Keeping the Lights On

Leila Vespoli’s take-charge leadership style and business acumen have helped her steer FirstEnergy through three mergers—and her career through a variety of roles

In 2003, Leila Vespoli was only a few years into her role as a general counsel with FirstEnergy Corp. when the lights went out across the northeastern United States. The power outage was the world’s second-most widespread blackout in history. Roughly forty-five million people in eight US states—as well as an estimated ten million in Ontario—were affected. Responsibility fell on the shoulders of Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy, and Vespoli was there for all of it.

“It’s not something I’d like to repeat,” she says. “And it wasn’t the only thing on my plate; at that point in time, my plate was full.”

Truly, it was a fraught time for the company, including several lawsuits, a restatement of earnings, an operationally challenged nuclear plant, an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a CEO that had recently passed away. The company needed its leaders more than ever, and Vespoli saw it all as an opportunity to solidify herself in her new role.

“It sharpens your skills,” she says of the issues. “It sharpens your ability to think quickly and move quickly. You know that old expression, ‘That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’? From experience, I know that to be true.”

Vespoli began her career at Ohio Edison, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy. Fresh out of law school, she served as an attorney until becoming senior counsel in 1995. A few years later, she transitioned into the role of associate general counsel, then she became general counsel in 2000, and she reached a position as senior vice president the following year.

Vespoli’s ascent within the company didn’t stop there, either. As Ohio Edison merged with Centerior Energy to become FirstEnergy in 1997 and as FirstEnergy merged with GPU in 2001 and Allegheny Energy in 2011, Vespoli’s role evolved along with the company. Today, she serves as FirstEnergy’s chief legal officer and executive vice president of corporate strategy and regulatory affairs, but she has led a diverse array of departments, from corporate to governmental affairs, P&L for competitive operations, communications, and more. Her role also entails providing advice and counsel to the board of directors at its meetings.

With each merger, Vespoli says, she took on more and more responsibility. “Not only was I performing the typical legal functions of those associated with the general counsel in a merger,” she says, “but I was also on the steering committee for the group that was tasked to merge the two corporations together.”

Her flexibility has been necessary, given that those mergers have helped transform FirstEnergy from what Vespoli describes as a “mom-and-pop utility company” to a Fortune 200 company and one of the leading utilities in the country. Ohio Edison had fewer than a million customers when she was first hired, but FirstEnergy has more than six million now, and it has more than 15,000 employees working to pump out 17,000 megawatts of electricity across 24,500 miles of transmission lines and 273,000 miles of distribution lines. That expansion has brought FirstEnergy under greater regulation, an area in which Vespoli is currently immersed.

She attributes her ability to pivot between various tasks and titles to her intimate knowledge of FirstEnergy’s business practices. “One thing anyone who interviews to be an attorney here will hear from me is that you have to be willing to wear a business hat,” she says. “By that, I mean you have to be willing to put in the time to be a business partner, to understand the business and where it’s going as well as what its needs are and how it operates. This way, when you provide legal advice, you can provide it within the context of the business. Ideally, you’ll get to know it so well that you’re actively providing business guidance as well.”

“I can’t emphasize enough how impressive Leila is as a lawyer and a businessperson,” says Robert Blackham, chairman of Roetzel & Andress, which has been one of Vespoli’s business partners for years. “She’s versatile, innovative, and forward thinking, and she manages her office with integrity and professionalism. She’s a true champion of the interests of FirstEnergy, and it’s been a privilege to be part of her team.”

“Leila’s long career with FirstEnergy is more than a testament to her superior performance,” says Brent D. Ballard, managing partner of Calfee, Halter & Griswold LLP. “Her experience managing multiple corporate functions gives her exceptional insight into the business, making her a more valuable leader.”

 

For Vespoli, it’s integral that any lawyer develop a keen sense of business acumen. The reason she’s been trusted with so many arms of FirstEnergy is that she understands the big picture of the company in ways that transcend its legal functions. “I’ve always practiced that over my career,” she says. “I think that’s what, over time, gave the then existing senior management the comfort that I could handle the additional roles and responsibilities they were giving me.”

The challenges, she says, are in the coordination of those roles and responsibilities, especially now that FirstEnergy is moving into a more regulated environment. But Vespoli has spent her years in leadership refining a management style that allows for open communication, collaboration, and delegation. This is a relief for her, given that during her early days as a general counsel, when her plate was piled high with sensitive issues, her leadership style was “fairly aggressive.”

“We operated as a team, but there just wasn’t time for a lot of discussion and dialogue,” she says. “Back then, we didn’t have the luxury of time. Decisions had to be made. My style was an aggressive, take-charge style. As time has passed, I’ve been able to make my management style more to my personal liking. I get more involved with folks; I make sure everyone has a voice around the table. I’d like to say my style has matured.”

Her tenure with FirstEnergy has also found her steering the company into the future in other ways. Vespoli now plays a key role in the company’s diversity and inclusion outreach program, an initiative that seeks to create and cultivate opportunities for people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Her coworkers, including Gretchan Sekulich, vice president of communications and branding, see Vespoli as a thought leader in the company. “She’s our highest-ranking female in the company,” Sekulich says, “and a great number of individuals here look up to her and admire what she’s accomplished in her career.”

Vespoli is also focused on the future from an operational perspective. She’s currently working with state regulators as she and the rest of management plan a path forward—a path she says will entail work to incorporate some of the latest innovations in electric service.

One thing’s for sure, however: her skills as a leader have been tested, and she is prepared for whatever challenges the future might bring.

A Time Line of Titles

Leila Vespoli joined FirstEnergy as an attorney in 1984, when it was still known as Ohio Edison. Although she was just out of law school, she impressed the company enough that its first merger ignited her rapid rise through the ranks, resulting in a variety of different titles that track with Vespoli’s influence in the organization and the breadth of legal and business experience she’s been able to glean from the company. Here’s a look at her positions through the years.

1984: Attorney I-IV

1995: Senior Counsel

1997: Associate General Counsel

2000: VP and General Counsel

2001: SVP and General Counsel

2008: EVP and General Counsel

2014: EVP of Markets and Chief Legal Officer

2016: EVP of Corporate Strategy & Regulatory Affairs and Chief Legal Officer

Photos by Cass Davis

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Benesch:

“Leila regularly and successfully handles a vast array of very complex legal and regulatory matters, more so than any lawyer with whom I work. Her intellect, judgment, problem solving skills, and work ethic are unsurpassed. She has built a great team to assist her.”

—Joseph Castrodale, Partner