Ask people outside Cincinnati-- especially baseball fans--about Cinergy, and they're likely to tell you it's the company that a few years ago bought the naming rights to Cinergy Field, for years known as Riverfront Stadium. Just another case of a business taking an American institution and turning it into, well, a business.

But ask people in any of 35 communities in southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, and eastern Indiana about Cinergy, and they'll tell you a much different story. Cinergy is the company that helped them build a new municipal playground, or raise money for the local Red Cross. Cinergy, to them, is what you want every big corporation to be: an involved, caring citizen.

Cincinnati-based Cinergy was created six years ago with the merger of the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co. and PSI Energy, Indiana's largest electrical utility. Now one of the largest diversified energy companies in the nation, with 1999 revenues of nearly $6 billion, it supplies electricity and gas to nearly 2 million customers in a 25,000-square-mile territory that encompasses parts of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

Perhaps just as important as the power Cinergy supplies is the empowerment it helps generate as part of its corporate commitment to community involvement. And it all begins with a meeting.

Community Leaders Conferences "The whole premise of our community involvement is based on the idea that you can't run a healthy company in an unhealthy community," says Joe Hale, president of the Cinergy Foundation, which funds the company's community-oriented programs. "We try to be more creative and proactive than simply making a money donation. Anyone can write a check."

The first step in this "creative process" is the Community Leaders Conferences, forums in which community leaders and Cinergy representatives gather together to exchange information and ideas. Every year since 1996, the company has held two of these major meetings, one for Ohio/Kentucky, the other for Indiana.

According to Hale, the Community Leaders Conferences are the culmination of a year-long grassroots effort. "We have 35 offices in the field, one for each of the communities in our service areas," Hale says. "In each of those offices, our managers identify 30 or so community leaders--they may be educators, local politicians, hospital administrators, businesspeople--and over the course of the year meet with them for an hour or so. In this way, we get an idea of what each leader believes his or her community needs."

These outreach meetings result in a white paper, or needs assessment, which is prepared by the local Cinergy managers. These white papers are presented for discussion at a dinner in each community with the interviewed leaders, the local Cinergy managers, and three or four corporate representatives.

Over the course of the year, the process results in local meetings with about 1,000 community leaders from each of the towns the company serves. "It's in our enlightened self-interest to do this," says Hale, "because not only do we get an idea of what their community needs are, but it helps us keep an ear to the ground on local political and economic issues."

All the local meetings culminate in the two Community Leaders Conferences, attended by all the community leaders the company has met over the course of the year. There, says Hale, attendees can "share ideas and experiences, highlight some of the programs that have been implemented in the communities, and talk about how they've helped to solve problems or help communities prosper."

Cinergy also provides input from its top executives. At last fall's Leadership Conference in Cincinnati, Cinergy President and CEO James E. Rogers was the keynote speaker--a role he has filled at many previous meetings. To him, an important challenge for the Community Leaders Conferences has been keeping the meetings in touch with the community's real needs.

"It's not difficult to set up the logistics of a conference, but it is tough to put together a program that is truly valuable to the people attending, one that makes them want to come back the following year," he says. "I recommend that a company wanting to take such a step should first listen to their employees who are already involved in the community. Also, listen to community groups.

"We've found that if you listen enough, community groups will offer solutions along with the problems they face," he adds. "By gaining their insights, you can create a program that targets their needs."

Help Them to Help Themselves Bill Over, executive director of Clermont 2001 and a participant in several Community Leaders Conferences, sees Cinergy's main role much as Rogers does--as a resource for his community, to help them to help themselves.

"Our mission is to serve as a catalyst to bring together citizens and organizations for the betterment of Clermont County [Ohio]," Over says. "Cinergy has been a tremendous corporate citizen in assisting us here. We help our local communities get organized and started on things like economic development, parks and recreation projects, communications within the community--we teach them leadership. Cinergy's right there with us on these projects."

For example, Cinergy helped Clermont 2001 establish Saturday morning community forums and a county convention, both to share ideas and discuss solutions to problems--like mini-versions of Cinergy's annual conferences.

"Cinergy funded a good deal of our county convention and provided a lot of marketing help to get the word out," Over says. "We drew 150 people to our county convention on a Saturday in June, and we got 55 people to a Saturday morning forum. When you get that kind of turnout, it's a sign of true involvement. We couldn't have done it without their help."

As another example, Cinergy funded a program for drama students from the University of Indiana to come and give performances at Princeton's community theater. The community then used the proceeds to fund a local project. "They used the program for about four years, got it going, and now they do it themselves." reports Hale. "They're bringing in professional theater people for performances and generating their own funding."

Hale says it's often the case that as projects are discussed at the Community Leaders Conferences, one community will wind up adopting a program that has worked well for another community. "A lot of times we've come up with a solution to a particular community problem because we've heard that same problem over and over from other community leaders and we know how others have gone about solving it."

Incentives to Volunteer Volunteerism has become a crucial ingredient at Cinergy, whose 7,600 employees participate in community volunteer programs, both individually and in groups. In one program, Cingery awards organizations up to $1,000 in grant money based on the number of hours a Cinergy employee volunteers there.

"Our employees gain from knowing that their company is genuinely interested in the communities in which they live and work," says Rogers, adding that many Cinergy employees also take part in the Community Leaders Conferences because they have become community leaders in their own right. The bonus, say company leaders, is that the positive impact of Cinergy's community involvement has been felt all the way to the company's bottom line.

Rogers also believes the Community Leaders Conferences have given the company a significant return. "The overall cost of the conferences is relatively small in comparison to the goodwill and relationships they build. Partly because of them, community leaders know us and our industry better, and we find them more likely to be supportive of corporate initiatives." As an example, he says, when the merger of PSI Energy Inc. and the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co. to form Cinergy was still pending in 1993, "PSI received very strong support from its communities in avoiding a hostile takeover attempt by another power company."

"I've long believed that if price and quality are equal, corporate citizenship can be the tie-breaker when customers choose who they are going to buy from," he adds. "The bottom line is that these meetings enhance our standing in the communities we serve. Does that help us sell electricity? Who knows? You can't measure the return on investment. On the other hand, is it the right thing to do? Absolutely."

Its name, the "Munich Sister City Association," may sound frivolous, but the organization is anything but. According to Ute Papke, Cincinnati resident and member of the board, the association was created in Cincinnati in the late 1940s to "help heal the wounds of World War II and bring people together through exchange programs."

That is exactly what it has done--with Cinergy's help. The group has sponsored student exchange programs between local high schools and equivalent-level schools in Munich, as well as programs among area colleges (the University of Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky University, and Xavier, to name just three) and institutions of higher learning in and around Munich. Teachers from high schools and colleges in both cities have traded places, and local fire- and police-department personnel have switched with counterparts in Munich. The association has also implemented economic exchange programs between companies--even law firms--in each city.

"Very often,"says Papke, "the program has brought business into both cities that neither would have had otherwise."

Papke has participated in several of Cinergy's Community Leaders Conferences. "One of the reasons they do this conference is to update us on local issues and for us to ask questions of them, and this is very valuable," she says. "But the conference also provides an opportunity to talk with others and serves as a network for grants."