Harold Williams: True Champion for Minority Firms in the Utility Industry

By Denise Roberts

can’t think of any area of life, personal or professional, where we don’t need a champion.  When it comes to family, it’s our parents.  In education, it’s teachers.  In the church, its pastors and ministers.  At work, it’s our managers.  Well, the world of supplier diversity found a champion when former Maryland Public Service Commissioner Harold Williams became the first African American buyer for Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) Company in 1982. 

While born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1944, Baltimore has been home for Harold Williams since the age of four, when his family moved to Maryland.  Just as he did not know what he wanted to be when he grew up, Baltimore never knew what was in store for the business community or the utility industry either. According to his friend and colleague, California Public Service Commissioner Emeritus Timothy Alan Simon, Esq. an appointee of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Williams worked tirelessly on behalf of minority-owned businesses and came to be known as the “Father of Supplier Diversity” for the utility industry.

Keep in mind, that BGE had been in existence for 166 years before hiring its first African American buyer.  Because of this little known fact, Williams knew that it was not only his desire, but his duty to be nothing less than the best buyer to have ever worked for this company.

Williams worked his way up to becoming Director of Corporate Procurement in 1999, in which he spent several years managing the process for procuring goods and services for the Information Technology, Retail Services, Facilities and Fleet Service and Corporate departments.  He established purchasing policies and guidelines for preparing procurement solicitations, pre-bid and contract award meetings, and negotiating prices. He also actively facilitated the development of strategies designed to satisfy customer needs in more cost effective ways, while serving as a mediator for all internal and external stakeholder issues and concerns.

How does this make former Commissioner Williams a supplier diversity champion?  For the commissioner, it started before his days at BGE.  He says it all began when he worked for Amtrak as a buyer where he had the opportunity to provide diverse firms a chance to provide goods and services to the company. It was his time at Amtrak that he developed a passion to help minority firms gain access to opportunities in the private sector.  And when he came to BGE, he brought that passion with him and knew he wanted to be able to make a difference when it came to diversity and inclusion at this utility company.

After leading BGE’s procurement needs and processes for seven years, in 1989, Mr. Williams created the first supplier diversity program at BGE, the Procurement Opportunity Program (POP).  There was no disparity study to connect the need. It took Williams working from the inside of the procurement process to see that minority firms did not have access to opportunities at BGE.

“I saw a need within our community for the minority business community to gain access to BGE and be able to provide services and products to the utility company.  I saw my counterparts in the world, government and private sector, making inroads in this area and I wanted my company to follow suit,” said Harold Williams, former commissioner for the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC). “So, I inquired, I asked, I begged, and cajoled whomever I needed to in order to create this program. It was my passion to have the opportunity to ‘open the gates’ to minority, women, and service disabled veteran owned businesses.” 

And so began his fight for inclusion of minority, women and service disabled veteran-owned firms to have access to procurement opportunities in the utility industry.  The creation of POP changed the narrative for minority-owned firms with BGE and other private sector corporations going forward.  After the first year of its existence, the program enabled $400,000 in procurements to be spent with minority firms.  This program excelled well beyond Williams’ expectations, because that number grew to $80 million in ten years, an incredible upswing from where it once began.  Williams’ drive and commitment to the minority business community while at BGE was during a time when diversity and inclusion was becoming a priority for the State of Maryland.  In 1993, then Delegates Howard “Pete” Rawlings and Elijah Cummings (now Congressman) established the first ever Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Maryland Public Service Commission, in which utilities would increase their spend with minority businesses and report their findings every year.

After 20 years at BGE, in 2002, then Maryland Governor Parris Glendening appointed Williams to the Maryland PSC, an independent administrative agency within state government, which regulates public utilities, bay pilots, and taxicab and limousine services in Maryland. Similar to other state Public Utilities Commissions, the Maryland PSC regulates and sets tariff rates for natural gas, electricity distribution, local telephone, water, and sewage disposal companies.

Referred to as the “lone dissenter” by the Baltimore Sun, Williams spent 15 years (three terms) holding Maryland utility companies to the fire when it came to diversity and inclusion.  When he first joined the five-member Commission, he was the only African American at the time, and the only member with an agenda to include helping minority businesses gain access to opportunities in the utility industry. 

He was very successful in this effort, and gained the support of his fellow commissioners. In 2008, the Commission held a hearing that would result in a revised MOU for all Maryland utility companies to spend 25 percent of their procurement dollars with minority, women and service disabled veteran businesses.  Each year all utility companies would report their spend to the Commission.

Over the years, Williams has participated on many boards on national levels and created committees that impacted diversity both locally and nationally.  In order to accomplish these milestones, Williams has had the support of many of his own “champions” a long the way.

Williams’ initial appointment by Governor Parris Glendening opened the door to many opportunities followed by Governor Martin O’Malley.  He has been encouraged and supported by Congressman Elijah Cummings, Senators Nathaniel McFadden, Delores Kelly, Barbara Robinson, past Senator Larry Haynes, Senator (now Mayor of Baltimore) Catherine Pugh, Speaker Pro-Tem Delegate Adrienne Jones and many other community and national leaders. His previous accomplishments led him to create national committees, including UMAP (Utility Marketing Access Partnership), which is a sub-committee presently known as Supplier and Workforce Diversity of NARUC (National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners) and NUDC (National Utilities Diversity Council) out of California that continue to impact the energy arena.

During his 35 year career in the energy industry, he served three years as the Chair of the, now, Capital Region Minority Supplier Development Council as well as Chair of the Edison Electric Institute’s Minority Business Development Committee. 

Greatest accomplishment on the Commission:

Working on behalf of the people of Maryland.  Part of his role as Commissioner was to regulate various utilities.  He never looked at it as being anti utility, instead he saw his role as being pro consumer, and the people of Maryland was his number one priority on the commission.

Williams retired from the Commission in August 2017 but his passion and commitment to minority businesses and the community continue today.  He is in the process of forming an energy and sustainability resource center, The National Energy and Sustainability Resource Center.  The resource center is a collaborative partnership between energy organizers, investors, workforce developers, academics and entrepreneurs.  Its primary focus will be to educate future citizens and business leaders in the areas of energy sustainability such as solar, wind, hydro, agriculture and cyber security, hopefully giving them access into the utility industry.

In the past, the utility industry had always been a predominately white male industry.  When it came to energy issues, for most people, the involvement was not much more than turning on a light switch and paying the utility bill.  However, today that is starting to change and the resource center is designed to educate and empower everyone on the opportunities that exist in this field.

With Williams’ vision in the foreground, the National Energy and Sustainability Resource Center is gearing up to be the premier national research and business incubator in energy, environment and other sustainability disciplines, nationally and internationally, with several primary functions:

Foster and create strategic relationships with community-based organizations, primary and secondary schools, and institutions of higher education;

Foster and create strategic partnerships with public and private organizations, foundations, and individuals;

Identify, promote, and provide research, career, and internship opportunities and incentives to students, staff, faculty and senior leadership in the areas of energy, environment and sustainability disciplines;

Identify, stimulate, and anticipate changing industry workforce needs to train students and community members as a feeder for various industries;

Promote small and micro businesses, including minority and women-business enterprises and disabled service veterans in gaining access into the energy and utility industries; and,

Engage in any other activities that are not inconsistent with applicable federal and state laws.

Williams’ vision for the Center is for it to become the champion and leader of influence, both national and international, in the areas of energy and sustainability.

When asked out of all that he has been able to accomplish, what does he want to be most remembered for, Harold Williams’ response was: “That I tried. No matter what the job was, I tried to help people be successful and make an impact.”