Ousted Duke Energy head to lead the TVA

Ex-Progress CEO was fired by Duke in July

jmurawski@newsobserver.comNovember 5, 2012 

Bill Johnson, the former chief of Progress Energy who was ousted as CEO of Duke Energy in July, will head the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the nation’s largest energy companies with a footprint in western North Carolina.

It’s a dramatic turnaround for Johnson, 58, who was disgraced this summer by being fired by Duke almost immediately after the merger of Duke and Progress closed. He also was characterized by Duke officials in subsequent public hearings as autocratic and ill-suited to run the combined Duke/Progress, now the nation’s largest electric utility.

Johnson’s selection to head TVA was reported Sunday night by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, citing several unnamed sources. TVA, a federally owned corporation with 9 million customers in parts of seven states, is scheduled to announce a new CEO Monday morning at its corporate headquarters in Knoxville.

Johnson’s legacy in North Carolina is that of an energy career spectacularly derailed upon the completion of the $32 billion merger between Charlotte-based Duke and Raleigh-based Progress.

Johnson is a former corporate lawyer who cleared every career hurdle to the CEO suite at Progress since starting his career in the company’s legal department in 1992, when the utility was called Carolina Power & Light.

Stunning termination

Johnson had been CEO at Progress for five years and preparing for his next promotion – taking the helm at Duke. But in the months leading up to the merger’s closing date, Duke’s board members decided to reinstate Jim Rogers as chief executive, stunning Johnson by firing him just hours after the merger was completed.

In public testimony before the N.C. Utilities Commission, Johnson said Duke blamed him for pursuing a merger that was becoming increasingly costly for Duke.

Johnson left Duke with a golden parachute worth up to $44.7 million.

He is a one-time Penn State football lineman who, when off the clock, favors listening to the Grateful Dead, reggae, gardening, reading, meditating, cooking and baking bread. When encountering Progress employees and others in hallways or on the streets of downtown Raleigh, Johnson often started off the conversation by asking what books the other person was reading.

He was regarded by employees as the antithesis of the starchy utility CEO, a laid-back, easy-going regular guy who drove a Toyota and lived in the same suburban home without falling prey to the temptation to upgrade to a gilded executive lifestyle.

But his professional ascent was not without some concessions. Not long after arriving at the Raleigh utility, the 6-foot-4 Johnson was taken aside by his superiors and advised that his corporate career would advance faster if he shaved his beard. Johnson dutifully took to the razor.

Johnson’s firing has triggered dual investigations by the N.C. Utilities Commission and the state attorney general to determine whether Duke deliberately misled shareholders and regulators about its CEO succession planning. Both probes are ongoing.

Business to government

Johnson’s switch to TVA will recast the executive from the leader of a Fortune 500 corporation to running a sprawling government enterprise, but one that is nonetheless focused on generating electricity. TVA, created by the federal government during the Great Depression, also provides flood control and land management for the Tennessee River system, and collaborates with other utilities and state and local governments on economic development.

TVA, the nation’s biggest government utility, conducted its CEO search through the McAulay Firm, a Charlotte-based executive search firm.

TVA’s retiring CEO, Tom Kilgore, is a former CEO of Progress Ventures, a one-time subsidiary of Progress Energy, where he oversaw a portfolio of energy-related businesses in coal mining, barge transportation, independent power generation, energy trading and natural gas exploration.

Kilgore joined TVA in 2005 and was named TVA’s CEO in 2006.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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