Darin Hardy took over as Ullico Inc.’s Chief Financial Officer on July 1, 2023. Hardy’s impressive accounting credentials, comprehensive understanding of Ullico’s financials, and close working relationship with former CFO Dave Barra, made him the obvious choice.
Celebrating a New Headquarters in Morgantown, West Virginia
Hope Gas — a natural gas utility company that serves more than 112,000 residential, industrial, and commercial customers — held a ribbon cutting ceremony in June to celebrate the opening of its new headquarters in Morgantown, West Virginia. The event provided an opportunity for employees, investors, and political leaders to tour the new facility, but for Morgan O’Brien, President and CEO of Hope Gas, it was a moment to thank everyone who made the company’s previous nine months possible.
Following Hope Gas’s September 2022 acquisition by Hearthstone — a holding company owned by the Ullico Infrastructure Fund (UIF) — O’Brien’s leadership team took over and began the ambitious project of transforming the company’s reach and mission. O’Brien’s decision to establish the company’s headquarters in Morgantown was part of a broader initiative to work with local political leaders and labor unions to power an economic renaissance in West Virginia.
One of the leadership team’s first decisions was to bring back the company’s original name from 1898 — Hope Gas. Although the name is a historical callback, O’Brien made it clear that the company’s name was also a salute to the state’s bright future. “Honestly, I’ve never heard a company name that I was more proud of,” said O’Brien. “For the future of this state, for the people here who are struggling or just want to see more opportunity, what better name than Hope?” O’Brien acknowledged that Hope Gas was only one of many stakeholders working to strengthen West Virginia, but said, “We’re a piece of that hope and we take that seriously.”
Putting West Virginia First with Union Labor
The new leadership team did more than give the company a new name. Indeed, Hope Gas’ entire focus has shifted toward a West Virginia-first approach. In contrast to the company’s previous owner, which signed contracts with national contractors and sourced labor and supplies from across the country, O’Brien’s team is committed to using supply chains and labor from within the state. For example, the company began purchasing trucks for its service fleet from dealerships in West Virginia.
Hope Gas is also committed to providing family-sustaining careers. Along those lines, O’Brien and his team are partnering with labor unions for jobs ranging from construction and maintenance to general operations. This was a no-brainer for O’Brien, who explained that local union members take great pride in their work and are the country’s best-trained workforce: “If there’s an issue, they’re going to fix it, and our customers are going to be better off for it.”
Moving the company’s headquarters to Morgantown put this West Virginia-first vision into action. Hope Gas’ leadership moved their offices into the former Mylan Pharmaceuticals plant in Morgantown, but the structure required significant renovations before it could house employees. O’Brien turned to Natalie Stone, Executive Director of the North Central Building and Construction Trades Council, and several other local labor leaders, to find the local contractors and trade union members needed to carry out these renovations as well as a series of other Hope Gas projects.
Stone and company came through, connecting Hope Gas with contractors employing a range of union members from the region, including Carpenters Local 436 of Bridgeport, West Virginia, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 152 of Morgantown, West Virginia, and IBEW Local 596 of Clarksburg, West Virginia, among others. At the ribbon cutting ceremony Jessie King, Business Manager of the West Virginia and Appalachian Laborers’ District Council, thanked Hope Gas for the company’s commitment to using union labor, noting “We want to be in the gas industry for a long time … so I thank you for the relationship you are building with us and putting our people to work.”
In all, the Hope Gas leadership team’s decision to establish the new headquarters has created 100 new family-sustaining jobs in Morgantown. O’Brien plans to hire another 100 employees throughout the company’s footprint in 35 of the state’s 55 counties by the end of the year, including a planned call center and gas-control operation in Morgantown. For O’Brien, the local touch is important. “We are going to have our call center up here [in Morgantown],” he said. “So if your power goes out or you have energy issues, somebody who lives in your state is going to answer the phone — somebody who knows the town you live in, somebody who probably knows your family and friends. Most importantly, someone who cares about helping you.”
Expanding Hope’s Reach
Beyond these developments, O’Brien outlined a plan to work with West Virginia gas producers to increase the state’s supply of available natural gas while coordinating with economic development leaders to increase the region’s energy needs. A flurry of activity followed. O’Brien announced an agreement to purchase People’s Gas WV, a deal that will bring approximately 13,000 new customers into Hope’s utility service. Additionally, Hope Gas is acquiring Southern Public Service, a smaller gas utility in Milton, West Virginia adding another 6,400 customers. The company has also been approved to acquire nearly 900 miles of gathering pipelines from Equitrans Midstream Corporation. As part of this deal, Hope Gas will be able to increase on its previously approved $64 million Pipeline Replacement and Expansion Program (PREP) to update their gas infrastructure and expand its footprint to unserved communities throughout West Virginia. Estimated to be a 25-year-long project, the PREP will help Hope Gas to deliver the cheap and affordable natural gas services to families and businesses in the state while employing annually roughly 400 West Virginians – all employed and trained by labor organizations throughout the state.
