Michael Yackira: Commitment to Community

HAVING GROWN UP IN THE BRONX, in a neighborhood just behind Yankee Stadium, Michael Yackira’s first job was selling popcorn and peanuts at baseball games. He’s long since hit it out of the park. Today, he’s the head of NV Energy (which, it was announced on May 29th, as we were headed to press will be acquired by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, the subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway whose chairman is Warren Buffett) as well as a committed community leader.

With an accounting degree from New York’s Lehman College and a calculator fresh in his hands, the certified public accountant began his career as a CPA with Arthur Andersen in New York. He’s had several jobs in several cities since, including a stretch as the president of FPL Energy, a sister company of Florida Power & Light, before he finally landed here in 2003, in an executive vice president’s role with NV Energy (then Sierra Pacific Resources). Four years later, he was made the president and chief executive officer.

Yackira’s first commitment to our community was with the United Way of Southern Nevada. But now he sits on several boards, including the Nevada Development Authority and the Council for a Better Nevada; he’s also vice-chairman of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Foundation board of trustees; chairman of the Nevada Cancer Institute Foundation; and he recently was made chair of the Edison Electric Institute.

Over a crisp baby spinach and golden beet salad topped with grilled lemon-marjoram chicken, hazelnuts and Blue Picón at Vintner’s Grill, Yackira took an hour from his super-charged schedule to talk with diamondcake about the Valley’s can-do attitude, NV Energy’s commitment to charity and the cost of a Starbuck’s Venti caramel macchiato.

You’ve moved around a lot with your career.

I went from New York, had a short stint in New Jersey, Connecticut, Texas, back to Connecticut, then Tampa, Florida and then the West Palm Beach area of Florida. So, six states and about a dozen cities.

And how long have you been in Las Vegas?

Ten years in January. I love it.

What’s driven you to become so involved in this community?

First of all, I am passionate about it. Secondly, in a company the size of NV Energy, I think it’s incumbent upon the senior leaders to be involved in the community. But it hasn’t taken any arm-twisting to get my team to be involved. Last year the company’s charitable donations exceeded $6 million.

But it’s not just dollars, because sometimes dollars are easy. What I’m most proud of is the commitment by the employees to spend their hours volunteering. Last year our employees willingly gave 39,000 hours and they chose to do that on their own time. This year we have a goal of over 42,000 hours.

Does all that charitable giving affect the price of electricity?

Many people think that we’re charging our customers in order to be philanthropic. That’s not the case. There are only certain costs that we can include in our rates. Philanthropy is not one of them. It’s the shareholders of NV Energy that are allowing us to use the money for the benefit of the community instead of giving them more profit.

What do you say to people who think electricity is too expensive in Nevada?

I love to compare the price of a Starbucks Venti caramel macchiato to the daily price of electricity. On average, it’s about five dollars a day to run all the things that electricity runs. I think the value that is created is pretty great: You couldn’t have your cell phones, your computer, your television…

I’m hoping, in time, our customers will grow to appreciate that not only are we a good corporate citizen, but that we produce electricity at reasonable prices compared to most of the rest of the United States. We live in the desert, where it gets to be 115 degrees—if you want to live comfortably, your air conditioning is going to run and your bill is going to be higher.

Tell us about Project Reach?

NV Energy has, for years, used United Way as a vehicle for Project Reach, which helps the veterans, the disabled and elderly to pay their electric bills. Sometimes people just can’t afford to pay their bills. We fund that to the tune of about $600,000 a year. United Way does the administration, but also the vetting of people who are potentially getting the dollars, and that’s worked really well.

You’ve lived in so many cities, what makes Vegas so special?

It’s a can-do atmosphere. The Nevada Cancer Institute, the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts—those three things are evidence that if people have good ideas in this city, there can be support and rather quick evolution of thought to building.

The Smith Center is the key example. As far as the arts are concerned, this city was in need of something that was made for locals and would be enduring for decades and possibly centuries. I’m proud that NV Energy is one of the founding members of The Smith Center.

But that’s just one example of how people get behind ideas that make sense for the community. I think if you’re prone to getting involved in community activities, this place really can be an attractive place.

So you’ll be staying?

If somebody, in 2000, had said, “Name the 10 states you’ll likely never live,” Nevada probably would have been one of them. That’s just because of my thinking that Nevada was the Strip; not that it was this gorgeous state with wonderful people and a lot of things to do. So it’s been a remarkable experience for me personally. And professionally, it’s been the best move I’ve ever made. This is where I want to spend the rest of my life.

Previously published by diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for Michael Yackira.