One of America's leading energy executives is retiring. John Rowe, a revered figure in the electric utility industry in particular, and energy circles in general, brought history and philosophy to the nuts-and-bolts world of generation and transmission.
Rowe, 65, who describes himself as an “industrialist,” has been a utility chief executive for 28 years. Currently, he is chairman and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Exelon Corporation. He will retire early in January when the company's merger with Maryland's Constellation Energy is expected to go through.
Rowe's demeanor and conversation are not those of a hard-driving, returns-oriented CEO -- the type so loved by the business press -- but that of a man of letters. For he is that, too. He has a reverence for the English language, a passion for history (including an intimate understanding of Byzantium) and a sprawling knowledge of the ancient world.
As utility executives enjoy only brief prominence (and that when the rates go up or the lights go out), Rowe has been a towering figure lost in plain sight, except to those who have been enriched by his management.
During Rowe's tenure as CEO of the New England Electric System, Central Maine Power and Exelon, the companies had a cumulative annual return of 13 percent. An investor who bought $100 of common stock in the first company and converted it into stock in the subsequent two companies, reinvesting all the dividends, would own stock worth about $2,900 today.
At Exelon, where he has been in charge for nearly 14 years, Rowe has grown the company through acquisition and efficiency. Exelon was formed from the 2000 merger of PECO Energy Company and Unicom Corporation, which Rowe headed. The big merger has been hailed the most successful in U.S. utility history.
Rowe has revolutionized the operation of Exelon's nuclear power plants, pushing availability -- a measure of when they are ready to produce or are producing electric power -- from 50 percent to 93 percent. At present, Exelon has 17 nuclear power plants, set to rise through acquisition to 22.
Rowe has not built any new power plants, favoring for now much less expensive natural gas. Also, he has found that upgrading his existing nuclear fleet can produce the equivalent output of building new plant.
Rowe came to Washington to give a speech on leadership Wednesday to the Bipartisan Policy Center. He packed them in, the savants of the electric industry. They included former power company heads, trade association pooh-bahs, former regulators, think-tankers and journalists. They got vintage Rowe: contrariness, wry humor, self-deprecation and a hint at the wonders of a well-stocked mind. In this case, his.
Rowe has famously supported cap-and-trade for utility emissions. He pulled Exelon out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when it opposed cap-and-trade.
Also, Rowe does not believe the Environmental Protection Agency should cease to implement the Clean Air Act.
About those management books that offer secrets to a business career, Rowe says he only favors two: Harry T. Williams's “Lincoln and His Generals”
and Mark Twain's “Life on the Mississippi.”
Rowe says you have to know your business as Twain's riverboat captains knew the river. “I had got to learn the shape of the river in all the different ways that could be thought of -- upside down, wrong end first, inside out, fore and aft, and 'thortships – and then what to do on gray nights when it hadn't any shape at all,” Twain wrote. “You have to know it in your hands as well as the potter knows his clay,” Rowe says.
The kernel of Rowe's leadership philosophy: “Lead to a place worth going.”
Rowe has extended that philosophy to his considerable civic and charitable work. Exelon's charitable giving to the communities it serves has grown under Rowe's leadership, with corporate contributions to nonprofit organizations topping $250 million for the years 2001-2010. Rowe and his wife, Jeanne, established the Rowe Family Charitable Trust which has contributed more than $16 million to charitable organizations focused on education, social services and culture in the years 2002-2010, including co-founding Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy and the Rowe Elementary School, two charter schools serving Chicago's disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The Rowes and their family trust have also endowed numerous professorships, including architecture, Byzantine and Greek history and sustainable energy at the University of Wisconsin, virology at the Morgridge Institute and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and Curator of Evolutionary Biology at Chicago's Field Museum.
Utility Executive Rowe may be retiring, but Citizen Rowe is hard at it.
Those lights will not go out.
By. Llewellyn King
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org