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Rob Curley: How one defining moment in Avista CEO Scott Morris’ life helped him work through another – the proposed sale to Hydro One

There are moments that it seems your life builds for. Experiences cultivate and accumulate over the years so that when a particular event happens, you’re prepared for it … even if you didn’t know you were ready.

Some people would say Scott Morris is at that moment right now. It’d be hard to argue against that.

He is the CEO of Avista as it heads directly into one of the biggest and more important moments in the iconic Spokane company’s 128-year history: its pending $5.3 billion sale to Canada’s Hydro One.

But Morris probably wouldn’t agree with that assessment. No, there’s another time in his life that probably feels more like that definitive human moment to him and his family.

It was February 2011. He had a sore throat that just wouldn’t go away. Finally, he went to his doctor to get some antibiotics. They didn’t help. He began to realize he just didn’t feel the way he normally does.

He was way more tired than usual. Even his focus felt different to him. Something simply wasn’t right.

His wife, Liz Morris, suggested they have him tested him for cancer. Actually, it was more than a suggestion. Morris tried to laugh it off, but went along with it.

Her intuition was right. Morris had throat cancer. His tonsils were removed, only to reveal the cancer had entered his lymph nodes.

He was 53 years old and about to begin eight weeks of cancer radiation treatment. At one point during this treatment, he met a woman who was undergoing the same treatment for the same sort of cancer. Only hers hadn’t been caught as early as his.

From the moment he’d been told he had cancer, he knew it was serious, but after talking with her about her life and her prognosis, it hit him how lucky he truly was.

That realization didn’t make everything right.

His family noticed he had gotten noticeably quieter. In part, he just didn’t want them to worry about him any more than they already were. He wanted to show them he was tough and that he could beat this.

All his more stoic new nature did was make his family worry even more … so much so that they basically held an intervention to make him open up to them again.

When his radiation treatments were over, Morris was struck by how the ending didn’t have the feeling of finality that other completed tasks in his life had. He wasn’t cured. The treatment was simply over. In essence, he’d never really know if the cancer might return. This was not one of those comforting endings. It really wasn’t even an ending.

It was then that Morris says his oncology nurse gave him some of the best advice of his life. She told him that just because you work hard, doesn’t mean you can’t step back and truly enjoy life, spend more time with those you love and make time to have shared moments that are the real basis of a life well lived.

She basically told him to take real vacations with his family.

Morris was still as focused and working as hard as he ever had at Avista, it’s just that now he was going to make time for the things that mattered most in his life.

“It shouldn’t take cancer to make you experience life and enjoy your life and the world around you with the people you care for the most,” he said late last week. “It’s possible to have a great life that also saves your life.”

That’s probably both literally and figuratively, in Morris’ case.

His battle with cancer seven years ago was likely the one his life had been building toward. And his life before that moment was spent almost completely in Spokane.

Morris is a Spokane kid, through and through. His dad worked at Kaiser Aluminum’s Mead smelter. His mom was a secretary.

He went to Shadle Park High School. He played football for the Highlanders. Then he attended Gonzaga University, earning degrees in political science and education. He married his college sweetheart.

He got a part-time job coaching ninth-grade football at East Valley High School. But what he really needed was a full-time job and Washington Water Power was hiring.

His first job at the company that would eventually be renamed Avista was wrapping insulation around customers’ water heaters as part of an energy-efficiency push in 1981. He even hired another Gonzaga student, a local fellow by the name of John Stockton, to help.

It never even entered his mind that he might someday be the person with the corner office at Avista’s headquarters.

That leads to the exact position Morris now finds himself in. How do you rely upon all of your life’s lessons and all the things you believe in to make a mark that matters? How do you make a decision that is so easily second-guessed by some, while holding steadfast that it will ultimately make what you helped build even stronger?

The unrelenting reality of today’s corporate world is that if a business isn’t growing, then the folks on Wall Street likely think that company is dying. You’re not just measured by growth, but dramatic growth. Standing pat isn’t even an option.

