When NPL established its Partner Alliance program in 2014, the energy and infrastructure construction company sought to expand its relationships with minority- and women-owned companies. Leading that effort has been Joshua Adams, vice president of operations for NPL’s Great Lakes region.
NPL is a 54-year-old construction firm with approximately 6,000 employees across 28 states, primarily working in the natural gas distribution sector. Serving utility companies coast to coast, NPL is the largest operating company under Centuri Group Inc., a $2 billion utility infrastructure services enterprise and subsidiary of Southwest Gas Holdings. Adams joined the company in 2009.
One of NPL’s biggest customers in Adams’ territory is Nicor Gas, the natural gas utility company based in Naperville, Illinois.
“When I joined NPL 11 years ago, the first meeting I had with Nicor was about diversity and inclusion,” Adams says. “At the time, NPL self-performed 100 percent of the work we did. We had a handful suppliers that supplied goods, not even services. None of them diverse partners.”
Over the course of the next three years, Adams tried to establish relationships with diverse companies. He admits the process was challenging.
“Many people didn’t know what a certified diverse business was, so I was spending more time educating people rather than signing them up,” he says. “I had a handful of candidates, but getting them certification took 12 to 18 months. I felt like we were kind of spinning our wheels.”
Adams started joining various business groups in the Chicagoland area that served diverse companies — the Federation of Women Contractors, the Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council and the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and others — going to functions and building relationships.
“It wasn’t just about whether these companies could supply a good or service,” he says. “We wanted to make sure they aligned with our safety and quality standards.”
Throughout this process, Adams recognized the need to elevate these oftentimes smaller businesses to help them grow and succeed in the industry. That was the impetus that led to the creation of NPL’s Partner Alliance in 2014. However, the idea came from Adams’ previous job.
“Prior to my time at NPL, I was in the homebuilding industry, and we had a contractor forum to share ideas,” he says. “I thought that would be a great model.”
The NPL Partner Alliance started with three main objectives, Adams says. The first was to focus on community and volunteering in the communities where they work. The second was business-to-business education and sharing ideas. The third was diversity and inclusion.
“We had some great vendors that were non-diverse, and they would say, ‘How can we create and incorporate diversity in our business?’” he says. “They were hearing all these ideas, and one of the amazing things that happened over the first year was they became friends. They learned a lot from each other, and they started to do business together. It was one of our quickest wins, and it has blossomed into so much more.”
Creating a Coalition
Since Adams started building relationships with diverse companies, NPL has brought more than 100 different minority- and women-owned firms as subcontractors. These companies represent more than $60 million in awarded contracts. Adams estimates that about 30 percent of NPL’s revenue in his area goes to diverse business.
The Partner Alliance grew out of these efforts, with the recognition that many of these diverse firms were not afforded the same opportunities across the industry. The creation of the alliance served as a sort of mentorship program, with the larger Tier 1 or 2 companies having a positive impact on the smaller Tier 3 firms.
What was initially a small roundtable discussion on the state of the industry with a few key partners has grown into a coalition that brings together representatives and executives from about 15 companies to share knowledge and create opportunities.
The first meeting of the NPL Partner Alliance occurred in late 2014 and solidified into a more formal group in 2015. Adams invited 18 of its partner companies, representing a broad spectrum, from diverse to non-diverse companies and from large to very small in size. The biggest requirement to participate was that the companies had to make a commitment.
“It can’t be that they just show up for one meeting and be done,” Adams says. “We were very deliberate in what we wanted. We started meeting once a quarter for eight hours. We would meet for half a day, then volunteer.”
One of the goals for 2020 was to expand the group, but the COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on those plans. However, despite social distancing requirements over the last year, the group has continued to meet via video conference calls.
“The meetings are based around education, focusing on specific topics relevant to the industry and business in general,” Adams says. “The group would bring in subject matter experts on topics such as law, human resources, marketing, security and health care.”
To help facilitate the meetings, Adams reached out to Eric Sanderson, president and founder of Red Rocks Advisors, a consulting firm based in Phoenix, Arizona, specializing in the design, engineering and construction industry.
