New Progress Energy CEO: 'I Take This Job With Heavy Heart'

Company President Bill Johnson is chosen to replace Robert McGehee, his friend and mentor, as the top executive of the $3 billion company after McGehee died from a stroke.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Bill Johnson, just three hours into his new job as chairman and chief executive officer of Progress Energy, should have been quite the happy man. But sorrow etched his 53-year-old face, which flushed slightly as he struggled to control his emotions.

“It’s been a horrible week,” Johnson said to open his first interview as the top executive at the $3 billion-a-year Fortune 500 company. “It’s been even harder personally.”

Robert McGehee, the dynamic 64-year-old CEO and chairman of Progress, died on Tuesday after suffering a stroke on Sunday during a business trip to London.

News of the stroke stunned Johnson and the 10,000-employee company where McGehee was widely respected – and also known to be in excellent physical condition. Johnson, long considered the heir-apparent to McGehee, was promoted Monday by the company's board of directors to interim CEO from his position as president and chief operating officer.

On Friday, the board not only named Johnson CEO, but also chairman.

Even at a towering 6-foot-4 with the build of a football player – he played collegiately at Penn State – and with hands big enough to swallow those of most other people, Johnson conceded he had big shoes to fill in replacing McGehee.

“I take this job with a heavy heart,” Johnson said quietly in an interview. “Bob not only was my boss, he also was my mentor. Even more than that, he was a close personal friend and my teacher.”

McGehee was a philanthropic leader as well as a corporate executive, Johnson noted. For example, the name Progress Energy adorns the performing arts complex just down Fayetteville Street from the company’s headquarters.

“He was really loved,” he said. “And he was in such good health. To lose him so suddenly was a shock, a tragedy. This really has been a difficult time.”

However, Progress Energy is a 24/7 company with more than 3 million customers and thousands of stockholders to please. Johnson acknowledged that he and others could grieve but still had to do their jobs.

“The thing about our company is that we perform best in a crisis,” he said, his spirits lifting. "We have kept the lights on. We haven't missed a beat.”

Whether hurricane or tornado, flood or fire, Progress Energy must keep power flowing. Plus, he stressed, he is not carrying the burden of running the company alone.

“I have thought about this job,” he said, “but nothing can prepare you for the enormity of it. One thing I have to understand is that this is not a job I could do by myself. You have to surround yourself with a great management team and great employees. I don’t feel like I am in this alone.”

A Progress Energy employee since 1992 – he also represented the firm as a private attorney for several years – Johnson rose quickly through the company’s management ranks. As president and COO, he was considered the most likely person to succeed McGehee, who planned to retire next year at age 65. In fact, just weeks ago the company board adopted a succession plan at McGehee’s urging.

Friday morning, that plan was implemented.

Johnson was aware of the succession plan – but not the details.

“We had not had that conversation,” Johnson said when asked if he had talked to McGehee about the succession.

At age 53, Johnson could be the company’s leader for a decade or more. And he knows many challenges need to be addressed, from needs to meet growing demands for power by possibly building nuclear power plants while at the same time satisfying demands for conservation.

However, Johnson also takes the job knowing he has many bosses to please, not just one.

“How long I will be in this job is not up to me,” he said. “That’s up to the board and how I perform.” However, he stressed, “I am committed to this company, I am committed to the community, and I am committed to our people.”

Johnson said Progress would continue to live up to its “legacy” of support for leadership in Raleigh and markets in serves in the Carolinas and Florida.

"My objective is to make sure we give back to the communities that we serve," he said.

He also pointed out that the company would explore new technology, such as light emitting diodes, as a means of conserving power. And he is standing by McGehee’s plan to possibly build more nuclear power plants in the future.

"In our view, nuclear has to be an option for that new plant decision," he said. "If our issue in this country is reducing (carbon dioxide), then nuclear is an obvious option. So, we are taking steps to keep nuclear an option both in the Carolinas and Florida. We will file combined operating licenses next year for new reactors in Florida and the Carolinas"

As for how he will lead as chairman and CEO, Johnson plans to follow the example of his friend and boss McGehee.

"I try every day to emulate him," he said. “The greatest lesson he taught me was humility.”



Rick Smith, Reporter
Dan Bowens, Reporter
Geof Levine, Photographer
Matthew Burns, Web Editor

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