Mary Anne Brelinsky is President of EDF Energy Services, the North American customer facing business within the EDF group. Mary Anne joined EDF Trading North America as a Vice President responsible for the Texas power business.
Originally published March 2017
In that role, she grew EDF’s customer base to include energy management and optimization services for load and generation customers ranging from natural gas, wind, battery storage, and solid fuel power stations. Mary Anne now heads EDF Energy Services, which includes the Commercial and Industrial Retail, Generation Services, and Customer Hedging and Optimization businesses.
Mrs. Brelinsky serves on the Board of Directors for Anahau Energy, Atlas Scholars, DK Energy, the Gulf Coast Power Association, and the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce. She also serves on the Advisory Council for the Women’s Energy Network, the University of Houston Energy Advisory Board, and the St. Mary Magdalene Catholic School Board. Mrs. Brelinsky has an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an MBA from the University of Houston. Mary Anne lives in Houston with her husband and their three sons.
Please tell us about the best and worst career decision you’ve ever made.
A few years ago I ran EDF’s Texas Power Business. It was the best job I ever held. I loved going to work each morning and took pride in the platform our team built. I had spent the prior ten years working in the Texas electricity market at various firms, so I knew Texas power as well as anyone. When the Head of North American Power came to me and told me I was being promoted to run Power Origination in North America, I immediately said, “No. You can’t make me.” I swear, those were my exact words! What did I know about power outside of Texas? Let alone Origination (which in our industry equates to Sales, I’m an introvert for goodness sake).
I had no faith in my ability run a team with a focus that broad or a scope that big. I couldn’t see that what I learned in Texas, and the successes we had there had prepared me to build out a similar customer-focused platform across the US and Canada. My boss pulled all the right heart strings – what a great opportunity for my career, I didn’t have to commit for life (if after a year I didn’t like it they would give me my old job back), and we could promote a very deserving individual into the role to backfill me.
Luckily for me, our management team wouldn’t take no for an answer. I have learned so much since then, have gotten to work with some of the brightest people in the industry, and played an active role in doubling the size of our platform and breadth of services for our customers. What could have been my worst career decision turned into a great success.
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
Often, women lack the self-assurance our male counterparts possess in spades. I dislike using gender generalizations, but over and over, as positions or deal opportunities pop up in our organization, the menÂ consistently raise their hands and tell me why they are best suited for the endeavor. Women, even the highly qualified ones, are much less likely to raise their hands (or they question their own abilities, I made that mistake myself). Even in day to day situations like a client meeting with limited seats, the women will often fall back and sit in the chairs against the wall, while the men will pull up chairs and make room for themselves. I think women need to be more aware of what this behavior conveys. Make a seat for yourself at the table. Raise your hand for opportunities. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion, it needs to be heard.
What advice would you give to women entering the commodity market?
Be brave! The commodity industry is one that doesn’t reward timidity. I was flabbergasted the first full day I spent on a trading floor. The F-bombs notwithstanding, it is a dynamic environment. People stand up, shout at one another, and you have information flying at you in all directions. To thrive here, you need to be quick on your feet, add value to the conversations happening around you, and wear thick skin. My first job out of college was with Exxon at a chemical plant and my mentor at the time gave me a great piece of advice. He said to me, “You are surrounded by bright people, everyone here is smart. The key to long-term success is that people respect your opinion and want to work with you.” He was right. You can be the smartest person in the room, but if no one wants to have you on their team (or be on yours), you are toast.
I look for energetic, bright, goal focused people. The degree you have is less important. One of the best power traders I ever worked with had a degree in Music. Commodity markets are constantly evolving, we need people who can embrace that change, find a solution, and then can communicate the vision effectively to others.
Do you feel there are additional challenges for women when building a career within the commodity market?
Yes, but in a way most people don’t expect. Most commodity firms focus on hedging strategies, big dollar transactions, and big name clients. The commodity portion of these deals is becoming more and more transparent thanks to real-time access to data. Getting deals done (which drives successful careers) is becoming more and more relationship driven. The men on my staff are great taking clients hunting, shooting, fishing, or golfing. If you can’t get to know your customers after sitting 8 hours in a duck blind, it’s not going to happen.