“The presentations are usually angled from a manager’s and owner’s view,” Sanderson says. “A lot of meetings are aimed at understanding what it takes to lead a company.”
Leading the Industry
Sanderson applauds Adams for his leadership within the Partner Alliance and in the industry at large.
“Josh is rock solid and such a good guy,” he says. “He has a legitimate passion for people that work around him and all the vendors that work for NPL. He takes personal interest in creating opportunities for them. You can’t guarantee people success, but you can give them an opportunity. Josh does that and helps people who are part of this group, but he’s also very service minded. He is involved in every activity and does such a good job of leading the group. He’s the hub of that wheel.”
The Partner Alliance helps build diversity beyond just the sphere of NPL and its customers and subcontractors, says Dr. Michelle Muhammad, director of supplier diversity for Southern Company Gas, parent company of Nicor Gas. Muhammad first engaged with the alliance about two years ago, when she accepted her current role.
“My role with the NPL Partner Alliance has been to continue fostering business partnerships, promoting diversity and inclusion and sharing best practices across industries, not just during our quarterly partner alliance meetings but throughout the year,” she says. “It’s all about making connections and growing long-term sustainable partnerships and the alliance is one way of doing so.”
The biggest industry-wide impact of the alliance, Muhammad says, is the partners’ commitment to building long-term sustainable relationships that promote diversity, inclusion and equity.
“Everyone is invested,” she says. “You don’t have to convince this group that supplier diversity is important or the right thing to do. They know and understand that it is just good business. And while we recognize that moving towards equity is a journey, the framework and the key principles upon which the alliance was built demonstrates the intentional efforts to be a part of the change that we want to see.”
Diversity programs such as the NPL Partner Alliance have broader impacts as well.
“Diversity not only matters in the oil and gas utility industry, but it matters in every industry,” Muhammad says. “As a nation, we find ourselves at a critical time in history. From the pandemic to social unrest that is compounded with economic inequality and systemic injustice, we see a need for economic inclusion now more than ever. The Hackett Group reported that supplier diversity programs add $3.6 million to a company’s bottom line for every $1 million invested in diverse procurement. Moving towards racial equity isn’t just about doing more business with diverse businesses, but it’s about creating opportunities that generate jobs and closing the wealth gap so that all Americans can fulfill their dreams.”
Adams sees the broader impact of the Partner Alliance as twofold, having companies align with NPL’s core values of safety and quality and creating
opportunities for other companies in the industry.
“To be a partner at NPL, companies have to be aligned with our core values, specifically around safety and quality,” Adams says. “We spend a great deal of time talking about safety and quality in these meetings. We share stories, and that has to be at the forefront of the industry. Smaller companies recognize that to do business with NPL, they have to have a foundation of safety and quality.”
Emphasizing that focus on safety and quality has a trickledown effect within the industry, Adams says, as NPL partners will carry those core values with them on other projects.
“We encourage our partners not just to do business with NPL and Nicor, but with as many different businesses as possible,” he says. “That will only make them stronger. We want our partners to diversify their client structure so that their business will be sustainable for years to come.”
Early on, Adams says that NPL focused on giving its smaller partners opportunities and growing them to scale.
“As long as those companies are completing work to our safety and quality standards, we’ll keep working with them,” he says. “If we see a company is doing 90 percent of their business with NPL, we’ll say they need to work with other companies and build more relationships. We’re cyclical. We need to make sure our partners diversify as much as possible, just as we do. We care about our partners enough to say, ‘go work for our competitors.’”
Adams doesn’t mind if other companies copy NPL’s Partner Alliance. He’s seen the benefits of providing opportunities to smaller companies and seeing them grow within the industry. One thing that he thinks will improve efforts to build diversity and inclusion in the industry is the idea of cost.
“As whole, not just in the construction industry, there’s this misconception that to have diversity and inclusion, we need to have exorbitant resources,” he says. “People say, ‘It’s going to cost me more money. I’ll lose efficiency. If a smaller company doesn’t have scale, they have a higher cost of operations.’ However, efficiencies can overcome the cost. We all have to get over the stigma that diversity means more money.”
Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.