What if one of the largest U.S. coal-burning utilities became a leader in green energy? When David W. Crane was chief executive of NRG Energy, he pursued that vision, pushing the company to transform itself by investing in solar power and electric vehicle charging networks.
Wall Street did not buy that - some believe his zeal cost him his job in 2015 - but the one-time lawyer and investment banker has not given up on the planet.
Crane, 59, is dedicating his career to advising and investing in clean energy, working for investment firm Pegasus Capital and serving as a member of the B Team, an executive council dedicated to changing business practices to improve the environment and society.
Crane reflects on the lessons he learned about money, business and family, and shares why the Cranes do not donate to environmental causes in the usual way.
Q: When you were a kid, what were your parents’ attitudes toward money?
A: I grew up outside of Chicago, in a wealthy suburb called Lake Forest. Back then, Lake Forest split itself into townies and the truly rich — people who sent their kids to boarding school and Lake Forest Country Day. We were townies. They made it clear that I was going to have to work for a living: like, “There’s not going to be anything coming at the end of our lives for you.”
Q: You went to Princeton, then Harvard Law School. Did they pressure you to perform?
A: If anything, they did the opposite. In high school I was misdiagnosed as having ulcers. Later it turned out to be Crohn’s disease of the stomach, I got half my stomach taken out.
Man, when you’re 14 and people think you’ve got ulcers, every person tells you to relax. So, I always tried to manifest this demeanor of being relaxed and cool. I didn’t want another person to tell me to chill out.
Q: You have five children. Where does their work ethic come from?
A: If you treat extraordinary things as normal, kids just think that it’s normal. I think our youngest child did his first marathon when he was seven. We don’t make a big deal about it.
Q: Where did your fourth son get the idea to row across the ocean?
A: Pretty much everything good about them comes from their mother. She insisted that they take a gap year before college. It was actually my first son that started this thing — he wanted to use that time to become the first openly gay person to climb the seven summits. Our second child biked across Africa, and our third child, our only girl, walked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada.
Q: Did you hesitate about letting them do those things?
A: I got worried once they actually left, but part of our world view is that often, a lot of places other people perceive as dangerous are just filled with normal people leading normal lives. Really, when my son first said he wanted to tackle the seven summits, I started bitching about the cost, about $200,000, but my kids can read the SEC documents — they knew how much money I was making.
Finally, I told him we’d fund the trip as long as he raised a comparable amount for charity. Since then, the kids have all raised money for a cause as part of the effort.
Q: How do you teach your children about business?
A: When my oldest child was 14, we put $20,000 in a brokerage account, something we’ve done for all the kids since. I’m trying to use investing to help them analyze current events, to look behind the headlines.
I’m trying to explain to them that business is largely about common sense, and that when humans are involved, it’s not always rational. It’s usually helpful to understand what pressures are weighing on the other guy.
Q: You’ve said you were fired from NRG for being too green. How do you fight climate change now?
A: As a family, we support the local watershed, and my son who biked across Africa raised money for Conservation International. But at NRG, we didn’t make big donations to environmental causes — I don’t want anyone to look at a donation and say that that’s blood money, that’s guilt.
Personally, I’d rather get involved with policy and take the problems head on. The private sector needs to lead this fight, and the energy industry is ground zero for both causing the problem and solving it.