NRG Energy CEO David Crane steps down amid financial woes

David Crane, president and chief executive officer of NRG Energy Inc., speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview at the Robin Hood Investors Conference in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. Crane said that the market is craving simplification and that he would not focus on acquisition. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** David Crane
David Crane, president and chief executive officer of NRG Energy Inc., speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview at the Robin Hood Investors Conference in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

NRG Energy President and CEO David Crane, who led the electric utility out of bankruptcy but also presided over continuing financial struggles,  resigned abruptly on Thursday.

During his 12 years in the top job, Crane raised NRG’s national profile as a fossil fuel and nuclear power generator, but was less successful in efforts to move the company into renewables.

Mauricio Gutierrez, NRG’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, will succeed him.

The company said Crane will assist in the transition through the end of the year.

Crane, 56, has bemoaned the company’s stock struggles in recent conference calls with investors. In September, he announced what the company termed  a reset” to spin off much of the solar and electric vehicle charging businesses that he championed, but which have served as a drag on NRG’s bottom line.

Crane has lamented the “unabated selloff in our stock” with NRG’s value market value down 60 percent from the beginning of the year. The company became increasingly complex and focused on renewable power, but did so before its solar business in particular could prove profitable.

“Wall Street has difficulty digesting the idea of a conventional company going green,” Crane said in August before announcing the reset.

Related: NRG’s power plant sales

Crane pushed renewable power at a company once known mostly for its coal-fired power plants, while Gutierrez has more of a traditional background in power trading and overseeing fossil fuel generation plants.

NRG grew during Crane’s tenure, especially in Texas, and he presided over NRG’s acquisitions of generators Texas Genco and GenOn Energy and electric retailer Reliant Energy. He named Houston as a dual headquarters for NRG along with Princeton, New Jersey, and led an earlier move to New Jersey from Minnesota.

NRG  acquired the naming rights to what now is called NRG Park, which includes the home stadium of the Houston Texans, when it purchased Reliant Energy.

“During more than 12 years at the helm of NRG, Mr. Crane led the company from emergence from bankruptcy to its current position as leader in the wholesale and retail energy markets,” said NRG Chairman Howard Cosgrove in a statement. “The board thanks Mr. Crane for his leadership that helped transform NRG into the company it is today.”

NRG declined to comment further or to make its executives available for interviews.

Related: NRG’s management shake-up

Gutierrez, a native of Mexico who has a master’s degree from the Colorado School of Mines, joined the company in 2004 and became Crane’s second-in-command in 2010.

Morningstar energy analyst Travis Miller said Crane was more visionary, with Gutierrez serving as the nuts-and-bolts operator and assets manager.

“David Crane has had a vision that included new energy types of investments,” Miller said. “It appears now the board has decided to go with someone who has more experience with the core generation and retail businesses.

“We’re not ready to say yet it’s a strategic shift, but David and Mauricio appear to have two different views of the world.”

Analysts and investors are eager to see the direction Gutierrez takes, Miller said, especially in whether he is as outspoken about long-term visions and strategies as Crane.

On Tuesday, NRG began selling some fossil fuel power plants as part of a move to reduce its portfolio and improve cash flows. NRG said earlier this week it will sell two power plants in Illinois and Pennsylvania for a combined $138 million. Miller said the two plants — one fueled by natural gas and one by coal — turned only “miniscule” profits based on NRG’s estimates.

In Texas, NRG and other companies are continuing to see problems in the power market because low natural gas prices and weakening growth in power demand put coal-fired and nuclear plants at a disadvantage, Miller said. NRG owns coal and nuclear plants in Texas, as well as gas and wind generation.

NRG shares closed up 18 cents at $10.97 in trading Thursday, but the stock is down 60 percent for the year.

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