Once again, union labor is at the heart of these plans. Hope Gas field workers are organized as Utility Workers Local 69 and recently completed a collective bargaining agreement extension. For O’Brien, the goal isn’t just to put union members to work for the next year. It is about trying to fuel decades of work so that Hope Gas can produce family-sustaining jobs for the next generation of energy workers in the state. A key near-term priority is to begin partnering with West Virginia schools and the state’s labor leaders to begin setting a career path for the future energy workers needed here.
Local Political Leaders Supporting Hope
The state’s political leaders gave O’Brien the confidence to go all-in on West Virginia. Speaking to the crowd gathered outside of Hope Gas’ new headquarters, O’Brien recalled his start with the company. One of his first meetings was with West Virginia Governor Jim Justice. “He convinced me that West Virginia’s best days are ahead of it,” said O’Brien. “He got me excited about the potential for energy to play a meaningful part of the state’s future.” Speaking at the event, Governor Justice emphasized his commitment to Hope Gas’ leadership and employees: “You’ll never have to worry about me. I’ll never waver in any way because I know the goodness that you do.”
O’Brien also praised West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC) Chairman Charlotte Lane, explaining, “I’ve been in the utility space for a long time and dealt with utility regulators in lots of different states, but after nine months of being here, she is clearly one of the great leaders in her role that cares deeply about the states future.” He acknowledged, “I look at her as a partner in what we are trying to do in moving West Virginia and energy forward.”
Speaking at the event, PSC Chairman Lane praised O’Brien’s ability to solve problems. “What I have found working with Morgan is that what I see as problems, he sees as opportunities,” said Lane. “All I can say is he has a great vision for West Virginia and where he wants to go. I know he has lots of great employees that are helping him, and I’m looking forward to a good long relationship with Hope and Morgan O’Brien.”
Notably, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia also played an important role in supporting Hope Gas’ move to Morgantown. In a prepared statement, Senator Manchin said, “The keys to success for any business include quality customer service, safe and productive work environments, and up-to-date technology. Hope Gas exemplifies these ideals and truly sets the standard for service here in our great state.”
Ullico Infrastructure Fund’s Investment Strategy
After reflecting on the political and labor support Hope Gas has received, O’Brien was quick to point to investors at the event and offer his appreciation for the capital infusion that helped jumpstart the company. “I’ve been incredibly blessed with the greatest investors there are—the folks from Ullico. I always say, those folks have created what I consider to be one of the best business models,” said O’Brien.
The Ullico Infrastructure Fund (UIF) comingles funds from third-party investors and is focused on investing that capital in essential infrastructure companies, like Hope Gas and Hearthstone, in the United States and Canada. What makes UIF especially unique is that the vast majority of its assets under management comes from construction trade union pension funds, basically enabling the trustees who manage construction workers’ retirement funds to invest those dollars in US infrastructure. UIF is focused on delivering a risk-adjusted return on these investments while realizing the added benefit, when possible, of creating work for union members through prudent construction, operations, and maintenance of these essential community businesses. When members are put to work, a portion of their wages flow into their pension funds. O’Brien observed, “It feels like the circle of life to me, and it brings more value and meaning to what we’re doing.”
According to Sonia Axter, Chairperson of the Hearthstone Board of Directors and Managing Director and Head of Asset Management of the UIF, “It’s a super simple model, but it means that you can have companies like Hope Gas that value their workers, that value the communities that they live in, that value paying family-sustaining wages, and that value training people. It’s a different model, but Ullico, Hope Gas, West Virginia’s political leaders — all of us — are here to prove that this is a working model.”
For Axter, the message is clear, “You can invest in your people and be a more successful company. You can invest in the community where you live, provide services and be a more financially stable company.”
Joe Linehan, President of Ullico Investment Advisors, Inc. (UIA), couldn’t agree more. “Hope Gas is a top-tier investment. Ullico is so appreciative to be in a partnership with Morgan O’Brien and his spectacular leadership team.” Likewise, Ed Smith, Ullico CEO and Chairman of the Board, said “Hope Gas just gets it. They are doing what’s best for their customers, their employees, and the people of West Virginia. That’s a win for Ullico as well.”
With a newly remodeled company headquarters in Morgantown and ambitious plans for expansion, O’Brien’s first nine months have demonstrated that the company is committed to serving the people of West Virginia and creating family-sustaining, union jobs. Critically, O’Brien has been able to forge a strong relationship with key stakeholders throughout the state. Doing so has allowed the company to improve the state’s energy infrastructure and gas service while offering greater economic opportunity. Speaking to the ribbon ceremony’s attendees, Ullico Inc. President and COO Brian Hale observed, “Today is an example of labor, management, and government coming together to do something really good for this state and its people.”
Perhaps Hope Gas’ approach can serve as a model for other companies and state governments around the country. Regardless, the company has provided a spark and a sense of optimism in West Virginia — “hope” indeed.