Looking across the landscape of the world’s utility companies, it wasn’t hard for Morris to see where Avista stood. The Spokane company was healthy in nearly every way, but also incredibly vulnerable because of its size.

Regardless of how strong accounting ledgers look at the end of each year, when a company is so tiny in comparison to others in its industry, that company begins to look a lot like the next meal to be eaten by one of the much bigger fish in the pond.

Corporate raiders and hedge funds are driven by the need to identify companies that can be acquired, then they typically absorb or dismantle the acquired company in a way that dramatically decreases costs, while keeping the incoming revenues tied to the existing customer base flowing directly into the new parent company’s coffers.

They use terms like “rightsizing” or “consolidation” or “corporate synergies” – and none of those words mean anything but bad news for the recently purchased company.

Morris knew all of that was a distinct possibility if Avista ever ended up in the wrong hands.

The increasing number of calls to his office from other energy companies through the years always ended with him explaining that Avista wasn’t for sale. The calls also made him innately aware that others would love to own the legacy of what Washington Power had become.

But what if there was a way to fend that off? Or even a way to dictate terms that might protect Avista for the long term?

Morris loved his company. He loved his hometown. He loved the people he worked with. And his brush with cancer had taught him that things can not only change quickly, but that some things – including life itself – can end much sooner than you expect.

More than anything, he understood all too well that there are some things you don’t put off.

There’s an old saying – which is nearly always wrongly attributed to Mark Twain – that says at some point in most people’s lives, they are more likely to be disappointed by the things they didn’t do than by the things they actually did. Not only should you make time to smell the roses, you should make sure you take care of them so others can enjoy their beauty and scent, as well.

What if there was a way to protect the things Morris loved from the sort of predatory and deep-pocket investors who would ultimately only look at the bottom line, demanding a large return on investment, even if that meant destroying what had been built in Spokane over more than a century?

Morris was never motivated to sell his hometown company – let alone excited to do it – but he also was keenly aware of the world around him. It’s at this time that the Hydro One deal began to take a shape.

The list of demands from Morris to even consider such a sale seemed onerous, yet his peer at Hydro One understood, even appreciated, what he was trying to accomplish. Morris wanted a win-win situation for both companies that would survive long after the two chief executives were gone from their respective boardrooms.

Both were motivated for very different reasons.

Hydro One needed to grow to keep itself from being a takeover target as well, and it likely needed to grow by diversifying into the United States. Avista wanted corporate safeguards that would keep the utility’s headquarters and large workforce in Spokane for generations. It also wanted a corporate partner that didn’t just appreciate Avista’s entrepreneurial nature, but would invest in it.

In hindsight, it’s ironic that a core part of the deal was that it be done in a manner that outlasted the executives who negotiated it.

Although the sale was announced more than a year ago, pending the approval of state energy regulators in every state Avista does business, it hit a major snag in July when Ontario’s new Premier Doug Ford made good on his campaign promise to replace Hydro One CEO Mayo Schmidt and the utility company’s board of directors.

Despite Montana and Alaska giving approval to the deal, decisions were still pending in Washington, Idaho and Oregon.

Last week, Morris and other executives from Avista were grilled for nearly five hours in Olympia by the members of Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission in a supplemental hearing to the original hearing held back in May before the huge Hydro One shake-up later in the summer.

It wasn’t fun for Morris. It also wasn’t unexpected.

“That’s their job. They are here to protect our state and to be tough about these exact things,” Morris said. “It can be painful to be in the middle of that, but we want them to be asking the hard questions and doing all of their due diligence.

“It’s better for everyone if there are answers to the tough questions.”

He’s also confident the deal will still be approved. He feels that way because of an all-party settlement by all of the interveners in the case that the sale of Avista to Hydro One still makes good financial sense for all parties, including Washington ratepayers, for the exact same reasons it did when the deal was first struck.

Such all-party settlements are rare in circumstances like this.

That doesn’t mean this is a done deal, though. A lot still can happen.

But a lot already has happened in his life.

Chalk this up as just another one of those defining moments in Morris’ life.

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