Big Nola Energy

United Utilities elevates New Orleans’ Energy Hub Status with New Headquarters

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When Ali Azad, CEO of United Utility Services, decided to expand the company’s foothold — which was already strong on the East coast — for a national reach, all of the arrows pointed to the Big Easy.

“It was a great central location for us to be—to have access to potential partners, customers, and access to a good workforce that is focused on energy,” Azad said.

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The new headquarters — located within the First Bank and Trust Tower on Poydras Street — puts United close to their parent company, Bernhard Capital Partners, as well as a number of sister companies in the BCP portfolio. The proximity to so many important relationships, both established and potential, made New Orleans the perfect location to expand their presence in the energy business.

The greatest pull to New Orleans for a new headquarters was the city’s established status as an energy hub. United was looking for access to energy professionals already hard at work to provide them with the opportunity to access key positions for new professional positions as they expand. And United’s largest customer, Entergy, is already headquartered in New Orleans.

Josh Flieg, Vice President of Business Development at Greater New Orleans Inc., agrees that one of the biggest benefits for United Utility is entering New Orleans’ legacy as a knowledge base for all things energy. The city has long been the headquarters for major utility companies like Entergy, as well as everyone connected with energy distribution transmission across the Gulf South.

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“[New Orleans has] a legacy of operating and managing those businesses here, and all of the talent is connected to running world-class, large, publicly-traded, and even privately held, utility companies,” Flieg said. “Utility maintenance, regulation, management, everything connected to owning and operating world-class utility operations can be done here and has been done here for decades.”

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While United Utility will benefit from its new headquarters in New Orleans, what will the city and outlying areas receive in return?

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The first and biggest promise is increasing the workforce. The move is expected to create up to 141 new direct jobs over the next five years with nearly $13 million in total annual payroll. United also wants to grow local talent, offering further specialization in certain fields, thus creating a greater tax base.

Initially, the company is focusing on increasing the professional skill set and developing of engineers and project managers. As the work continues to grow, especially with the help of partner company Entergy, United will increase the number of employees working in the field. The plan is to expand the professional workforce within the local population by finding talent in technical college and high school graduates and training people in the field with the existing workforce.

Josh Flieg is excited not only that the new headquarters create high-paying jobs, but also that the nexus for decision making within the large company will be in New Orleans. There is a natural bias to make decisions that will positively impact the local region first. “Having those decisions made in which dollars are spent from New Orleans generally means good things for further investment and further job growth in our region,” Flieg said.

Ali Azad agrees that New Orleans is positioned to become a major energy hub in the coming years for several reasons. The city and state have historically been an energy hub, but this business is about infrastructure, and power grid development is the nexus between the East and West with a lot of energy and power transmission between Texas and the East coast.

Another reason is that Entergy is one of the largest electricity companies in the country with a huge focus on upgrading the massive infrastructure of the electric grid. Working closely with them provides United the opportunity to be part of the grid development in the local area.

Azad believes New Orleans will become even greater energy hub as the energy transition continues to move from a centralized generation to more distributed energy, electric vehicles, as well as renewable energy and connections. “We will be right here, working with our partners developing that infrastructure for the energy of tomorrow,” Azad said. “And that’s one of the big reasons that we thought the New Orleans area would be a great base for the launch pad toward energy transition future.”

United Utilities is one of the fastest growing companies in Bernhard Capital Partner’s portfolio. Azad said this is one reason they’ve been afforded this massive expedition by local state and federal government to upgrade the power grid infrastructure. The new central location also puts United closer on the ground to respond to disastrous weather events and in close contact with several other BCP companies who are involved with disaster recovery services.

Azad cites BCP for the incredibly fast growth of United that will be more and more important as climate change related weather events continue. “When we started approximately five and a half years ago, we had basically nothing but an investment thesis and blueprint. And I was actually employee number one,” Azad said.

Since then, United has grown into a 2,000 person company with nine business unit operations ranging from New York, the southern coast, Miami, the central Gulf Coast region, and west as far as Amarillo, Texas. Azad said this fast-paced growth is thanks to the vision and long-term commitment of BCP to recognize opportunities, talent, and in making a serious commitment to the people they serve.

More and more, climate change related weather events are becoming a serious issue in the New Orleanian’s daily life and United Utility is ready to meet these disastrous events on the ground. Azad expects the region will see more severe and more frequent climate change events: “Our first task really is how do we really help our customers build a more reliable and resilient grid to withstand this incoming climate change event,” Azad said. “So we’re doing that now. And we’re going to do it in a huge way, going forward.”

The company plans to implement practices like under-grounding — putting a lot of the grid infrastructure under the ground is a big part of their operation to withstand the devastation that climate change events can bring.

Along with storm and disaster recovery response, United has other big plans to enter the worldwide energy transition. “This is not just a transition here in the US, it’s a transition across the globe,” Flieg said. “If we can create novel approaches here in New Orleans, the ability for us to grow our local economy by being a leader in that innovation is tremendous —to the tune of trillions of dollars—across Europe, across Asia, across the Americas.”

One such plan is creating a distributed grid, which is the interconnection of renewable energy into the existing grid infrastructure. This comes with smart substations that can take power from a solar system, a solar farm, or community solar system and integrate them into advanced battery technology to provide continuous and reliable power to the community. “These are innovations that, frankly, have just come into picture in the last couple of years,” Azad said. “And we’re going to continue building on this going forward.”

While United Utility is moving to New Orleans for the betterment of the local, and national, population, CEO Ali Azad is hoping for personal enrichment as well. His first trip to the Crescent City was decades ago when he was a young college graduate. His memories are primarily of the French Quarter and Mardi Gras festivities, like many a first-time visitor. This time around, he hopes to dive deeper into New Orleans history and learn about the wonderful traditions of the region’s culture, including exploring a friend’s local fishing camp.

 

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