As senior VP of engineering and operations at AGL Resources (Atlanta, GA), Ralph Cleveland has a lot of responsibilities. They include corporate oversight of engineering and construction, gas operations and capacity planning, various support functions for field ops, and environmental health and safety.
He's directly responsible for about 250 people and has corporate responsibility for the functions of another 150 in a business unit.
And Cleveland isn't even a born-and-bred manager. He transitioned into the role after a succession of engineering positions. "It's not an easy transition to make," he says, but it seems to work very well for him.
AGL Resources is an energy-services holding company that serves 2.3 million customers in six states through its utility subsidiaries. It's a Fortune 1000 company ranking forty-sixth in the gas and electric utilities sector.
Drawn to technology
Cleveland grew up in Macon, GA, where his father worked for Keebler, the cookie company. His mother was a cosmetologist.
Cleveland was always drawn to how things worked, and recalls being fascinated by "trying to understand how things were put together; how to go about building things."
At the Georgia Institute of Technology he joined the co-op program and found a post with an electric company, his first utility job. Next he co-opped with Hughes Aircraft, working in a thermal analysis lab in El Segundo, CA. He finished his BSME in 1986.
Learning with Mobil
Cleveland went to work as a plant engineer in Texas with Mobil Oil. He and another engineer were responsible for several processing plants and a production facility. They had to keep the equipment operating and provide tech support to optimize production.
A year later Mobil offered Cleveland the chance to get an MSME at Rice University (Houston, TX) while continuing with the company as a process engineer. He seized the opportunity.
Working toward management
Cleveland worked with Mobil's exploration and production divisions in Houston for four years before moving to R&D; in Dallas, TX. "It was there that I began to realize that I really wanted to build my career in leadership and management," he notes.
His first opportunity was as a team lead in Cortez, CO. Cleveland had functional responsibility for pulling the team together to accomplish its objectives. Next came jobs as a facility engineer in New Orleans, LA and a production engineer for offshore platforms.
His first line-supervisor role was in Mobile, AL. He had joint responsibility with another supervisor for plant ops. Each manager worked seven days on and seven days off.
His final job with Mobil was in New Orleans, as a business analyst.
Riding the whirlwind at AGL
Cleveland completed his MBA at Tulane University (Mobile, AL) shortly after Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999. When a recruiter called about an opportunity at AGL Resources, "It was just a really good fit for me, and one that, I believe, has been a really good match for the company," he says.
He started in Savannah, GA as a regional manager, then moved up to VP of ops at Virginia Natural Gas, one of AGL's component companies. He was responsible for field service, distribution, local engineering design and construction, pipeline ops, propane peak-shaving ops and customer care.
In 2002, Cleveland became chief engineer and VP of engineering and construction at AGL, responsible for the overall policy and direction of the company's engineering and construction activities. Late in 2004 he was named an SVP.
"It's been a whirlwind," he says. "I've been very, very fortunate to have positions where I could create value for the company. I'm grateful that my technical and leadership skills have been recognized."
Elements of leadership
Cleveland still wants to understand how things work, but now "I meet that need through peeling apart and understanding the business," he says. He believes it takes the same skills to analyze how an organization works as it does to analyze a mechanism.
Although Cleveland held several engineering jobs before getting into management, he actually began building his leadership skills back in college. He was active with student government, NSBE and his fraternity.
When he was in R&D; with Mobil, "We moved from thinking of ourselves as the sole proprietors of engineering projects to a focus on quality." This was another aspect of leadership, as Cleveland helped develop the new vision for the organization.
Today, he says, he wants to empower people to solve problems. "I try hard to create a team environment where we're all working together toward a common set of objectives and goals."
As his career unfolded, Cleveland has always looked for role models and mentors. "I tried to find people who were effective at doing the kinds of things I wanted to do, and then work to figure out their particular genius for making things happen."
Being black was never an issue for Cleveland. He believes the biggest challenge for most minorities is to learn how to assimilate and integrate within a corporate environment: to look for role models and mentors, no matter what their race, just as he has.
Ever since he became an officer at AGL, Cleveland has been active with the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE), where he's now a national board member. He also has connections in the American Gas Association and Southern Gas Association.
Cleveland likes to attend high school career days and speak with students through programs offered by the AABE. He knows it's much-needed work. "Kids have to be able to envision themselves in a role before they can work to get there," he reflects.