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  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Violet Sistovaris, executive vice president of NiSource and president of NIPSCO, says her priority is to keep the utility safe, reliable and affordable.

Sunday, January 07, 2018 1:00 am

NIPSCO chief born with knack to inspire

Harding graduate defends utility's desired rate hike

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

At a glance

Violet (Mangos) Sistovaris

Title: President of NIPSCO; executive vice president of parent company NiSource

Age: 56

Home: Crown Point in northwest Indiana

Youth: Born in Greece, she moved with her family at age 6 to Fort Wayne, where she grew up

Education: Valparaiso University, bachelor's degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing; Indiana University, master's degree in business administration

Career: Centier Bank, various executive positions; NIPSCO, various executive positions

Family: Married to Sam Sistovaris; mother of one grown daughter, Ellen

Passions: Mentoring young women, cooking and baking, and reading business books; she recommends “Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box” by The Arbinger Institute and “In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best Run Companies” by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman

It was a simple question, the question that changed Violet Sistovaris' life: “When are you going back to school?”

Sistovaris, a 1980 graduate of Harding High School, had earned a bachelor's degree in business. And the married mother of one was excelling in her eighth year at Centier Bank's Merrillville headquarters, where she'd been promoted to an executive position after 18 months. Life was good.

But Mike Schrage, Centier's chairman and CEO, saw Sistovaris was capable of much more. So he asked the fateful question.

Instead of shrugging it off, Sistovaris embraced the idea. Before the next semester began, she had enrolled in Indiana University's MBA program. The unconventional career path has led to Sistovaris' current position as president of NIPSCO, the gas and electric company, and executive vice president of its parent company, NiSource.

Her responsibilities include overseeing 3,000 employees, navigating regulatory requirements, making strategic plans and managing public relations related to NIPSCO's request for a rate hike, which would affect 820,000 northern Indiana residents and businesses.

“If you go with your first reaction (to a major opportunity), you become your own barrier,” Sistovaris said during a recent exclusive interview. “I found the strength to squelch that fear.”

Schrage remembers the “determination and tenacity” that made Sistovaris stand out. 

“You could tell,” he said Friday, “that she was very hungry to be the best she could be.”

Leadership potential

Sistovaris was born in Greece, the second of Grigorios and Elaine Mangos' three daughters.

The family immigrated to the U.S. in 1968 to give the girls more educational and economic opportunities. Although the sisters didn't speak English before they arrived, family lore says they were fluent within three months.

Sistovaris remembers herself as “a very serious student” whose strong work ethic was ingrained by her late father, a skilled cabinetmaker who died in 2016. Her mother still lives in Huntertown.

Nina Baker, the youngest of the three sisters, shared a bedroom with Sistovaris, who “was always an overachiever.”

“I think that a lot of people, they learn to lead,” Baker said. “I think for Violet, she's a natural at it. She's been doing it all her life. It's a gift.” 

At Harding, Sistovaris was elected class president twice and transitioned from mediocre clarinet player to captain of the flag corps.

Those experiences showed Sistovaris had leadership potential. What she didn't have was independence from her tight-knit family. 

When she started classes at Ball State University, it was “a real shock to the system.” Her older sister, Kiki, lived at home while attending IPFW.

“Leaving home was really challenging,” Sistovaris said.

After two years at Ball State, she transferred to Valparaiso University, where she went on to earn a bachelor's degree in business with a concentration in marketing.

Her first job out of college was at Centier Bank, where she joined the marketing department and worked her way up the ranks with the support and encouragement of Schrage and others. To this day, Sistovaris calls Schrage, Centier Bank's chairman, for advice when she's “thrown for a loop.”

During those early years, Sistovaris took assertiveness training at her supervisor's suggestion.

“I'm pretty competitive,” she said. “Things like confidence, I think, come with time.”

New opportunity

Northern Indiana Public Service Co., which is also based in Merrillville, recruited Sistovaris for two positions. 

She chose to go into management development, which included training employees and recruiting graduating college seniors to join the company. The experience led to recruiting for NIPSCO's executive ranks.

