Saturday, February 18, 2006 | Michael Shames isn’t hard to spot on the highway. He’s the hirsute guy in the green Toyota Prius with the license plate that reads: IDOUCAN. He indeed does UCAN, the Utility Consumer’s Action Network. The 50-year-old (he just turned recently) founded the utility watchdog as a law student at the University of San Diego, officially forming in 1984.
“That was my way of getting out of class,” he says.
He is one of the most vocal critics of Sempra Energy, the parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric. One spokesman for a Northern California utility company warned this reporter to watch out for Shames’ agenda. But he is widely known as a media darling, both for his pithy quotes and for promptly returning phone calls.
He is a Long Island native, raised in the town of Syosset. He says it’s a Native American word that translates to “boring.” We sat down with Shames and found him anything but.
Imagine for a moment you’re Don Felsinger [Chairman and CEO of Sempra.] How do you describe Michael Shames?
A pain in the butt is probably the way I’d describe him. Just a royal pain. …They try to portray me as this knee-jerk reaction to anything that is at SDG&E or Sempra. Michael will take the other point of view. If they say black, I’ll say white. They view me as a professional contrarian.
Is that a fair characterization?
No, of course not. In many cases I’m trying to push the company to do things that people within the company want to do, but the top officers aren’t buying it. So many times I find myself as being the mouth person for people in the company.
You’ve taught classes in business ethics and corporate responsibility. What is a key piece of advice you’ve given students that you wish business leaders would follow?
First off, think in terms of stakeholder management as opposed to stockholder management… Think in terms of not only how it affects stockholders, but also in terms of how it affects stakeholders. That means employees, families of the employees, communities affected, vendors and other people who are part of this large chain of commerce that your business interacts with, so that’s one thing. The other big thing that I teach is to always question assumptions, especially assumptions that shoot off little red lights in your ethics or your conscience. My experience has been that too many business people just follow what they are told, almost in a militaristic way, rather than ask compelling questions when they’re told to do something that doesn’t seem right.
You’re widely quoted on topics that many people aren’t familiar with: telecommunications, electricity, utility issues. Do you ever get stopped in the grocery store by fans or foes?
Rarely by foes. [But] I do not go out without being stopped by somebody. Most of them are actually very complimentary, most of them just say “We’re really glad you’re out there, thank you.” Which is good, I like to hear that. A lot of people have questions…. Where are gas prices going? [But] I do get e-mails from people who definitely use some choice words in describing my parentage.
You represent consumer interests in a state that was ground zero for one of the most infamous energy policy decisions in the country, which brought on the 2000-01 energy crisis. In reflection, how do you describe that two-year period in your life?
As a huge black hole [he laughs] from which I’m only now emerging. That two-year period was a shared hell that I look back on with absolutely no fondness whatsoever. From a personal point of view, it was the equivalent of running in a triathlon, in that the pace was just hectic and exhausting. The difference between this and every other triathlon is that it seemed like it never had any end. They kept moving the finish line. So I almost began feeling like I was in a hellish scenario, a hellish race. It was some nasty stuff, but it was a shared hell, because most San Diegans were having the same experience.
You’re widely quoted in the press. Present company excluded, who is the best interviewer and worst interviewer?
That’s actually a really good question. Of the people in the media, the best interviewers tend to be the ones who are the most knowledgeable. And so people like Craig Rose at the Union-Tribune, who has the luxury of spending all his days thinking about and focusing on interview issues, is going to ask me the best questions. One person, who I am consistently impressed with, oddly enough, is [KPBS’s] Gloria Penner. More than anyone else in the electronic media she does her homework on a number of issues and she often asks really good questions that I’m always shocked with, because I don’t see eye-to-eye with Gloria. …Throughout the state there is this one guy named David Lazarus, a columnist out of San Francisco, who is by far I think the best interviewer of anyone I know, because he is unrelenting. He is like a bull dog. To answer your worst interviewer question, let me get back to you on that one, I want to choose someone who is appropriate.
[He doesn’t return to this question during the interview, but adds the following in a later e-mail: I’d have to say it is Roger Hedgecock. When one is on his radio show to “discuss” an issue, it is really more of an obligation to listen to a one-way diatribe. The closest he gets to an interview, is “view.” The “inter” is really an afterthought.]
What’s in your daily media diet?
A lot of Alka-Seltzer, Pepto-Bismol, Zantac. [He laughs.]
What do you read, what do you listen to?
Without trying to inflate your ego any more or engaging in unnecessary flattery, I try to read the Voice of San Diego a couple days a week at a minimum. I stopped reading the Union-Tribune about a year ago. [He laughs.] Truthfully, I just don’t read the Union-Tribune anymore. I read the stories [utilities reporter] Craig Rose writes and that’s about it. The other big source for me is Rough and Tumble, an online collection of statewide stories. I haven’t watched TV news in probably in two years.
When was the last time you had a 40-hour week at work?
[He sighs.] Not in my recollection. I think when I was on vacation. I’m teasing you, but I’m not. I took a trip last summer to Park City, Utah to do some hiking in the mountains and just get away and I had my cell phone with me. My girlfriend was complaining that half the time I was on the phone. I did take a trip a couple weeks ago to Central America. And I went to a place where there is no electricity, no phones, no roads, nothing and I was out of communication for seriously two weeks. …I should tell you my answer is a little misleading for this reason, I love what I do. This isn’t a job, it’s a passion. It’s my legally acceptable – how do I say – love affair. I love doing this stuff, so I live and breathe a lot of what I do. I couldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t passionate about it because it would just wear me down and kill me.
If you had to practice consumer advocacy in any other city, where and why?
Brisbane, Australia, because I love Brisbane. I joke, because the reason why UCAN is located in San Diego is because I wanted to live in San Diego. I would never do UCAN in another city because I want to live here. The only other place is the northeastern coast of Australia.
How is [former City Councilman] Michael Zucchet as an employee?
What people don’t realize about Mike is he has got a great sense of humor. He’s actually a really funny guy, but he has a sardonic wit so he doesn’t quite show it the way I do. … So I’m usually half the time in stitches when I’m talking to him. And he hasn’t had much to laugh about in the last two years. I think he’s getting his long overdue quotient.
What would have to happen in the utility business for you to retire tomorrow?
Probably somewhere in the ballpark of an eight- or nine-figure deposit would have to be made in a Swiss bank account. We’re talking at least hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s not worth it for any less than that. [He laughs.] I have the account number if you need it. [He laughs.] Like I said before, I love this job. I just think it’s the best job in the country. To be able to live in San Diego and do what I do and have the freedom I have – you just don’t find this. There is no consumer group in the country that has the kind of autonomy we have. We’re not reliant on any one individual or any one company. We are, for all intents and purposes, untouchable from the interests that we interact with. And that’s a luxury very few advocates have. And I get to live in San Diego – with the highest energy prices and gas prices. [He laughs.] This town needs me!
– Interview by ROB DAVIS