Industry conferences are a great way to network with industry counterparts. Most conferences provide an opportunity to play golf or a couple hours in the spa. I get upset when the women opt for the spa. You can get a massage, but you are there by yourself. The men are out spending 5 hours on a golf course swapping stories and building relationships. When a client needs help with a time sensitive issue, who are they going to call? The guy they spent 8 hours in the duck blind with. Women need to learn to golf. Get yourself out that and spend time with your customers, I am a big believer in that.
In your opinion, has the market changed regarding the number of women in the commodity market over the last 5 years?
No, and I am trying to find ways to make that happen. I am on the Board of the Gulf Coast Power Association and a few years ago we kicked off the Women’s empowerment initiative to help address this issue (check out the website for more details!) I’ve been lucky in my career to have had a few strong women to learn from and to be mentored by although we never actually called it that by name. Recently, I was invited to a dinner reception for a Governor (not to be named) from the Northeast. There were 80 industry C-level executives in a ballroom to discuss oil and gas development in his state. When I got to the reception, the women checking people in said to me, “Mrs. Brelinsky, I am SOOO sorry.” All I could think was there was a problem. She said, “I just want to apologize, you are the only woman here tonight.” I ended up trying to make her feel okay about it, ensuring her that this is not a new phenomenon, I would really be okay. I went in and sat down at my table, and sure enough, of the 80 something there, I was the only woman. The Governor started speaking and mentioned meeting the head of a local union.
And he says, “You know how it is fellas, it’s like meeting your father-in-law for the first time, you are pretty sure the man is going to be an ass, but you have to try to like him anyway.” At which point the Governor looks at me and says, “Except for you Sweetheart, you don’t have to worry about that.” Now I could have gotten angry, or I could have been hurt, but instead I said, “You haven’t met my mother-in-law.” You have to keep your chin up and be brave.
What is the ideal next step in your career?
I have been asked to lead our customer-facing retail and services businesses in North America. When the CEO asked me if I would be willing to take on this additional responsibility, I said “Yes!” The words “You can’t make me” didn’t cross my mind.
What steps do you take to help balance your demanding job and your private life?
Find a supportive partner. I tell my husband daily I couldn’t do what I do without his support. I also believe it is possible to have a rewarding career and be a fantastic wife and mother. I have three sons, which are the greatest joys in my life. Does it break my heart when Noah asks how many nights I’ll be away this week? Yes. But when I am home, I’m home. We shoot hoops, do science experiments, and plan where we want to travel to next.
We spend one-week camping in the Adirondack Mountains every year. My grandmother has gone every year since before my mother was born. Gram had nine children and has a PhD in Nuclear Physics. She is a terrific role model (not everyone’s grandmother can quilt, bake, and rebuild a laptop; she really is a rocket scientist). Camping with her is the best week of my year. When I took a job with Lehman Brothers I was told “no vacation in the summer, that’s when markets are volatile,” I told them it was a deal killer. To which they said, okay enjoy the campout with Gram; see you when you get back. You have to know your own priorities and don’t be afraid (again Be Brave!) to stick to them.
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
I wish I knew. I am the mom of three boys. I will never forget the morning when as I’m running around like a maniac getting ready for work, trying to find my purse, and I turn around and Shane is standing there in my heels with my purse over his shoulder. He looks at me and says, “I’m ready for work.” My boys don’t have a preconceived notion about gender in the workplace. I only hope theirs is the generation where women have critical mass in the Board Room and gender isn’t a major driver for your career path.
What is your personal motto?
A rising tide lifts all ships. I really believe the success and long-term viability of a company is its people. This is especially true at energy companies. We don’t build houses or manufacture Legos. Our profits are earned by providing services to our customers and maneuvering volatile commodity markets. If you can surround yourselves with talented, energetic, driven co-workers your chances of success, both personal and professional, are exponential. I love my job. I am surrounded by people who love their jobs. If we can’t find a solution to a problem, it can’t be found.
What is your view regarding the importance of female representation on various commodity trading boards?
I think it would be difficult for anyone to argue that the percentage of women on boards is disproportional to the number of women in the industry. In the US alone, women represent just shy of 13% of all board positions, and the number has not changed significantly in over a decade. Several studies have shown that corporate boards with women on them outperform those made solely of men. Forbes reported a few years ago on the topic that:
- Women tend to ask different kinds of questions than do men.
- Women tend to be more inclusive and collaborative than men.
- Women tend to be more comfortable with ambiguity than men, are more holistic in their thinking and tend to be more process-oriented than men.
So the question should really be: why aren’t there more women on boards?