Spotlight on PSEG

CEO Ralph Izzo talks about the bright side of giving to the arts


Ask him if he’s ever performed as an artist and Ralph Izzo, Chairman, President and CEO of the Newark-based PSEG, will quickly demur that he can “hardly play a radio.” 


“But I love music, I love dance, I love theater,” he quickly adds. “I just don’t have that side of the brain that works that way.”


He’s an avid concert-goer – he cites YES, Jethro Tull and Arlo Guthrie as recent shows he enjoyed – and happily recalls taking his two now-grown children to “a thousand” Raffi concerts when they were small. 


“I loved that,” he reminisces. “I still have those DVDs! ‘This Little Light of Mine’ was my favorite,” he says.


Well, of course it is. As the top executive at PSEG — the umbrella company that includes PSE&G and other energy-related subsidiaries — he is the man who keeps New Jersey’s lights on, after all.


He also oversees PSEG’s support for NJPAC. The company is one of the Arts Center’s most significant corporate sponsors; it has been ever since one of Izzo’s predecessors, James E. Ferland, gave nearly $1 million to the campaign to build NJPAC in the early 1990s.


But PSEG’s support for the Arts Center is not just a decision driven by Izzo’s love of the arts – although it’s clear he genuinely does love them. (In addition to Raffi concerts, he recollects with nostalgia getting “piano lessons” from his 10-year-old daughter – which he requested, in an effort to get her to practice her instrument more. “I miss those!” he says.)


Rather, it’s a calculated business decision – as you might expect from a scientist-turned-businessman. (Izzo began his career as a researcher at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.)


“What motivates PSEG is that we want to recruit people, and we want to show them a great place to work, and you can’t do that without showing them what a great place Newark is,” he explains.


And NJPAC is a “cornerstone,” Izzo says, of Newark’s rejuvenation.


“There’s clearly an arts and culture theme emerging in this city,” he says, “between NJPAC, WBGO, the Newark Museum and, if you’ll allow an expansive interpretation of culture, the Prudential Center. And now you’re starting to see the kind of necessary fill-in — the restaurants and bars, the housing. Which is terrific. It’s a bit of a process, and I think what comes next is maybe more retail;.”


“People want a place to live, they want a place to work, they want to fulfill their daily needs, and then they want to have fun. A city has to fulfill all those. And I see all that happening in Newark now.”


In addition to $3 million in gifts to NJPAC’s two Capital Campaigns, PSEG has annually supported the Arts Center, usually with gifts to educational programs like the SchoolTime performances for the city’s school children, or Orff in Your Community, which brings music classes to toddlers at the city’s community centers.


Izzo says that level of support makes NJPAC one of his company’s biggest philanthropic commitments.


“In general, our philosophy has been a kind of peanut-butter approach: There are Little League teams that have gotten a hundred dollars from us, Rotary clubs that got three hundred. There are Girl Scout troops, Boy Scout troops, organizations across the state that measure our donations to them in three figures,” he says.


But PSEG has contributed more to NJPAC than to any other institution, outside Rutgers University and the PSEG Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick.


“And that’s driven by the fact that there’s just a greater investment we’re making in Newark— and NJPAC is great for building that cultural, educational, economic quality-of-life set of benefits that appeals to both current and prospective employees,” Izzo says.


Izzo’s support of the Arts Center includes his own personal time, as well as his company’s philanthropic dollars: He recently rejoined the NJPAC Board of Directors, after having been a member once before, in the early 2000s. (“I hear a lot about the utility bill” at Board meetings, he notes dryly.)


In recent years, PSEG also has collaborated with NJPAC in efforts to foster civil community dialogue. When the “watercooler talk” at PSEG’s office around the subjects of race and diversity became heated, Izzo and his chief diversity officer, Ellen Lambert, reached out to NJPAC to create the PSEG True Diversity Film Series, to provide a forum for the company’s employees to discuss such issues.


With an enormous and deliberately diverse workforce – Izzo proudly cites his company’s progressive policies supporting veterans, same-sex partnerships and transgender employees, among other examples – this was a conversation he and Lambert felt the company needed to have.


The resulting film series at NJPAC married Hollywood and indie features focused on African-American history, including the recent Oscar-nominated space-race drama Hidden Figures, with panel discussions that offered context to the story.  Initially an occasional series for PSEG employees only, the program has grown to include sessions for Newark high-schoolers, and an open-to-the-public film series at Express Newark in the just-restored Hahne & Co. building, across Military Park from PSEG’s headquarters.


Similarly, this Fall, Izzo and PSEG stepped in to underwrite the first gubernatorial election debate at NJPAC, between Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and the now governor-elect, Phil Murphy – and an after-debate event at which a post-mortem was delivered by former governors Jim Florio (a Democrat) and Tom Kean (a Republican).


“You cannot have a half-hour conversation with people these days without national politics entering into it. But at the same time, there’s a total disenfranchisement, a withdrawal of participation, in the single most important thing we have to do, which is vote. And it happened again: New Jersey just set an all-time record for the lowest voter turnout,” Izzo says.


“We just thought it was important for people to hear directly from the candidate, no filters, and to try to raise the level of engagement, so we were happy to sponsor that,” he says.


In addition to raising the level of the debate, the event gave Izzo a chance to reconnect with Kean, his old boss.


“I was his science, technology, energy and environment policy adviser – which was a lofty title for 27-year-old who worked for somebody who reported to somebody who reported to Kean,” he jokes.


Back when they worked together, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Izzo recalls, Kean was busily trying to recruit supporters for this new idea – for an arts center. In Newark. At first, it wasn’t gaining lots of traction, but Kean, Izzo remembers, “had this absolute conviction that the arts not only enriched peoples’ lives qualitatively, but would provide economic benefits that would have quantifiable multipliers associated with it.”


When the two reconnected, Izzo says, Kean was still touting the benefits of the arts to the economy.


“He still trots out these studies: That every dollar spent on the arts is worth four dollars spent on sandwich shops. He said to me at the debate: This place has been every bit as great an economic engine as I thought it would be.


“And of course – he was right!”


Dec. 18, 2017