Running on Empathy at CPS Energy

Frank Almaraz is inspiring CPS Energy’s gas workforce with his special brand of can-do, compassionate leadership

Like many people, Frank Almaraz easily recalls the many foundational life lessons learned from his parents: Do your best; don’t sweat the outcome. Work hard and be a good teammate. Care about and consider the lives of those around you, no matter their station.

These lessons marked him from an early age as a positive, inquisitive individual with a good understanding of others, and he has carried them throughout his life: through his time with the Texas Aggie Corps of Cadets, into a career that started in aerospace, and even into grad school, where he earned an MBA before transitioning to the energy sector. In 2011, he arrived at San Antonio-based CPS Energy, where roles involving energy-supply market operations, finances, and compliance and safety have helped feed his “natural curiosity about everything,” as he describes it.

“Going to different parts of the organization, learning that part of the business, making connections among the workforce, and being able to solve new and interesting problems—that’s as exciting as it gets for me,” says Almaraz, who currently serves as CPS’s senior vice president of commercial operations.

As one of the company’s diversity and inclusion ambassadors, Almaraz is also instrumental in making sure the right people get the right roles rather than get lost in the complex organizational shuffle. “Vice presidents and directors get together and talk about who needs to be given a look, who needs to be put in a developmental or rotational assignment, so that we can get more exposure to them and really build our team out,” he says.

CPS is the nation’s largest municipally owned natural gas and electric company. It’s also a top-ranked solar generator in Texas and one of the more prominent purchasers of wind energy in the country. Almaraz himself played a significant role in these progressive achievements when, back in 2011, he assisted with a multimillion-dollar deal to buy a natural gas combined-cycle plant. The deal replaced a coal-fired plant to reduce emissions. “At the time,” he says, “we were thinking a lot about rebalancing our generation portfolio—and also about deploying advanced infrastructure in our community.”

As a municipally owned utility with what Almaraz describes as “full end-to-end” ownership of its energy in San Antonio, CPS benefits not only from unique technology and economic-development opportunities but also from an independent board of directors. In recent years, its biggest opportunities have taken the form of exploratory joint efforts with a national renewable-energy lab that have helped lead to the development of next-generation products and services. But, in terms of the here and now, the utility is mere months away from getting its smart-grid technology fully implemented.

Almaraz’s own team of 250 (three being direct reports) became part of the action when his mentee Amelia Badders led the reinvention of the analytics capability for CPS Energy’s power and gas trading organization. She is currently its director of commercial analytics and pricing. “It’s been exciting for me to see Amelia be so successful,” Almaraz says. “Nothing makes me happier than seeing those I help develop really shine and blossom.”

In mentoring, Almaraz taps into his management skills and continues to take cues from his early life lessons on optimism and empathy, which were honed further during his training to be an army officer. “I learned, in finding ways to motivate people, that there are things we can do as leaders that can inadvertently crush somebody’s spirit—things that push them too hard or are designed to get them to perform at a higher level through fear or the creation of negative emotion,” Almaraz says. “But, I’ve also found that if you can truly engage people, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.”

More recently, as the new leader of CPS’s gas workforce, he’s learned that being empathetic is one thing, but it’s another to project empathy in a way people can see and buy into.

“To make things better around them—improved safety, effectiveness, and quality of work life—requires a big commitment from them,” Almaraz says. “And they have to trust me that the level of commitment is going to be worth it. It’s about building a brand of trust and authenticity. There’s enough trust built now that I think we can really get this multiyear, transformational road map in place, taking things from good to great.”

CPS’s road map includes not only additional safety and compliance initiatives and a recommitment to customer engagement but also enhanced employment of analytics. “Whether that’s geospatial analysis of our load,” Almaraz says, “or getting a whole lot better at predicting when our wind assets are going to produce and using that information to better dispatch our resources and make good decisions to keep prices low for our customers.”

Without question, he says, the energy industry of which he has been a part for a dozen years is changing faster than he could have imagined. But Almaraz is confident he, his mentees, and his team can keep up. And, along the way, he’ll continue to enlist the attitudes instilled in him by his parents.

“If you take care of your people, if you hold yourself out there and try to be the example of what you want your people to be from a behavioral standpoint, then they will follow you anywhere,” he says. “And, together you can accomplish some amazing things.