In the less than 10 years since NRG Energy emerged from bankruptcy, it has transformed itself under the leadership of David Crane: Once a relatively plodding power-generating company devoted to traditional power plants burning fossil fuels, the company today has expanded its reach into retail power sales as well as sustainable forms of energy. By 2010 it had revenue of $8.8 billion and pretax income of $753 million.

Senior vice president and chief administrative officer Patti Helfer, who was part of the crew hired when the company moved its headquarters from Minneapolis to Princeton in 2004, describes her thriving company. “Today we’re looking to be a 21st century energy company,” says Helfer. “We want to change how people view energy, change individual lives, improve businesses, and build a sustainable future.”

Helfer will speak at the Association for Corporate Growth New Jersey, on Tuesday, March 20, 6 to 8:30 p.m., at the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village. Cost: $80 until March 16, then $105; free for first-time attendees. Her topic: “NRG Energy — A Story of Incredible Transformation: Emerging from Bankruptcy into a High-Growth Multi-Billion Dollar Public Company.” To register, go to www.acg.org/newjersey.

In late 2003, after emerging from bankruptcy, NRG Energy was earning solid income streams from its power plants, located primarily in the northeastern United States plus a few in Louisiana, the Southeast, and a few in California.

By early 2006, things exploded for the company — in a good way — as it started to take advantage of opportunities for growth, and Helfer offers some insight into the company’s successful growth strategies:

Move into a region where demand is high. In early 2006 NRG Energy purchased Texas Genco, one of the largest wholesale electric-power generating companies in the United States. “You can imagine the needs for generation and energy for Texas, especially in the summer months,” says Helfer. As a result of this acquisition the company nearly doubled in size. Texas Genco also brought in a diversity of fuel types: it had a number of big coal-fired power plants, some natural-gas-fired plants, and interest in a nuclear plant.

Upgrade old equipment. Another step was to ensure that the company’s plants, mostly the very old ones in the Northeast, were operating efficiently. Because power-generating companies bid their energy into the market, these old installations were less efficient costwise and hence not selected as often by customers. And of course they were not green.

In 2006 the company announced a multibillion-dollar “repowering” initiative that resulted in plants that started faster, burned cleaner, and were more efficient. Despite the costs, it made sense to the company to enable those plants to keep running; and the finances worked. “The price of power more than met the hurdles needed to make those investments,” says Helfer.

Purchase complementary businesses. In 2009, with the acquisition of the Texas company Reliant Energy, NRG Energy moved beyond being simply a power-generating operation. With 1.6 million customers at the time of acquisition, Reliant Energy, operating primarily in the Houston market, was one of the largest of the middlemen selling electricity to consumers. In the Texas market, which opened to deregulation much earlier than New Jersey, the retailers compete with one another to sell electricity purchased from power plants. “It was a tremendous acquisition for us,” says Helfer. “Besides getting it for a great price, it complemented our portfolio very well.”

Because NRG Energy already generated so much energy in its Texas power plants that was being sold to retailers, the purchase of Reliant completed the chain. “In 2009, the time prices were starting to decline, owning a retail company that was buying power at a lower price was an opportunity to have more revenues and more customers,” says Helfer, who adds that 2009 was NRG Energy’s best earnings year so far.

Expand your vision. Thinking about what energy means in the 21st century comes easily to NRG Energy, which is already unusual in having a foot in both the power generation and retail energy sectors. Within the company, the tagline is “beyond the meter” and signifies actual outreach to customers.

One direction is the company’s move toward sustainability. A big step was its purchase of Green Mountain Energy, the leading United States provider of green electricity, generated from wind or solar. Another direction was to acquire retail companies with interesting approaches. For example: Philadelphia’s Energy Plus, which sells electricity but has partnered with reward programs whereby its 200,000 customers can earn frequent flier miles, deposits to their children’s college funds, and the like.

Embrace sustainability, while partnering with other companies to spread the risk. Over a two-year period NRG Energy has become the largest solar developer in the country, primarily in the West and Southwest — with about 2,000 megawatts total in its development pipeline. For a large portion of its green projects, NRG Energy has worked with partners.

Its areas of green activity are varied. It now has operating or under construction utility-scale solar plants, producing about 900 megawatts. In another project it is creating solar-panel structures in school parking lots in Arizona that provide shaded parking while powering the school. It has also built wind farms in Texas and is working with the University of Delaware to create a mechanism whereby people with electric vehicles can sell back unused energy from their batteries into the electrical grid. Finally, it is part of the Energy Technology Ventures fund with General Electric and ConocoPhillips.

Take measured risk. The company’s president asks his employees to dare to be great and think big even if that means risking failure.

Create a corporate culture that promotes cooperation and creativity. The company nourishes a culture of cooperation, communication, teamwork, and accessibility, eschewing organizational charts. Employees work in an open office, often with 10 people around a large table. “It’s conducive to collaboration,” says Helfer. “We’re working on a project, engaging with each other, all contributing. I’m not sitting in my office behind a closed door — if anyone has a question, they can walk right up to me.”

Helfer grew up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Her father worked at Ingersoll-Rand for 43 years before retiring as a vice president in 1997. She earned her bachelor of science in accounting from the Rutgers School of Business in 1987, and she is a certified public accountant. She lives in Hillsborough with her husband and two children.

After graduating from Rutgers, Helfer worked as an auditor for Arthur Andersen in New York for seven years, focusing primarily on clients in the energy industry.

From 1994 to 2003 she was controller at NUI Corp., which owned Elizabethtown Gas Company, and then she spent a year as director of corporate accounting at PSEG Enterprises. She joined NRG in 2004 as director of corporate accounting and has also served as assistant controller, vice president of internal audit and internal controls, and now is senior vice president of human resources, information technology, and facilities.

Having grown about 15 percent over the last year, NRG Energy is expecting to have its name recognition increase in the Northeast as it expands its retail brands. It will also be doing more in green energy, for example, rooftop solar for businesses and eventually for the residential market. It is also a first mover in creating an infrastructure for electric vehicles. In Houston it has entered into relationships with local stores like Walgreens and Best Buy and has created “freedom stations” where people can charge their vehicles at various points throughout the city.

Perhaps what has been most important in making NRG Energy what it is today, suggests Helfer, is having a leader with a clear vision. “David Crane has always been able to articulate a powerful vision for people,” she says, and then quotes the CEO as saying: “We transformed a company, then turned our attention to transforming energy, and now we have turned out attention to transforming society.”

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