May 2008 | Author Jan Rupnick

Originally published in Living Well Magazine

The author of “stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner,” describes this month’s Senior Profile as an aging flower child. Steve Heins is an activist to the core. He’s challenged corporate giants and won. At 63 years-old, he’s found a new cause to take on.

A Major in Poetry leads to Wall Street

Born in Lamar, Colo., Heins moved to Oshkosh, Wis., in 1960 when his dad opened up the first series of truck stop restaurants in the state. After studying American poetry at Columbia University, Heins managed a couple of truck stop restaurants and later opened his own French restaurant in New York, NY.

“Food service is a very hard industry and a tough business,” says Heins. “I really had no passion for it so I changed career directions and began working in business brokerage and commercial real estate.”

In 1995, Heins made another career change working on Wall-Street, but not as a broker, but in marketing and communications.

“I never realized that you could get paid to write well and communicate with others. I just knew I didn’t want to be a stock jockey,” says Heins.

Going home to take on Goliath

In the late 90s, Heins made the decision to leave Wall-Street and New York behind returning to Oshkosh. This decision would lead him to influence changes in one of the largest media/telecommunications mergers in history.

Joining the team at NorthNet LLC, a small Internet service provider, as the company’s Director of Communication and Marketing, Heins got involved with all the issues in Internet and broadband technology. Because it was still an immerging market, Heins saw an opportunity for the small Oshkosh company to become a major voice within the industry.

“A lot of rules were being written on governing the Internet and communications companies. It was an opportunity for us to get involved in the debate and make an impact on how the laws were focused,” says Heins.

Then in January 2000, there would be an announcement that would not only change the media/telecommunications industry, but put Heins and NorthNet on the front lines of a nationwide industry battle.

AOL and Time Warner announced plans to merge in early 2000. As part of that merger, the companies guaranteed that they would open access to Time Warner’s cable-television network. For small internet service providers this meant a whole new playing field for providing their customers with a better product.

After a few months of trying unsuccessfully to find out how to gain access to the Time Warner lines, Heins finally got the information he was looking for. After reviewing the access agreement Time Warner sent him, Heins wasn’t so sure he wanted to sign the deal. According to the book “Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner”. Heins got a friend at another internet service provider to fill out the application.  When the term sheet came back from Time Warner, what Heins found was anything but open access. The company demanded 75 percent of a providers revenue, as well as 25 percent of the company’s revenue from other sources including advertising and other electronic commerce fees and much more.

“What was promised to be open access was actually anticompetitive. I made the decision that I would take the documents to Washington D.C.,” says Heins.

Finding a new cause

Today, Steve Heins is championing a new cause, one, that if successful can benefit generations to come. After success he had with NorthNet and the noise he made on behalf of small Internet Service Providers, a friend he met on Wall-Street years earlier, asked if he could come make the same kind of racket for his company, Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc, Wis. (Orion is a leading power technology company that designs, manufactures and implements energy management systems, consisting of primarily high-performance, energy efficient lighting systems and controls and related services for commercial and industrial customers without compromising their quantity and quality of light.) Since 2001 the lighting system designed and manufactured by Orion Energy Systems has saved his customers a combined $304,741,516 in utility costs. That’s the equivalent to taking 639,166 cars off the road and a savings of 326,716,609 gallons of gas.

“The companies we are working with are experiencing dramatic reductions in their emission and savings on utilities,” says Heins. “These types of savings can help companies compete globally against developing countries where labor costs are less.”

Once again, Heins saw an opportunity to help the company he worked for have a voice on the national level by lobbying for change in how companies are rewarded for reducing emissions and on how to better serve the utility companies and their customers.

For businesses to stay financially viable while reducing their carbon footprint, Heins is a proponent for carbon trading. In a cap and trade environment, government sets a limit on the amount of pollutants that can be emitted. Companies are issued an emission permit and required to hold an equivalent number of credits which represent the right to emit a specific amount.  Should a company need to increase its emissions, they can buy credits form other companies who pollute less.

“You have companies who should be rewarded for polluting less. This gives them the option to continue to go green and charge those companies who are polluting more,” says Heins.

Heins has also been working with state governments on changing how utility companies are funded. Under the current system utility companies get their money for selling more electricity and building more power plants.

According to Heins, with growing energy concerns utility companies should be incentivized for reducing consumption and saving their customers money. Buy devising a new way of rewarding utilities it would allow them to be more competitive in the global world wide keeping financially solvent.

“Utilities make more money by selling more electricity and they make less money by helping their customers use less energy,” says Heins. “This disincentive impairs utilities willingness and ability to promote energy efficiency, despite its benefits to consumers’ bills, electrical reliability, national security and the environment.”

Whether it’s being a corporate watch dog or an agent for change, Heins has a passion for doing the right thing and will forever remain an activist at hear.