Will the new guard at Southern Company do anything new?
I’ve been asking now-former Southern Company CEO Tom Fanning for a decade now: what do you want your legacy to be? That way-over-budget and years-behind nuclear Plant Vogtle? Or leading the country in solar and wind power and storage? And When are we going to see a real effect on climate change?
He held on until Plant Vogtle is almost finished.
Georgia Power CEO Chris Womack is the new SO CEO.
Southern Gas CEO Kim Greene is the new Georgia Power CEO.
So it looks like more of the same at Southern Company and Georgia Power. Let’s at least hope that Chris Womack continues Tom Fanning’s tradition of genial hosting the annual Stockholder’s Meeting, with questions invited by all. Many of us will keep after them at that meeting, at the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC), and elsewhere.
Maria Saporta, Saporta Report, January 9, 2023, Southern Co. leadership moves continue smooth transition with several ‘firsts’
Southern Co. continued its tradition of smooth leadership transitions when it announced that Chris Womack, CEO of Georgia Power, will succeed Tom Fanning as CEO of the regional utility on May 24.
But this transition of leadership at Southern Co. and its subsidiaries also had several firsts.
It’s the first time an African American has been named CEO of the utility, one of Georgia’s Fortune 500 companies. It’s also the first time an African American is slated to be CEO of one of Georgia’s Fortune 500 companies. In 2022, there were only six Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies nationally.
Also, Kimberly “Kim” Greene was named chair, CEO and president of Georgia Power effective March 31. That’s when Womack will become president of the Southern Co. and become a member of the board.
Greene, who began her career with Southern Co. in 1991, is chair, president and CEO of Southern Company Gas, a subsidiary of the utility. She will be the first woman CEO of Georgia Power.
In a joint zoom interview Sunday with Fanning and Womack, the executives took great pride in how Southern Co. grooms its executives for leadership positions.
“Our succession planning process starts the day you become CEO, no kidding,” Fanning said. “I’m entering my 13th year, and this has been a 12-year conversation.”
Fanning has long admired Womack’s leadership qualities. Womack, a native of Greenville, Alabama, joined Southern Co. in 1988, and he has held several leadership positions within the organization over the years. It is Southern Co.’s practice to move its people around the organization so they can get a wide variety of experiences. It’s also a way to prepare people for leadership positions within the company.
“The very first move I made when I got my job was to move his office next to mine,” Fanning said of when he became Southern Co.’s CEO. “I’ve always viewed Chris as kind of one of the best strategic thinkers. I always call him the grand chess master. He is uniquely qualified.”
At the time, Womack was president of external affairs as well as executive vice president of Southern Co. In 2020, he became president of Georgia Power, and he then added the titles of chairman and CEO of Georgia Power in 2021. It is not unusual for the CEO of Georgia Power — the largest subsidiary under the utility’s umbrella — to become CEO of Southern Co., even though that was not the route that Fanning took.
“It just so happened the best guy in the hunt ended up being the Georgia CEO,” Fanning said. “You get a chance to really show your stuff when you’re CEO of Georgia Power as Chris did.”
Fanning also downplayed the significance of Womack becoming the first African American to take the helm.
“The best athlete for Southern just happened to be African American, and the best athlete for Georgia Power just happened to be a woman. It had nothing to do with them getting the job,” said Fanning, who added Southern has been focusing on having more diversity in its ranks. “Any organization whether you think about gender, or race or sexual orientation, or religion, or national origin, however, you want [more] diversity. In my view, that only makes us stronger.”
When asked about being named Southern Co.’s CEO, Womack called it a tremendous opportunity.
“This company has a great history, a great legacy,” said Womack, adding that to be its CEO is a great honor. “But also, it’s a great big responsibility to lead this wonderful company that’s a leader in our industry but also a leader in the communities where we’re privileged to live and work.”
Womack said the fact that he’ll be managing Southern Co.’s 27,000 employees “is very humbling to me.” And he pledged to build on the history and foundation set by Fanning and his predecessors to lead the company into the future.
“We really have a deep focus on having a deep commitment to diversity and inclusion and making sure we are developing a breadth and depth of diverse talent to be available… to be considered for these opportunities,” Womack said. “So yeah, I’m Black, but I know this company. I know this business. I know this industry. I know the employees. And I know how this business operates. I happen to be Black. But I think there’s a full scope of responsibilities, requirements and expectations that go into this role.”
