"Good morning, Itron!"

LeRoy Nosbaum returns to navigate Itron's future

Kate Rowland | Sep 06, 2011

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Industry and financial tongues have been wagging overtime since the announcement on August 31 by Itron, Inc., that it had appointed LeRoy D. Nosbaum as president and chief executive officer, as well as a member of the company's board of directors, effective immediately.

Nosbaum had previously served as chief executive officer of Itron from 2000 to 2009, and also as chairman of the company from 2002 to 2009, whereupon he retired, intending, in his own words, to do three things: "flyfishing, perfect my golf game, and have a good time with my grandchildren."

Yesterday, Nosbaum, only three days into his resumed role at the head of the company, addressed the obvious question straight-up in a half-hour-long discussion with me.

"The facts are on display for everyone," Nosbaum said of the company's 33-percent stock erosion that began 18 months ago. "The board has been struggling with it for some time, and so has Malcolm (Unsworth). From my own experience, you wear out."

Unsworth, who took the helm from Nosbaum in 2009, was ready to retire, and the proposition was made to Nosbaum: would he come back?

"I decided yes, I would accept the position again. We've had a lot of speculation in the investor media, but it's as simple as I just described it," he said. "There's been some silly stuff I've seen in print since I've come back ... I was enjoying my retirement. It wasn't an easy decision. But I said to myself, 'this needs to be fixed. I'm going to fix it.'"

It's important to set the stage here: Itron isn't losing money. It's just not achieving as rapid a gain in revenues in the past 18 months as it was as it was in the previous decade, to 2008. And the company has achieved some big wins, including the announcement in April of this year that BC Hydro had awarded Itron the contract to install nearly two million of its OpenWay meters.

But it has big goals between now and 2015, and Nosbaum's chomping at the bit to get the company there.

A plaque and a legacy

Outside Itron's headquarters in Liberty Lake, WA, there is a small plaque, afixed to a rock, near the entrance. It says, "Good morning, Itron!" and it is attributed to LeRoy Nosbaum. Last year, when I visited the Itron offices, I didn't get to ask about it, so it was one of the first things I asked Nosbaum yesterday.

He answered me with a laugh, and an explanation that told me more about him in a few sentences than anything I'd read to date.

After a quick reminder about the 1987 movie blockbuster Good Morning, Vietnam, starring Robin Williams as an unorthodox and irreverent DJ assigned to the U.S. Armed Forces radio station in Vietnam, to set the quote in context, Nosbaum told me this:

"Sometime in my career, I started doing that in two different places (at Itron employee gatherings, and at users' conferences). I would walk up and scream, at the top of my lungs, 'Good morning, Itron!'"

(In fact, upon the announcement of Nosbaum's return to the company, there was a bit of a bet running on Facebook as to when he'd first erupt with his enthusiastic greeting. And he didn't disappoint.)

"It's important, as a leader, to have an attitude that is always positive and always shows enthusiasm," Nosbaum told me, underscoring the obvious -- both are overflowing in our conversation, and he's already jumped back into the job with both feet at warp speed.

Honing the focus

One of Nosbaum's first tasks is to hone the focus even more finely for the company, building upon the board's and Unsworth's work. "We have announced a plan to take us to $5 billion in revenue by 2015. I think that's a reasonable goal," he said. "We have to focus on growth. In my mind, we have lost center stage in market share, and we will get that back.

"We are taking corrective action to put Itron in its rightful place -- on center stage in the conversation, leading it, not just listening to it."

Part of that focus is global in nature: "I view the globe as being an exciting focus, and we are engaged in plans that will be a bit more aggressive with my coming onboard," he said.

And part of it is reminiscent of Itron's past decade. "We will look at companies that are interesting to us from an acquisition perspective, and we will also be adding new products," Nosbaum said. "We will grow organically; we will internationally, where it makes sense; and we will grow through acquisitions and new products."

Continuing partnerships will also continue to be a focus for Itron going forward, such as its partnership with Cisco, and the open standards approach the two companies are taking to future products. "Being a good partner," Nosbaum said, is something Itron will continue to work on perfecting going forward.

Thinking globally, acting locally

Finally, the company will continue to grow globally, but without forgetting the importance of a local focus in global growth.

"I think there is some magic in a global focus," Nosbaum told me. "Part of that magic is to understand that while there can be worldwide focus on one hand, there also has to be a local focus. And you'd better understand that 'local' matters. Never forget that the people who are buying stuff from you are local people, not global people.

"Remember, there are great benefits to doing things globally, but one sells locally."

It's a bold vision, and it'll be fascinating to watch as Itron plays it out over the coming years headed to 2015's goals. We'll be checking back in with LeRoy Nosbaum in about three months, to see how things are coming along.

In the meantime, I'd just like to say:

"Good morning, Mr. Nosbaum!"

Kate Rowland
Editor-in-chief, Intelligent Utility magazine
krowland@energycentral.com
Twitter: @katerowland2
See my blog at: http://www.energyblogs.com/rowland

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