By: Mike Mendenhall
The JEA board of directors Nov. 2 selected former Huntsville, Alabama, public utility executive and industry consultant Jay Stowe as its next CEO and managing director.
The board voted 6-1 during a special meeting to offer Stowe, 52, the position. The board then voted unanimously to allow Chair John Baker II and JEA Chief Legal Counsel Jody Brooks to negotiate Stowe’s contract with compensation capped at $575,000 per year.
The special meeting was called after scores from two one-on-one interviews and pubic interviews with three CEO finalists did not show a definitive winner.
Bakers said the decision was more a case of a personal preference.
“I would hope tonight we could come together and get a consensus vote,” he said. “Normally, I would tell you I think it’s almost imperative that we come together and get a consensus vote. In this case, I don’t feel that strongly, and the reason I feel that way is we have three incredibly strong candidates.”
Stowe is CEO and founder of Stowe Utility Group LLC in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He is the former senior vice president of resources and operations support for the Tennessee Valley Authority where he was employed from October 2016 to October 2019.
Before that, Stowe worked for nearly 11 years at Huntsville Utilities, the city-owned energy, water and natural gas organization in Alabama. He served more than eight years as vice president of operations and chief operating officer before he became president and CEO in 2014.
Stowe’s experience in Huntsville, his research on the JEA energy and water systems and his awareness of the last year’s attempted sale process and the circumstances surrounding former CEO Aaron Zahn’s firing, stood out to the board.
“He really did his homework on Jacksonville, not just JEA but the community,” board member Joe DiSalvo said.
Board member Marty Lanahan called Stowe a “student of JEA” and Jacksonville.
When he was at Huntsville, Stowe had a series of phone conversations in 2013 about strategies to increase the utility’s J.D. Power customer service ranking with then-JEA CEO Paul McElroy.
McElroy, who returned to JEA May 8 on a six-month contract at the board’s request after former after Zahn was fired, confirmed the connection to Stowe in an interview Oct. 27.
Baker, Lanahan, DiSalvo, and board Vice Chair Bobby Stein selected Stowe as their first choice while Zachary Faison Jr., Leon Haley and Tom VanOsdol ranked him third among the finalists.
Faison, who is Edwards Waters College president, voted against Stowe’s selection.
Haley and Faison ranked John Hairston, COO of Portland, Oregon-based Bonneville Power Administration, first.
VanOsdol was the only board member to prefer former Peoples Gas of Pittsburgh CEO Morgan K. O’Brien. The board voted 6-1 to select the natural gas executive as its second choice if contract negotiations with Stowe fall through.
In the public interview scoring, O’Brien scored the highest at 340, followed by Stowe at 331 and Hairston at 318, according to Brooks.
The chief legal counsel read the scoring sheets aloud at the meeting. A public records request for the board member scores and attached notes was not completed by the Nov. 2 meeting.
VanOsdol said he liked Morgan’s engagement in the Pittsburgh community and support of labor unions and employees.
However, several board members were concerned O’Brien’s involvement in two corporate sales could give JEA employees and the public pause while still dealing with the fallout from the former senior leadership team’s attempt to privatize the utility.
Baker noted Nov. 2 that Hairston’s nearly 30 years with Bonneville Power and his calm demeanor were strengths, but his lack of experience as a chief executive ultimately hurt his overall ranking with the board chair, Stein and DiSalvo.
JEA contracted executive search firm Mycoff Fry Partners LLC to assist with the search that returned 28 applications with a mix of public and utility executives, water and energy industry professionals and consultants.
McElroy’s six-month contract ends Nov. 8. It includes a provision to allow him to remain on a part-time basis at 50 hours every two weeks if the board deems it necessary.
He said in an interview after the Oct. 27 meeting that he and the board have not determined if he’ll stay past his contracted end date, but his goal is a smooth transition.