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Back Where it all Began

David Smith, CEO
National Fuel Gas Co. President and CEO David Smith (right), with his predecessor and current chairman of the board Philip Ackerman, at company headquarters in Williamsville, N.Y.

 

 

David F. Smith, ’74, went from being a typical kid from South Buffalo to the leader of a multi-billion dollar, integrated energy company with operations that span the U.S.

The President and Chief Executive Officer of National Fuel Gas Co. — Western New York’s largest publicly traded company — took some time to share his impressive story as he prepared to return to campus for a guest lecture on Sept. 25.

Sometimes good luck isn’t easy to spot.

That was the case for Dave Smith, a South Buffalo native who, as a child, may not have seemed to be destined for success.

“I did well in school, but education wasn’t my focus. Like most kids in our neighborhood, I was mainly interested in sports and girls,” Mr. Smith admits.

Fortunately for Dave, his parents, Ron and Phyllis, knew better. As a millwright for Donner Hanna Coke, a supplier to Republic Steel back in the days before the Buffalo Rust Belt got...well, rusty, his father worked hard to make sure his children had better opportuni- ties. Together with his mother, who served as a homemaker to Dave and his five younger brothers, they instilled a sense of integrity and work ethic in their sons that they hoped would one day pay off.

Despite their teachings, however, Dave made a decision one day after he graduated from Buffalo’s Hutch-Tech High School that could have changed the course of his life forever — and undoubtedly, for the worse.

“Two friends and I went down to Republic Steel to see if we could get a job,” Smith recalls. “Luckily for me, I was the only one of us they didn’t hire.”

Lucky indeed, his parents agreed. They couldn’t believe he would even consider such a career after having watched his father work so hard for so little throughout all of those years.
“For them, education was your ticket to do whatever it was that you wanted to do,” he says. “The truth is, if I had gotten that job, I never would have gone to college.”

So although, at the time, Smith was disappointed at being passed over by Republic, he began to explore his college options.

The search was brief. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so I knew if I was going to go
to college, I was going to have to go to a state school,” Smith says. “Choosing to go to Fredonia was an easy decision, because it was fairly close to home, a couple of my good friends were there already, and the price was right.”

Smith enrolled in the fall of 1971 and immediately became a Political Science major, having decided that he’d like to someday go to law school. Almost instantly, everything started to change.

“At Fredonia, I literally grew up,” he remembers. “I found my footing, both academically and in my personal life. I enjoyed everything about Fredonia — the classes, the intramurals, the social life...some of the people I met there are still among my very best friends today.”
One friend stands out in particular: Lucy Viggiani, whom he met during his sophomore year.

“I knew the moment I met Lucy that she was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. We got married just eight months after we met,” Smith says proudly. 

Soon after their wedding, the couple decided to start their family. “That certainly changed things,” Smith recalls. “It caused me to accelerate my whole life plan.” Lucy and Dave could no longer afford to pursue the traditional four-year plan that most of their fellow undergraduates enjoyed. Instead, Lucy dropped out of school and got a job at a local retail store to help support the new family, and Dave took on a herculean course load his third year in order to graduate early. “I was carrying somewhere around 26 to 28 credit hours each semester. It was pretty crazy,” he says. “Lucy decided to quit school so that I could finish my degree. There’s no way I could have gotten through it all without her.”

The Smiths also received some much needed help from a Department of Political Science professor. Dr. James Ray knew of the Smiths’ life change and encouraged Dave to apply for a significant scholarship for married students. Fortunately, Smith was awarded it, which proved critical to the couple’s financial survival. By the end of the year, Dave had earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science in just three years, graduated Summa Cum Laude, and was a President’s Scholar. 

“We had maxed out all our loans and credit cards — especially in that last year,” Smith remembers. “Fredonia helped me find and earn a scholarship that made it possible for me to finish college.”

Dave went on to law school at the University at Buffalo, continuing his public education path. While there he was introduced to National Fuel, where he began working first as a summer law clerk, and later as a part-time employee while finishing his law degree. That transitioned into a full-time position with the company, which began a career for Smith that is now in its 31st year.

He began working in the company’s utility segment (National Fuel Gas Distribution Corp.), where he spent most of his early career, eventually serving as its president. He also started National Fuel’s energy marketing subsidiary, National Fuel Resources, Inc., and was that segment’s first president. In 2005, after being named President of its pipeline and storage subsidiary (National Fuel Gas Supply Corp.) — the third of the company’s four major subsidiaries — it was clear that he was being considered for the top spot upon the retirement of then-President and Chief Executive Officer, Philip Ackerman. Initially a lawyer as well, Ackerman served as Smith’s boss for many years, and Smith credits Ackerman and his predeces- sors for teaching him a great deal about the company and the highly regulated, and at times litigious, nature of the energy sector.

“I had a tremendous vantage point while I was working for Phil Ackerman, and watching and learning from our previous CEOs, Lou Reif and Bernie Kennedy,” acknowledges Smith, who has been in his current role since early 2008. “Those three men taught me everything about the natural gas industry and the opportunities for our company in that industry. They made National Fuel into what it is today.”

“What it is,” is a balanced, diversified and consistent energy company with $4.3 billion in assets that has paid a dividend to shareholders in each of its 107 years of operation. It produced record earnings per share last year despite a recessionary economy, and remains one of the largest employers and most important economic influences in Western New York.

“That’s an incredible point of pride for everybody at National Fuel,” Smith emphasizes.

“This company has remained headquar- tered in Western New York all this time, and our utility segment is the only local utility headquartered here. We’ve remained committed to the region, and that’s extremely important to the community and to our employees.”

Thirty-five years have passed since Smith was a freshman in Alumni Hall. In some ways, he admitted during a recent tour of campus, Fredonia is very different than when he was a student. (“You guys have your own Starbucks?”) Yet, many things haven’t changed all that much — including Dave and Lucy, who are still every bit as happy as they were in 1974. Lucy eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Buffalo State College and was a teacher in the Buffalo Public School System, and later the Clarence (N.Y.) School District, before retiring two years ago. The couple has two grown children and a lovely home in Clarence, and Smith insists, it all happened thanks to his public education at Fredonia and the University at Buffalo.

“Without those schools, I wouldn’t have had a chance,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the state school system, it’s unlikely I’d have gone to college or be where I am today.”
However, because of them, in addition to his own hard work, the sacrifices of his parents and his wife, Lucy — and some good fortune along the way — Smith has gone on to live the proverbial American Dream, going from being a rejected steel worker to the leader of a Fortune 1,000 company.

And what counsel would he give today’s Fredonia students? “You have to set your goal and decide where you want to be,” he advises. “Accept that you’re going to have to work hard to achieve that goal, but it’s achievable with the kind of education you’ll get at Fredonia. Along the way, resist the temptation to become complacent and compromise the goal you set. Don’t compromise, go for it — and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.”

And on Sept. 25 at 11:00 a.m. in Rosch Recital Hall, Fredonia’s students will hear more of that advice first-hand, as the university welcomes home one of its most successful alumni and greatest business and community leaders.

posted @ Tuesday, April 19, 2011 1:26 PM by Christine Davis Mantai

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