In high school, Armando Olivera could not imagine he was destined to take on great challenges in industry. All he knew was that his fellow band members saw him as a leader and that ignited a spark in him.
“I was a quiet, dorky kid who had to work part time, but my one diversion was the high school band and the fellowship it provided,” Olivera explained. “I didn't realize what an influence it had on my life until much later. Interestingly enough, the band elected me its most valuable graduating member, even though I didn't have any musical talent. But I was a band officer and spent a lot of time doing whatever I could to make it better.”
Olivera organized the instruments and equipment before the band traveled around the state of Florida each year to perform. He also planned social activities and organized fundraisers to help finance the excursions. When Olivera graduated, the activities fund contained $500, after having been in the red for years.
That spark of “doing whatever I could to make it better” became a glowing ember in Olivera's life. To earn extra income as a student at Cornell University, he became a resident advisor in a freshmen dorm.
Many young men in his dorm struggled with whether they should leave college to fight in the Vietnam War. This combined with the onslaught of the drug culture and Cornell's hyper-competitive academic environment proved overwhelming for a few students. Olivera did his best to counsel them and connect them with resources.
“It was a tough time for these kids,” he acknowledged. “I was lucky in that I had my own moral compass. I think being a dorky kid gives you a certain frame of reference. It was a lot of responsibility for a young man. I learned how all of us go through different transitions, and how a small conversation or suggestion can go a long way when someone is going through a tough period.”
Hope and Desire
His nature of helping others did not stop when he graduated. When he returned home to Miami, he became a mentor through the Big Brothers program. He wanted to help struggling kids, just as he had as a college resident advisor, but his real reason for getting involved was personal.
“My parents were Cuban immigrants. They had no money, but they thought their kids could achieve,” Olivera said. “They brought me and my sister here with hope and a desire that we could have a better life. I was the first one in my family to go to college. Education, for me, was a bridge to a better life.”
Olivera wanted to share that perspective. Over the years, he mentored three young men in the Big Brothers program. “So many kids don't have a father at home and just need a good role model,” he said. “These three young men had good mothers, though, who worked two jobs to keep everything going. They wanted to see their kids succeed.”
And succeed they did. Olivera has stayed involved with two of the three young men over the years. Eventually, one became an engineer and the other works as a computer programmer.
When in the program, Olivera recalls taking one of the young men to tour Florida Power & Light's (FPL's) control center to learn the intricacies of how it worked. Interestingly, he is the one who became an engineer. “I'd like to think that seeing what engineers did made a difference for him,” Olivera said. “Both of these men have done well. I went to both of their weddings and have met their children.”
As Olivera was mentoring these young men through Big Brothers, he also was developing his own career, which began when he joined FPL in 1972 as an engineer. Marty Mennes, now retired from FPL, met Olivera just a few years after he joined the utility.
“When I first met him, he was in a group called management services. His job was difficult because this was a time when things were pretty lean in the industry and the company was not doing big hiring,” Mennes said. “Armando was given the chore of reviewing personnel additions and replacements for all departments. His group would evaluate a request before it was given to HR. It was a job that no one was happy with because he had to question people's decisions about new hires. He was able to pull it off, though, because he was upfront with people. The people who worked with him had a tremendous respect for him.”
Olivera worked his way up through the engineering department, rarely turning down opportunities offered to him. He even accepted a job working directly with customers, a rarity for engineers back then. There were some bumps along his professional path. In the early years of his career, engineers were required to do the drafting on their projects. All of the engineers sat in a big room with drafting tables.
“I was antsy in that big room,” Olivera recalled. “I wanted to see what the projects my team had been drafting actually looked like, so I took a pay cut to transfer to a job in the field.”
Being isolated in an office was not Olivera's style. Early in his career, he realized he thrived on interacting with people and working in the field. One person who spent a lot of time in the field at FPL with Olivera was Manny Miranda, who is now FPL's vice president, transmission and substation. In fact, they worked together for 40 years. In all those years together, Olivera's character never changed, according to Miranda.
“Throughout our careers together, we faced hurricanes, media events and the utility's reorganization. In the midst of all that, he showed the highest respect for other people,” Miranda said.
Damir Novosel, now president of Quanta Technology, agreed. He met Olivera about 20 years ago when his company worked with FPL on several industry initiatives. “When I first met him, he was pretty much the same as he is today. Armando puts people at ease,” Novosel said. “He is personable, and you can immediately build a bridge with him. You can discuss important issues with him but also feel a personal connection.”
Even as Olivera advanced in leadership positions, he remained committed to treating people right. “Not once in my career did I ever hear Armando raise his voice. However, whenever he looked over his reading glasses at you, you knew something was wrong,” Miranda said, with a chuckle. “We looked for that signal that he wasn't happy, but he was never disrespectful.”
Novosel agreed. “Armando performed but also made sure he took care of his staff. Utilities have made changes over the years in the engineering profession. Armando, however, was able to convince his management that FPL must have strong engineering teams to take care of the system,” Novosel said.
Olivera's respect for others motivated him to challenge them to continually improve. “Though he had a calm demeanor, he would hold you accountable for your actions,” Miranda said. “If you performed, he would stretch you and give you another big assignment. He demanded that you keep pushing to get better. We would tell him that FPL was already the best in class in the area he was pushing us, but it went in one ear and out the other.”
Hector Sanchez, FPL's director of system operations, was another young engineer who was stretched by Olivera. “I first met him when I had to make a presentation to him about a project. It was intimidating. I was just a kid in my mid-20s. He took an interest in my career and in helping me develop. He did it in such a nice way that you would feel bad if you didn't come up to his standards,” Sanchez said.
