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Customer service at the core

Essential Business

JACKSON — Turn the knob on the gas stove and a blue flame appears. Most natural gas users never ask themselves why. How did that gas get from the field to the kitchen? Pipelines, hubs and storage facilities — who really cares?

Well, Mississippi Valley Gas Company (MVG) does, and has for more than a half-century, though few may be aware of it as the company enjoys its anonymity. Every day, MVG buys gas and delivers it to 261,500 natural gas customers in 144 communities spread across 36 counties. To ship all that gas into Mississippi homes (almost 90% of their customers are residential) and businesses, the company utilizes 5,500 miles of distribution pipeline and 335 miles of transmission pipeline while operating two storage facilities in Amory and Goodwin with a working capacity of 2.05 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

While the mechanics of its delivery process may not exactly be a hot topic around the kitchen table or water cooler, MVG’s level of service has not gone unnoticed. The company consistently sees more than nine out of every 10 of its customers report satisfaction with the company and its services.

“This is a business that requires a strong focus on customer service,” said Matt Holleman, president and chief executive officer at MVGC. “There’s no room for error — we can’t afford to mess up because people are depending on us.”

While keeping the pipelines flowing remains its primary focus, MVG delivers more than just gas. The company works constantly with local governments, economic development organizations and others looking for ways to implement technological advancements and other strategies to help ensure homes and businesses are running efficiently and effectively. Obviously, MVG is hoping these efforts will mean more customers and increased revenues. But from the top down, there is a sense of a higher ideal — the enhancement of the quality of life for Mississippians — that makes coming to work at MVG more rewarding.

“Matt did an interesting thing when he hired me,” said Phil Hardwick, vice president of community and economic development at MVG who came on board about eight years ago from the economic development field. “Most of the time you’ll see it ‘economic and community development.’ But Matt said we would put community development first in my title. His philosophy is if we concentrate on community development, improving the quality of life in communities we serve, economic development would follow. It is very rewarding work. I love my job.”

Hardwick’s not the only one who finds MVG a great place to work. A heavy emphasis on safety, training and staff development (which includes an in-house apprenticeship and college tuition reimbursement programs) has resulted in an impressive average length of service of more than 12 years.

“The employees are the key to our success,” Hardwick said.

The employees look as if they will be plenty busy this year. For one thing, MVG has established its first non-gas entity — MVG Wastewater Inc.

Hardwick said, “About two or three years ago, we began looking at ways to diversify. We asked ourselves, ‘What do we know?’ Well, we know pipelines, and we know customer accounting. We found a company (Orenco Systems Inc.) and became a distributor and subsidiary. The wastewater collection system offers developers, especially in rural areas, the advantage of putting more houses in less space by eliminating the need for septic and other rural systems. Developers love it.”

Another factor that will have an impact on activity around the office is MVG’s pending merger with Atmos Energy Corporation of Dallas, which is paying $150 million for MVG. The deal is expected to close this year. Atmos serves approximately 1.4 million customers in 11 states.

While the transaction is expected to be transparent to its customers, MVG is banking on it enhancing its services and bringing new technology, such as a Web site offering more online features and interaction, as well as improved intra-office communication, into the fold.

Embracing new technology is old hat at MVG. A good example is a co-generation project it helped develop at Baptist Medical Center in Jackson. The HVAC system uses natural gas to produce electricity. The heat generated from this process is then funneled into the hospital for use in the laundry room, capturing an energy source that previously had gone unutilized.

Another example is an innovative HVAC system at the Farish Street YMCA, also in Jackson. Bought and donated by MVG, the system was developed by Mitsubishi and was only the third unit implemented in the nation (the others are in San Diego and Las Vegas). Natural gas fires an efficient two-liter engine, with the added benefit of remote monitoring to ensure more efficient gas usage.

Just as the MVG of today is quite different from the one that opened its doors in 1951, Holleman made it quite clear that the company was still looking to grow.

“We will continue to scan the horizon for opportunities,” he sad. “We want to continue to bring in new technology — such as gas-fired air conditioners — and to focus on indoor air quality and other issues. And we want to continue to help grow the economy of this state.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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