It has been customary for Southern Co.’s CEOs to step down when they’re 65. Fanning will turn 66 in March. Because Womack is 64, historically he may not have been in the running to succeed Fanning.
“That rule has gone away,” said Fanning, who added that he still feels young, capable, healthy and energetic to continue contributing as Southern Co.’s executive chair when he steps down as CEO. “Likewise, Chris is intelligent, energetic. Being 65 is just a number.”
Fanning mentioned there’s been growing recognition on the board that age should not limit one’s service. About seven years ago, the board changed its governance rules to drop the 72-age limit for its directors.
During the video conference call, it was clear Fanning and Womack shared the “Brave New World” approach to leading the Southern Co. (rather than Fortress Southern) — looking at ways to broaden the company’s cultural bandwidth to have people who are able “to see around the corners of the future” in an effective way.
One example has been Fanning’s longstanding desire to open the lines of communication with the environmental community and find areas of common ground.
When he was Southern Co.’s chief operating officer, Fanning went to then-Southern Co. CEO David Ratcliffe about his idea to start having regular meetings with environmental leaders who had often criticized the utility for not being more sustainable.
“David thought I had lost my mind,” Fanning said. “But when we started doing it, Chris was at the first meeting, and he’s been part of all of the really big important meetings. Chris has been integral to that whole process, and our improving relationship [with the environmental community.]”
“Yes, I’ve been involved in this process from the start. And we’re going to continue it,” Womack chimed in. “I’m excited about building on the work that Tom has gotten started with those stakeholders. A lot of them have actually become friends. We have regular conversations. I mean, there’s not a cold war between us. Yes, there may be some minor details that we disagree on, but there’s tremendous positive engagement with the environmental community.”
Continuity in leadership is a recurring theme at Southern Co. and Georgia Power. The entities have always selected internal candidates to lead the organizations. I’ve been covering the utility since Bob Scherer was president of Georgia Power and Ed Addison was CEO of Southern Co. Among the leaders who have put their stamp on the companies include Bill Dahlberg, Allen Franklin, Paul Bowers, Ratcliffe, and Fanning.
But Fanning said there is no hard and fast rule to only consider insiders.
“Of course, we looked outside the company,” Fanning said about the search for his successor. “I just think that’s good governance. But hands down, Chris, and the others were the best candidates for their jobs. It wasn’t even close. We did look.”
The reason internal candidates get picked is because they understand the complex legal and regulatory framework of the energy industry.
“From the succession planning standpoint, that transition process is a lot smoother,” Womack said when there are internal candidates. “But at the same time, we’ve got to make sure we are paying attention to the big world.”
Internal candidates also understand Southern Co.’s culture to be a citizen wherever it serves. That’s why it’s not unusual for leaders of Southern Co. and its subsidiaries to take leadership roles in the community, whether it be at chambers of commerce or other civic entities.
Fanning said he will continue to serve in his national roles, where he’s become an expert on cybersecurity, chairing the advisory committee for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) that is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Fanning and his wife continue to have close ties to Georgia Tech, and they plan to continue living primarily in Atlanta once he retires.
“I want everybody to be very clear that the CEO of Southern Co. is Chris Womack,” Fanning said. “I don’t want to cast any shadow… So, I am moving out of the building. I have a wonderful home office, and I will work out of my house.”
Likewise, Womack said he will continue to be involved in activities that have been near and dear to him as Georgia Power’s CEO. He continues to serve on the board of the East Lake Foundation. Womack also intends to fulfill his commitment to serve as the 2024 chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. And he’s been working with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens on ways to address homelessness in the city.
But he will have his hands full running Southern Co., including the activation of Plant Vogtle’s units three and four, which will come online later in the year.
“You’re going to continue to see that transition… to have a cleaner footprint,” Womack said. “We’ll continue to take advantage of more technological opportunities to make sure we’re doing what we say we’re going to do in terms of providing clean, safe, affordable, reliable power to the customers that we are privileged and honored to serve.”
Womack summed it up by saying: “It’s an exciting time, and it’s something I’m looking forward to as we move into the future.”
-jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®