President and CEO, EnerBank USA
No. 25 on the 2015 Most Powerful Women in Finance list
Louise Kelly opened EnerBank USA with $14 million of capital in 2002, and it passed a milestone of $1 billion in assets this year, just ahead of her retirement as president and chief executive in December.
Her biggest challenge now is transitioning to a new phase where she is solely a director. "I don't need to run the show and be the decision maker," says Kelly, perhaps wishfully.
A desire to be in charge had, until now, been one of her biggest motivators throughout her career. That will change, she hopes, when she drops the CEO title.
Her goal is to be effective in a supporting role. "I've served bad directors all through my career. They pop up every now and again," Kelly says. "I don't want to be one of those. That'll motivate me."
EnerBank, an industrial loan company based in Salt Lake City, is unique in that it makes home improvement loans exclusively. It sources the loans through a national network of contractors. Kelly devised the unusual business model and had to fight to put it into practice.
She faced the biggest challenges of her four-decade career at a previous incarnation of EnerBank, called First Utility Finance. It was at the time a division of First National Bank of Maryland. She arrived there at "a senior enough level" where she should have had support to execute her ideas, she says. Instead, she faced a lot of resistance.
One of her ideas involved making unsecured loans nationwide, which she says inspired opposition partly because it ran counter to the conventional wisdom that community banks shouldn't make loans to people outside the local market.
Eventually, the bank decided to shutter her small unit. But one of her clients, CMS Energy Corp., was looking to diversify its revenue stream, so in 1996 she negotiated the sale of First Utility to CMS.
"That, for me, was perfect, somebody that was willing to think out of the box to try something they haven't tried before," Kelly says.
The experience taught her the importance of having a sponsor who shared her vision. "You have to find somebody who has an interest in what you're doing," she says.
Running First Utility as a nonbank consumer finance company presented its own challenges, so eventually Kelly sought an industrial loan charter, which was granted to the rechristened EnerBank.
A proposed sale to Home Depot put a national spotlight on EnerBank for a time. The deal got nixed in 2008, after opposition to Wal-Mart's attempt to get into banking led to a moratorium on nonfinancial companies buying ILCs.
Home Depot said the controversy had nothing to do its decision to withdraw from the deal and cited the housing slump as a motivating factor. EnerBank thrived nonetheless.
Over the years, "we haven't changed very much at all," Kelly says. "The model is the same, the markets we serve are the same, but instead of $20 million a year in loans, we do $1 billion."
At first, Kelly was opposed to keeping her board seat at EnerBank after this year, wanting to retire completely. After having difficulty getting the compensation committee to approve a restructured bonus plan that would shrink the gap between management and general employees, she agreed to stay on, with the condition that her initiative be approved.
Her team at EnerBank includes several women she describes as "brilliant" — which is particularly satisfying for her as a female leader who started out as a teller. "They're not even 40 years old and they've been in executive positions for quite a while. That happens with men a lot, but I think it very rarely happens with women."
Kelly says her admiration for all the members of her team — watching them move up and take on new responsibilities — has propelled her and will continue to do so as she steps aside. "I'm very motivated by watching them succeed and not need me anymore," she says.