While the CPS Energy board of trustees begins contract negotiations with Rudy Garza — its pick for permanent president and CEO — congratulations from the community are rolling in.

In addition to the hundred-plus employees who showed up to the special board meeting Tuesday to show their support for their interim CEO, others have taken to social media to praise Garza, who has worked in a number of leadership roles at the utility since 2012.

A LinkedIn post by CPS Energy’s Chief Financial Officer Cory Kuchinsky included a photo of the packed board room. “This is what support for Rudy D. Garza looks like. Standing room only,” Kuchinsky wrote. Dozens added comments of support below the post.

The news earned plaudits from industry leaders as well. John Di Stasio, president of the Large Public Power Council, of which CPS Energy is a member, called Garza a “Great choice!” while the President and CEO of the Grand River Dam Authority Daniel Sullivan shared “Great news for CPS!”

Garza has held the top job in an interim capacity for the past 10 months, leading the utility through its first winter following the February 2021 freeze, a successful rate case and San Antonio’s hottest summer on record.

Following the board’s vote Tuesday to suspend its CEO search and begin contract negotiations, Garza told reporters his time as interim CEO “have been the best 10 months of my career,” despite the ongoing challenges facing the nation’s largest municipally owned gas and electric utility. Garza choked up talking about the honor he felt to be supported by employees and the community.

“I’m blessed,” he said. “That’s all I can say — I’m blessed.”

The San Antonio Report spoke with Garza earlier this month and again Tuesday. The Q&A below was drawn from both interviews and has been edited lightly for clarity and length.

San Antonio Report: Eroded community trust was a significant issue when you first took the helm. How have you been working to rebuild that trust?

Rudy Garza: I’ve come in and kind of focused on what I think will move us in the right direction. Our leadership team is different. The way we’re communicating with our customers and our community is different. You know, I think what has changed is that we’ve simplified our approach. Just look at the current state versus where we were post-[Winter Storm] Uri; I think we’re just in a different place as an organization.

Quite frankly, when the board asked me to step in here, you know, one of the things that they focused on was, ‘Look, we gotta get through the winter with no reliability issues,’ and by and large, we accomplished that. Now we’re dealing with the heat. … I cannot overemphasize how debilitating that is to our customers.

I’ll tell you this though — for the first time in a couple of years, we’ve seen a rebound in our customer satisfaction scores. We actually saw that in the first quarter of this year. We saw an uptick. I think it is [because of] the work we’ve done trying to be transparent in our communication with our customers.

SAR: What do you think has impacted those numbers?

Garza: I’m attending any community dialogue, discussion, breakfast, event [that I can]. I’ll go anywhere and talk to a few people or I’ll talk to hundreds of people if they’ll invite me. I think the effort and the work that my team and I are putting in to get in front of the community, to talk about the things that they want to talk about, and to answer the tough questions — that has an impact. When customers see that you’re trying — even if they don’t agree with your message all the time — the fact that you’re willing to get up there and answer the tough questions, I think matters.

SAR: What are you hoping to see come out of this 30-day negotiation period?

Garza: Money has never driven me. You know, we’ll negotiate a fair deal and we’ll move on, so I don’t expect this negotiation period to be overly complicated. Look — this is a big job, and there’s a value for this job, and I think the board has been briefed on what compensation for executives [should be, and] what represents fairness, and so I’m hopeful that they’ll take that under consideration and that we’ll be able to get this thing done.

SAR: What do you want CPS Energy customers to know?

Garza: Well, first off, for customers that have something that they’re upset about for whatever reason, try to reach out to us to let us talk to you about it. Give us a chance to at least talk [you] through whatever the issue might be. Our job is to serve our community. It’s a big one.

[Another] main thing that I hope customers will recognize is, is that for me there’s no agendas. It’s not about me, it’s really not about our leadership team — our employees work hard to keep the lights on and the gas flowing and we always ask folks to focus on that. We are responsible for electric and gas utility service [in San Antonio], and I’ve got to do that reliably, number one, and then as affordable as I possibly can, two, and it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

Now, getting that done is complex, it’s a process, but we’re doing everything we can to be the best-run utility that we can be for our community. [Also], with the heat being what it is our plants are running harder than they have ever run before, and in spite of the challenges that we’ve seen, we’ve done what we’ve needed to do to protect our customers from the additional price volatility that can come [from] the market. We’re trying to keep prices low. So when you look at San Antonio versus the rest of the state, while everybody’s bills are up, they’re not as up as they would be otherwise, because we’re a publicly owned utility and because we run a very conservative operation here.

SAR: More than 100 employees came out to show their support for your leadership Tuesday. How did that feel?

Garza: When I walked down[stairs], I figured, you know, they were just here for lunch because we’ve been trying to create programs to bring our workforce in, to get them out of the heat, and get them a good healthy meal. So they’ve been in and out of the building all summer long. So I honestly didn’t know they were here for that. When Ron Ramsey, our [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] president came into the room, it hit me why they were there, and I don’t know if you saw but I had to turn because I got a little choked up.

SAR: What will your priorities be once you’re officially in the role?

Garza: I first should emphasize that contract negotiations are underway and I don’t want to get ahead of the process.

However, I will say that my focus will remain unchanged. Through the end of the fiscal year, I’m committed to delivering on our promise to get through the summer and prepare our generation fleet for the winter season; work with the [rate advisory committee] to deliver power generation options to our board by the end of the fiscal year; continue to regain our customers’ trust by being present in the community; visit with our workforce where they are across the company to continue improving employee morale; connect our customers to assistance to avoid disconnections and work down our past due balances to keep our finances strong; continue to hire and retain talent; creatively address supply chain challenges to keep up with our community’s growth; and push forward our digital transformation initiative.

These are the elements of our five-year strategic plan that we remain focused on and committed to for our customers.

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...