Changing of the Guard at New Jersey Resources

Tom Johnson | July 15, 2019 | Energy & Environment
After steering company for two decades, Laurence Downes to step down; he has been a big booster of a clean-energy economy for Garden State

Laurence Downes, left, and Steve Westhoven
Laurence Downes announced Friday he will step down as the chairman and CEO of New Jersey Resources, the owner of New Jersey Natural Gas.

Downes, 61, joined the company 34 years ago and his retirement will be effective on Sept. 30, two decades after he was named chief executive officer of the Wall-based energy company.

Steve Westhoven, 51, president and chief operating officer, will become president and CEO on Oct. 1, in line with the company’s succession plan, according to the board of directors.

As the head of New Jersey Resources, Downes directed the company as it moved through the deregulation of the energy sector beginning in 1999. It built thriving unregulated subsidiaries, including ones that owned a portfolio of natural-gas storage and transportation assets; provided service contracts for heating and air conditioning to residents and businesses; and a fast-growing renewable energy business.

New Jersey Natural Gas, its principal subsidiary, serves more than a half-million customers in five counties in central Jersey. The utility is well-regarded by state regulators but has come under fire from environmentalists for two proposed new gas pipelines, the Southern Reliability Line in parts of the Pinelands and the PennEast project in Hunterdon and Mercer counties.

“He’s a really good manager; he hires very well; and his priorities are his customers and the company,’’ said former Board of Public Utilities president Jeanne Fox of Downes. “Another thing, he was a really go-to guy for the state.’’

Downes, a former chairman of the American Gas Association, also had served as chairman of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which he joined in 2010. He resigned earlier this year when the agency became embroiled in a dispute over business tax incentives it had handed out and Gov. Phil Murphy asked for the resignation of its members.

“The time is right,’’ said Michael Kinney, a spokesman for NJR, when asked why Downes is stepping down now. “This has been part of the company’s succession plan.’’

In a brief interview with NJ Spotlight, Downes said he intends to stay involved in public policy in New Jersey. Downes has been a big supporter of the governor’s goal of converting the state into a clean-energy economy, as evident by the subsidiary NJ Clean Energy Ventures, which has invested more than $700 million in building more than 250 megawatts of new solar systems in the state.

Westhoven joined the company in 1990 and was named vice president of NJR Energy Services, an unregulated subsidiary of the company in 2004 and senior vice president in 2010. He was named president and COO in September 2018.