Melissa Seixas, Head of Duke Energy in Florida, Discusses the Glass Ceiling, Diversity at Conversation with a CEO
By Keith Morelli
TAMPA (April 1, 2021) -- Melissa Seixas flies in the face of parents’ argument that a university education must be tailored for gainful employment after graduation. The CEO of Duke Energy of Florida, who also serves on the USF Board of Trustees, is a history major.
Her education, including a master’s degree in American history from USF, was a critical piece in her career puzzle in the energy-production field, along with her experience in government and community relations. It was that well-rounded perspective that proved she was the right person for the job.
Wearing green and gold complete with a USF alumni pin, Seixas was the guest at the USF Muma College of Business’ Conversation with a CEO this week. The event was a virtual affair and was free to the public. The format is a casual conversation with the Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem. More than 100 business leaders, alumni, students and faculty registered to listen in on the chat.
She gave a shout-out to USF.
“I walk the talk when it comes to USF,” she said. Even though she considered a career in engineering, her father fueled an interest in history.
“Somehow,” she said, “I ended up with masters’ degree in American history. So, go figure.”
The liberal arts experience, however, paid off.
“The analytical thinking skills you develop in those programs has served me every single day in this industry,” she said. “It has allowed me to take this very technical world and translate that externally as we engage with customers, public officials and other leaders. That has been of the greatest benefit. It was the best foundation I could have started with.
“I do joke that I’m pretty sure I’m the only (utility) president with a degree in history and not engineering or finance.”
She is no stranger to the field of energy production and distribution, having started with the utility back when it was Florida Power. Named Duke Energy's state president in Florida in February, Seixas has been with the company since 1986 when she began working in distribution engineering, hand drawing schematics of poles and wires. That, however, gave her the insight into the utility ecosystem from the bottom up, a critical learning experience she needed to begin her climb to the top.
She eventually found herself in consumer affairs, engaging with the Florida Public Service Commission, the agency that regulates utilities. She did that for about 20 years, she said.
“When I was 30, I really did not set my sights on being the president one day,” she said. “But I had a diverse set of experiences in which I learned different parts of the business. I really tried to excel in every job I had, using every opportunity to establish a reputation that I was a dependable colleague and committed to the customer.”
Over her 34-year career with the utility, Seixas has served in numerous roles with increasing leadership responsibilities.
She now is head of the utility giant that serves 1.9 million retail customers in central Florida, including metropolitan St. Petersburg, Clearwater and the greater Orlando area. She is responsible for the financial performance of Duke Energy's regulated utility in Florida and for managing state and local regulatory and government relations and community affairs. She also has responsibility for advancing the company's rate and regulatory initiatives related to its electric operations. It’s an important job, mainly because of the product it the company provides.
Power is an essential part of people’s lives, Seixas said. It is a life-saving necessity in the emergency room or after a hurricane. Keeping the lights on is a responsibility the company takes very seriously.
“We provide a critical service,” she said. “It is a privilege.”
Like most CEOs, her success depends heavily on an experienced and trusted executive team.
“I give credit,” she said, “to the team that surrounds me.”
The main qualification for an executive team member? Someone who puts customers first, she said.
“It is not about shining the spotlight on them,” she said. “They have to focus on what is good for customer and the company. If someone is only interested in using this job to advance, that is a red flag to me. They should be giving 1,000 percent to this job.”
Being CEO of a giant utility is challenging, especially now when most power companies are looking to phase out dated methods of producing electricity in favor of a cleaner and renewable model. Duke Energy of Florida, which provides power to 35 counties in Florida, is no different, she said.
The company is investing an estimated $1 billion to construct or acquire a total of 700 megawatts of cost-effective solar power facilities from 2018 through 2022 in Florida, she said, and will more than quadruple the amount of in-service solar on the system over the next four years.
“Our priorities are our customers’ priorities, first and foremost,” Seixas said, and that means converting production to solar in Florida. “Our commitment is to install more solar sites across Florida.” The utility has also filed an application to retire the last two coal-fired plants, widely considered the biggest polluters of all power-producing plants. “Center to everything we’re doing is about generating power through solar.”
While the goals of the company reflect the community’s, she said, the makeup of the workforce should also. Top-level executives at Duke Energy are women, including her predecessor. She actively endorses diversity, equality and inclusion in the workplace.
“A big part of my job is to groom that next generation of leaders,” she said. “I’m in a position to help grow new people in the company. Somebody is going to have to replace me some day and we need strong bench strength to do that.”
Diversity within the ranks makes sense, she said. Just look at the numbers.
“There is a lot of data out there that shows diverse teams have better outcomes,” she said. Encouraging diversity means sometimes having difficult discussions with leaders. “We have to have that willingness to have those discussions, to ask employees for their input and feedback, so it’s not just the leaders making policy.
“We need to hear from our employees, ask questions and be open to taking feedback and data and taking action on it.”
Diversity has joined safety as being among the top concerns, she said. Every meeting opens with discussions of safety and diversity, she said.
“They’re equally important and foundational to our success,” she said. “We want our workforce to reflect the community where we live and serve. Connecting the internal with the external is so important.”