Learning From Setbacks

Source: By PAUL GAYNOR, New York Times • Posted: Monday, January 28, 2013

MY younger sister, Maureen, was born with cerebral palsy. That shaped my view of the world, as I saw the challenges that she and my parents had to deal with.

My sister went to special schools for years. She graduated from college and is doing well, but it made me appreciate all she had to go through and all I had. I look at people with disabilities personally.

After high school, I started at Worcester Polytechnic Institute as a computer science major, and I failed my first computer science course. The phone call to my dad to tell him did not go well. I switched to mechanical engineering and found it more intuitive.

I graduated in 1987 and got a job at the power systems division of General Electric. The company hired engineers for its technical sales program and had them rotate among departments. After training, I worked in Boston selling gas and steam turbines.

After working there for four years, I attended the University of Chicago for an M.B.A., then joined what is now GE Energy Financial Services for five years, most of the time as vice president and manager in Singapore. I next worked as senior vice president and chief financial officer for a start-up pipeline development company in London that G.E. owned with another company.

That start-up lit an entrepreneurial fire under me. It was highly risky and didn’t succeed, but it was an unbelievable learning experience.

In 2000, I got a job with the Singapore Power Group. The Singapore government was privatizing state-run industries and brought me in for my C.F.O. experience, to help it adopt some Western business practices and ready the organization for the public markets. An I.P.O. never took place, however. When the country’s telephone utility went public the shares dropped, so the government changed its mind.

I left by mutual agreement, then joined a few colleagues from G.E. who had started an investment company in 2003 to take advantage of the disruption in the power market after the Enron bankruptcy and the California energy crisis. It was another high-risk proposition, and we stayed at it for a year but did not do well.

In 2004, another G.E. colleague asked me to join UPC Wind Management as president and chief executive, and I accepted. Because another wind company had a similar name, we changed our name to First Wind in 2008.

First Wind has 16 wind farms totaling nearly 1,000 megawatts of wind power, the equivalent of supplying power to 300,000 homes. Some people will always be against development, whether it’s a shopping mall, a condo project or a wind farm. But before going ahead, we do a large amount of research on the effect of sound and the impact on roads, water, views, and avian and other habitats. Our studies then go to an agency that issues permits. The agency reviews the documentation, typically has hearings and then decides whether to assign a permit.

Failure has influenced my perspectives on business. I learned more from my couple of negative experiences than from the successes. Failure has made me skeptical about outcomes, which has influenced how I run First Wind. We take credit for something only when it actually happens and not a second before, because you can get burned in the final seconds of a deal.

In 1994, I was in a plane accident at La Guardia Airport in New York. The plane aborted takeoff in a snowstorm, and in the 15 seconds before we hit the ground I thought I was going to die. Then we skidded off the runway. That event was life-altering. I travel a lot, and since then I’ve made good choices about flying and weather.

 As told Patricia R. Olsen.