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JEA Narrows List of Future CEO Candidates To Four

Bill Bortzfield
JEA's downtown headquarters building is pictured behind Jacksonville's City Hall.

A JEA board subcommittee narrowed CEO candidates from eight to a list of four Wednesday.

The list comprises CPS Energy CEO Cris Eugster, Sacramento Municipal Utility District Chief Energy Delivery Officer Frankie McDermott, senior vice president of PowerSecure International Pamela Hill, and JEA Interim CEO and Managing Director Aaron Zahn.

The applicants are expected to appear for more one-on-one interviews with board members in November, according to our Jacksonville Daily Record news partner.

Executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, which contracted with JEA to lead the search, will oversee in-depth background checks on the candidates.

Husein Cumber chairs the CEO search committee, which includes John Campion, April Green and board Chair Alan Howard.

Heidrick & Struggles initially presented 10 candidates. Nine were interviewed.

In addition to the four on the short list, the search firm vetted private energy consultant Andrew Serri; president and COO of Patriot Energy Group Mark Ianni; Naulty Energy Consulting and Advisory Principal Terrance Naulty; and Michael Deggendorft, CEO of Grid Assurance.

Tampa Tank/Florida Structural Steel Director Gordon Gillette and another unidentified candidate withdrew from consideration during the vetting process, according to Cumber.

JEA President and COO Melissa Dykes did not apply for the position, although she was installed as the interim CEO for a week after Paul McElroy resigned in April.

The board of directors opted to place Zahn in the interim role after he resigned from the board one month after being appointed.

The candidates

Zahn was installed seven months ago after McElroy resigned.

During 2018, conversations about privatization and the rising financial commitment to the multibillion-dollar Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant expansion dominated most of Zahn’s term. JEA is contractually obligated to help pay for the expansion.

McElroy led the nation’s eighth largest municipally owned electric, water and wastewater utility as CEO for six years after a decade as the company’s chief financial officer.

He left in April but received compensation under his last contract, which expired Sept. 30.

Since taking the role, Zahn has presented a strategic framework for the company, reorganized the utility’s senior leadership team and hosted an innovation summit.

Howard originally voted for Dykes to fill the temporary vacancy because he initially was skeptical about Zahn.

“I had questions about his lack of utility experience and I didn’t know him and wasn’t convinced he was the right person for the role,” said Howard.

“I’ve been impressed with what he’s accomplished in seven months,” he said.

Howard said he does not believe Zahn’s presence as interim CEO is giving him an unfair advantage in seeking the permanent role.

Campion, the newest addition to the board, said Zahn was different from most utility professionals with which he's worked.

Zahn appears to face strong competition from what the board considers to be industry veterans.

Eugster’s leads San Antonio-based CPS Energy, considered one of the largest municipal utility companies in the country.

“He showed that he has experience with customer service and building relationships with the community,” said Green.

Howard said he was “wowed” by his leadership skills. He said Eugster has a strong track record in the utility industry that is easy to identify.

Cumber said that Eugster was not “a typical utility guy.”

“He didn’t have the same path as must of those people, which is a plus,” said Cumber.

Hill of PowerSecure Inc. formerly was CEO of Bahamas Power & Light in the Caribbean.

Several board members noted that her experience dealing with natural disasters and hurricanes was important given Jacksonville’s recent experiences with hurricanes Irma and Matthew.

Cumber noted that she has a “great operational background.”

The last candidate on the list, and the one which seemed to receive the most praise, was Frankie McDermott.

As the chief energy delivery officer for Sacramento Municipal Utility District, McDermott operates as second-in-command.

“He was the most engaging of the candidates, the most well prepared, and demonstrated the best work experience in my opinion,” Howard said.

Others noted his enthusiasm for Jacksonville and the similarities between JEA and the Sacramento utility.

Like JEA, the Sacramento utility has around 2,000 employees and serves a territory with about 1.5 million people, according to its website.

The company claims to have more than 626,000 residential and business customers.

Howard said it was easy to see during his research that McDermott was as much or more engaged with speaking with the public as the CEO.

“He’s in The Sacramento Bee (newspaper and news site) just as much as the CEO,” Howard said.

JEA board members will conduct a second round of one-on-one interviews with the four candidates Nov. 13.

During the Nov. 27 JEA board meeting, the applicants will appear for public interviews.

The board could select its next CEO that day or at a Dec. 11 meeting.

Howard said he wants a permanent chief executive in place by Jan. 1.