very popular and dynamic field. I get to educate customers, internal and external, and deliver quality tools."
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