John Smola, director of Business Transformation at Alabama Power, was recently included in the Birmingham Business Journal‘s annual “Top 40 Under 40” in the city and surrounding region. Born in Oklahoma, Smola spent most of his youth in Eufaula, Alabama, with his parents and two younger brothers. His mother, a university professor, and his father, a professional engineer, are both retired. He is a graduate of Auburn University in chemical engineering and earned his MBA from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Asked who inspires him, Smola named three people: his parents and his wife, Cassi, a pediatric hospitalist in the cleft and cranial facial clinic at Children’s of Alabama. They live in Homewood with their six-year-old twins, Madelyn and Margaret. The Smolas enjoy spending time with family, traveling, watching English Premier League soccer and “all things food.” He is an avid runner.
“We’re both working parents,” Smola said. “We figure out how to support each other and our families in an environment where we both have career goals and ambitions, but also have parental and family obligations. Finding the right balance, communicating constantly and asking for help are all important.”
Alabama NewsCenter: What’s your reaction to being named to BBJ’s “Top 40 Under 40?”
John Smola: I’m truly honored. But my first reaction is to reflect that there’s very little I’ve accomplished by myself. It’s been the work of teams that I’ve been a part of at Alabama Power and the support we get from our company to do the work we do in the communities we serve.
It’s also a testament to the external network of people and organizations that have partnered with our teams on various projects. We have so many aligning with the goal of making Birmingham and Alabama everything we know they can be. I’m truly lucky to be a part of these things, so the Top 40 isn’t about the work I’ve done. It’s a fantastic honor that I view as an opportunity to highlight the work that Alabama Power and our many partners are doing.
ANC: How did you come to Alabama Power?
Smola: Alabama Power had a professional development program that was very intentional in hiring people right out of college. For my first 18-20 months with the company, I was fortunate to have fallen into a rotational program that allowed me to gain experience all over the company. I also met so many people, many of whom I still have relationships with just from meeting in those first few months.
Part of my time in the program was spent in the Birmingham Division, some in Regulatory Affairs. I mention those specifically because it gave me the opportunity to work in those areas once the program was complete. First, I went to work in the Birmingham Division, doing commercial marketing and working with some key large commercial accounts. After a couple of years, I moved to Regulatory Affairs as a pricing analyst on the rates side and ultimately had the opportunity to become the pricing supervisor. Learning about the regulatory structure that governs that side of our business was a fantastic experience.
ANC: What was the path from there to today?
Smola: From there I became assistant to John Hudson, who had just become senior vice president of Marketing and Business Development, supporting marketing, economic development, customer service and innovation. We were looking at different opportunities to grow and do business differently.
The whole company began to organize around new growth opportunities. That gave me the opportunity to really become involved in innovation and growth initiatives. I gained the knowledge and experience to come out of that role and work with new growth-oriented groups in the company – both existing ones and new ones we have added. For the past few years, we’ve been working with groups focused on non-kilowatt hour initiatives.
When we say business transformation, it’s those projects we’re talking about. We are working with our customers to make sure that we stay relevant in the ever-changing energy landscape we’re all operating in.
ANC: Assessing the landscape for innovation, what has been accomplished so far and what are the future opportunities?
Smola: A lot has been accomplished over the past five plus years. Developing a network of partnerships has been a key emphasis in these accomplishments, working on things that involve a lot of different people and groups at Alabama Power and Southern Company. One of the things we’re engaged in is our connectivity initiative, thinking about how we can use telecommunication assets, including fiber and other networks, to do business more efficiently and reliably. From a marketing perspective, our overarching goal is to create partnerships that benefit our customers but also decrease the digital divide across the state.
Six years ago, we were just starting conversations about innovation and how to diversify our growth. Now, we’re seeing some of those conversations come to fruition in ways that are making national headlines. Seeing and being part of that has been really cool.
ANC: You were closely involved in Alabama Power’s support of the World Games. What will be the lasting impact of the Games?
Smola: First, there were many employees who were more closely involved and integral in a successful World Games. Overall, it was a fantastic opportunity for Birmingham and Alabama that I’m glad to have witnessed and experienced. Alabama Power had an army of employees supporting the games, helping the city and region show off our assets to a worldwide audience. It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity, but the fact that we did it really well sets us up for events of similar magnitude in the future. That’s a great accomplishment.
For Alabama Power, the Games were a showcase for things we’re doing in the innovation space. Energy conservation at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex; new, energy-efficient lighting and mechanical upgrades at the Hoover Met; LED lighting in different locations across Jefferson County. And at City Walk, the primary artery of the World Games, pretty much every type of technology we offer from a nonkilowatt-hour perspective was there in some form or aspect. The Games were a great platform for showing what Alabama Power can do in this new energy landscape.
ANC: As a resident of the Birmingham area, what are your thoughts about the place you work and live with your family?
Smola: Cassi and I love Birmingham. We’re proud to be part of this community. Whether you want to call us a big little city or a small big city, Birmingham is growing. It has so much potential to continue to grow in its own unique way. Engaged individuals and teams and companies want to be part of that.
The investments we’re making in the city and in neighborhoods – including our history and how we talk about that, how we continue to learn and grow from it, how it attracts new investments and new initiatives and innovative people. Birmingham is in a very unique position in that way.
Over the past five years or so in particular, Birmingham has begun accumulating amazing accolades from different perspectives – the tech scene, the culinary scene, the sports scene. Having any part in that is great. But it also creates more expectations for where we need to go. We have the opportunity to create our future.
ANC: What are the challenges to that?
Smola: We have to continue to work together on a vision that everybody sees that they are part of. To continue moving forward, we have to have everybody aligned around what it means to move the community forward. It’s a challenge, but also very much an opportunity.
On the company side, the energy industry is in a wave of disruption and transition. If you think about it, energy is the biggest industry that hasn’t gone through a major transition. Look at transportation, health care, the financial industry – all have been around for 100-plus years, and they have all changed drastically. At the core of energy, there have been a lot of great technologies developed, but poles and wires have been around for a century or more. That’s changing, and the ways we respond to it are important.
Being part of an industry that is going to face tremendous change during my career is a really exciting thing. The ways we deliver energy will continue to change. I think it’s great that Alabama Power and Southern Company are part of figuring out the solutions and executing on them.
Smola and other members of this year’s BBJ “Top 40 Under 40” will be honored Thursday, Aug. 18, at a reception at Iron City Bham from 5-7:30 p.m.