Olivera continued to guide Sanchez over the years. “The job that I have now was a challenging job to take a few years ago. He brought me into his office and said, ‘I'm not trying to give you a lot of pressure, but this really is one of the most important jobs in the company.’ It was a make-it-or-break it situation, and here I am three years later.
“One of his philosophies was that I was a big boy and needed to make some decisions on my projects. He asked me to determine which projects I needed to discuss with him, and then I had to present him with all the facts and options.”
Years later, Sanchez was there for his mentor's retirement party. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘I hope I didn't give you all those gray hairs you have.’ He helped me grow up, though, both personally and professionally,” Sanchez said. “I was blessed to develop under him.”
Ron Critelli, FPL's senior director of engineering and technical services, was another engineer who grew up under Olivera's mentorship. “The majority of my conversations with Armando were when equipment wasn't working. It's just the nature of the business,” Critelli said. “He taught me to present the facts in a nonemotional way. Even after the bad meetings, he would say, ‘Do not take any of this personally. What do we need to do in this situation?’ He would be compassionate, pick you up and dust you off. He was in the business but he wasn't all business. He would often ask you about how your family was.”
While Jim Glass was a student intern in Olivera's department at FPL, he experienced that same spirit of encouragement. “I was told that he was very bright and would likely be rising quickly at FPL,” Glass said. “I didn't think I made much of an impression and didn't expect him to remember me. I was very surprised several months later when Armando sent me a handwritten note congratulating me on good grades I had received in the previous quarter at school and complimenting my work performance. That made quite an impression on me.”
As Olivera's career grew, he had a few difficult conversations with the utility's senior management. “After a significant reorganization, my job was eliminated,” he said. “I was offered a vice president job that I didn't think I was qualified for and I told the CEO offering me the job. This was tough because there weren't other officer jobs available. I had significant financial responsibilities so being without a job was not a great prospect. The CEO would have eventually realized my limitations, but saying it up front facilitated an honest discussion. He was then able to guide me on the accountabilities of the job and how to organize the department. Ultimately, I got up to speed.”
Olivera ended up thriving in that position, and, from there, he had only one place left to go: the top spot. Olivera was named president and CEO of FPL in 2003. He was a rarity among utility CEOs because of his training as an engineer, rather than coming from a finance background.
“Because I came up through the engineering ranks over a long period of time, I could never forget what it was like to be in the field in the summer heat or writing up equipment damage after a big hurricane,” Olivera said. “All those lessons, hopefully, helped me make better decisions involving the welfare of our employees. I am sure that I didn't get everything right, particularly when balancing the needs of business with the needs of employees, but I took into consideration the impact of each decision on the lives of employees and their families.”
As president, Olivera continued to mentor young people, particularly those with an interest in engineering, on a broader scale by leading FPL's efforts with the local educational community. “Armando led FPL to invest in helping Florida students study science, technology, engineering and math using solar energy as a platform,” said Lewis Hay, CEO of NextEra Energy, FPL's parent company. “He led FPL's partnership with Palm Beach State College that is allowing students who complete an associate degree in electric power engineering to intern at FPL.”
Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón appreciated Olivera's contributions to his students' education. The college, which named Olivera a trustee in March 2012, has one of the largest minority student populations in the United States. “The benefits of Armando's pioneering style reach far into our community. FPL teams up with Miami Dade College and its Nuclear Energy Institute to ensure a pipeline of well-educated and highly skilled professionals are prepared for demanding careers in the nuclear industry. These graduates receive associate in science degrees with specialization in instrumentation and control, electrical maintenance and mechanical maintenance.”
Olivera speaks to student groups periodically and counsels individual students. “I never turn down the opportunity to be a cheerleader for a minority student who wants a technical career,” he said. “It is a difficult path, but the rewards are worth it.”
According to Miranda, being at FPL's helm did not change who Olivera was at his core. “Even when he was named president of the company, when you met with Armando, it was like the world had stopped,” Miranda said. “He was never distracted. He really listened and gave good advice. He also had a depth of knowledge on a variety of subjects. I've seen him spar with my most brilliant engineers on an engineering issue and then turn around and do the same thing with the vice president of finance. He was an avid reader and had an appetite for learning on most any subject.”
In the midst of leading and being knowledgeable on a variety of subjects, Olivera maintained a personal touch, Miranda noted. “It's easy when you reach a certain level to just direct people, but he liked to engage with people,” Miranda said. “He was able to maintain the balance of being close to others but also understanding that this was a business and that he needed to keep people accountable. That's why he was successful, both professionally and personally.”
Armando Olivera's Contributions
Armando Olivera, who was named CEO of the Year by the Solar Electric Power Association in 2011, retired as Florida Power & Light's CEO in May 2012. Then in July 2012, he received the IEEE 2012 Leadership in Power Award for his contributions to FPL and the industry.
Under Olivera's leadership, FPL accomplished a great deal:
- Initiated the first system-wide distribution hardening effort in North America based on post-storm data collection
- Helped develop the first hybrid solar energy center in the world to combine a solar thermal array with a combined-cycle natural gas unit
- Was one of the first utilities to implement a major quality improvement program based on problem solving and making sure the organization knew how to use the data
- Developed a partnership with The Scripps Research Institute to use the roof of FPL's headquarters to evaluate emerging solar technology.
With Olivera at the helm of the utility, FPL's facilities have received the following industry awards:
- Martin Next-Generation Solar Energy Center was named Project of the Year (best renewable energy project category) by Power Engineering magazine in 2012.
- DeSoto Next-Generation Solar Energy Center was presented with the Chairman's Award by the Southeastern Electric Exchange in 2010.
- Martin Next-Generation Solar Energy Center was named a Top Plant in the renewables category by POWER magazine in 2012.
- West County Energy Center was honored as a Top Plant by POWER magazine in 2010.