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Everyone Is a Leader

Nicole Patterson

Dozens of students in the Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Ethics and the Human Good courses got a lesson in leadership last week when Larry Downes, executive in residence, visited campus to share his personal and professional business experiences.

larry-downes_headshot-in-text.jpgIntroduced to the Mount community through alumnus Ken Pringle, C’79, Downes currently serves as a member of the Board of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. He is also a member of the Mercy Center Board, located in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Downes exemplifies how a respected executive in the business community integrates his commitment to good business through ethical leadership and service.

Downes has a gripping story. He received a Bachelor of business administration in finance in 1979 from Iona University and a Master of business administration in financial management from Iona in 1981. He is also a graduate of Harvard Business School’s Executive Education Advanced Management Program. His first job out of college was working at Midlantic National Bank, which later became part of PNC Bank. There he said he received one of the most useful pieces of leadership advice he’s ever been given—and it came from Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert Van Buren.

“You will have many opportunities to grow in your career, but the reality is that if you do not have the combination of good timing, good luck and the good Lord, you will not be successful,” Van Buren advised.

Foreshadowing his career trajectory, Downes kept this advice top of mind. Midlantic was where he had the good fortune to meet Tom Toohey, the chief financial officer of New Jersey Resources, on May 4, 1981. Downes didn’t know it then, but that meeting was providential. A few weeks after leaving Midlantic, Toohey contacted him. By March 1985, Downes joined New Jersey Resources as a financial analyst. After a series of opportunities, he was named CFO in January 1990. He was 32 years old and called the move a “career accelerator.” Five years later, Downes was elected president of New Jersey Natural Gas, the company’s largest subsidiary. Six days after accepting the role, the then-CEO announced his resignation. By July 1995, Downes was named CEO. He was 37 years old.

“Being named CEO so young and unexpectedly taught me an important leadership lesson. It’s called forced engagement, which means as a leader you cannot be passive. You cannot just be a bystander. You need to lead decisively and get others involved,” he said.

Downes shared a story that became the framework for his foundational idea about leadership. It was Memorial Day in 1995. Because he had a solid background in finance, he decided to spend time learning from employees. As a new CEO, Downes was in the field with a crew leader named John Copeland. Each meter reader read 300 meters every day, and that afternoon his colleagues decided he should read some meters. Downes read a total of 47 meters. More than half of them were incorrect. His experience was not lost. He thought to himself: The meter readers are responsible for the accuracy of our customers’ bills and that’s how the company earns the cash to operate. “At that moment, I realized that no matter your title or official role, everyone is a leader,” he shared.

The cornerstone of his “Everyone is a Leader” philosophy wasn’t immediately accepted by employees and colleagues. Believing leadership is about learning, teaching and sharing, Downes continued to preach its value because it was evidenced again and again, year after year—through everyday instances and outages and through monumental disasters like Superstorm Sandy. He learned that when employees at all levels of the organization saw themselves as leaders, they saw their actions and individual performances as making a difference.

During his nearly 25-year tenure as CEO, New Jersey Resources achieved tremendous outcomes. Consistent annual financial results led to an almost 10-fold increase in the value of New Jersey Resources common stock, in addition to annual dividend increases. The market value increased from $375 million in March 1995 to more than $4 billion at the time of Downes’ retirement. New Jersey Resources was also recognized with 14 JD Power Customer Service Awards, the most in their industry. As a team, they worked to redefine relationships with regulators and government officials that paved the way for a clean energy future. Additionally, the team efforts allowed the company to assist more than 2,000 charitable organizations annually. Now that’s servant leadership in action!

Servant leadership, a term coined by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader,” was also a topic Downes shared with students as he referenced the mindset of Christ, who also took on the nature of a servant (Philippians 2). Downes has worked with the Sisters of Mercy since 1996. Their work at the Mercy Center in Asbury Park, New Jersey, “strives to alleviate generational poverty in the Greater Asbury Park area.” Through service and education, they “are a community committed to living the core values of respect, justice, integrity, service, and compassion.” Espousing the real-world values of servant leadership, Downes encouraged students in Ethics and the Human Good course to question and discern how a company does business. Students should know their personal values and select work where they can choose to make a difference from within the organization or find a better fit elsewhere.

“As I quickly learned, the Sisters of Mercy are an exceptional organization founded on prayer, action and service to the poor,” he said. “As we look around at the state of our world today, these values have never been more important.”

Nicole Patterson