A few years into that job, Sistovaris was tapped to oversee the company's call center. By taking the position, she leapfrogged from having one subordinate to supervising 150 workers. 

“I choose organizations, not roles,” Sistovaris said, adding that Centier and NIPSCO each offered an opportunity to be of service and be successful.

She accepted the job of chief information officer at NIPSCO, a position Sistovaris wasn't sure she was qualified for. She doesn't have a background in computer science. But the supervisor who offered her the post a decade ago brushed away the concern.

“I don't need you to be technical,” he said. “I need good leadership.”

Sistovaris has committed herself to the principles of good leadership and devours books on the subject.

Carrie Hightman, chief legal affairs officer for parent company NiSource, is a Sistovaris peer. They created a women's leadership program for NiSource employees.

Hightman, who joined the utility 10 years ago, previously worked at AT&T, which had a similar program.

“Violet was very passionate about it,” Hightman said, adding that Sistovaris puts energy into all the issues she cares deeply about.

Each year, Sistovaris invites Girl Scouts from the surrounding community to the headquarters to encourage the next generation of female engineers.

“The look in their eyes and the level of questions – even from a 6-year-old Brownie – is just awe-inspiring to me,” said Sistovaris, who serves on the board of directors for the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana.

Leadership isn't about bossing people around, in Sistovaris' opinion. Instead, she feels called to show workers what doing a good job looks like.

“A leader's role is to establish that vision, to provide guidance, to support his or her employees,” she said. “When you work for a group of employees like that, you can't help but be motivated and inspired to do your job.”

Sistovaris was surprised when it was pointed out that she described leaders as “work(ing) for a group of employees.” But, she said, the slip of the tongue reflects her core beliefs.

Hightman, who considers Sistovaris a personal friend who has her back, isn't surprised.

“She's someone who's warm and caring, does what she says she's going to do,” Hightman said in a phone interview. “She's willing to drive change.”

Those changes, Hightman said, focus on what's good for the business, employees and customers.

Baker, who is three years younger than Sistovaris, said her older sister isn't stuffy.

“We still laugh about silly things, and she does silly things,” Baker said. “She's probably as genuine as they get.”

Growing pains

As head of a utility, Sistovaris has had to defend some unpopular decisions.

Included among them is an effort to raise rates to help cover $800 million in infrastructure modernization projects over the next three years. Unlike other businesses that can increase prices at any time, public utilities need government approval.

NIPSCO's proposed rate hike would more than double the monthly residential base rate to $18 from $7.30.

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission will begin formal hearings this month. A ruling is expected in the spring. If an increase is approved, it would go into effect in two phases, with the first in fall 2018 and the second in early 2019.  

Critics have questioned whether the gas company needs the full $263 million the rate hike would raise. And they have questioned whether the increase is fair to low-income families who rely on the utility for heat and cooking.

Sistovaris defended the request in person at a local public hearing Dec. 11 and in print in an essay published Dec. 18 in The Journal Gazette. If approved, she said, it would be the company's first residential base rate increase in more than 25 years.

“Making this commitment now will help ensure that homes and businesses can fully take advantage of all the benefits natural gas has to offer for the foreseeable future,” she wrote.

Sistovaris said her priority is keeping NIPSCO service safe, reliable and affordable for customers.

Although she knows some executives lose touch with customers' needs and preferences, Sistovaris is committed to not being one of them. She often asks employees for customer feedback.

Sistovaris sees any rate increase as “a very serious matter” and encourages anyone having trouble paying their NIPSCO bill to contact the company and ask about assistance programs for low-income families.

“We're very sensitive to that,” she added.

Supporting nonprofits is one of Sistovaris' priorities, including community programs that offer assistance to the poor. She allows employees to serve in soup kitchens and build low-income housing while on the clock. Sistovaris also asks executives working for her to serve on a board that supports a cause they feel passionately about.

“I have a very integrated life,” she said. “There's not the Violet that comes to work and the Violet that comes home.”

sslater@jg.net