Georgia Power, the state’s largest electric provider and perhaps the most powerful corporate voice in state politics, named a new chief executive officer.
Chris Womack will fill the seat starting in April, after taking the title of Georgia Power president later this week, the company announced Thursday. He will be the first Black person to hold the top post in the company’s more than 100-year history.
Womack will succeed Paul Bowers, who is retiring after 11 years as CEO. Womack, 62, is just two years younger than the man he’ll replace. He currently is executive vice president and president of external affairs at Georgia Power’s parent, Atlanta-based Southern Company.
The shift comes before Bowers was able to complete Georgia Power’s most important project in decades, the long-troubled nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle. The company has little wiggle room left to meet the latest regulatory deadline for the first of two new reactors to be in commercial operation in November of 2021.
Bowers said progress on the Vogtle project and his confidence that the first unit “will be online to meet our regulatory commitment assures me that it’s the right time for us to start the transition to my retirement and leave the company in Chris' capable hands.”
Womack told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he “absolutely” is confident both new reactors will be finished by their current deadlines. In his Southern position, Womack oversees public policy strategies, corporate communications and governmental and regulatory affairs.
News of the CEO transition came the same morning that Georgia Power had to scramble to restore electricity to many customers after Tropical Storm Zeta brought heavy rain and damaging winds.
Southern Company Chairman Tom Fanning praised Bowers leadership and told analysts the timing of the change allows Womack to settle in before tackling future rate cases and hearings on Vogtle’s costs as the project is completed.
Southern doesn’t have a mandatory retirement age for senior leaders, but the company’s board has to sign off on them serving beyond the age of 65, officials said. Bowers said he didn’t ask the board about letting him stay longer. His April departure is timed to match a key milestone: Georgia Power’s latest schedule for when it expects to load nuclear fuel in the first Vogtle reactor.
Bowers served through tough economic times and faced challenges as Vogtle, slated to generate more electricity without emitting carbon, fell years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. During his tenure the company, like much of the electric-generating industry, sharply reduced its use of coal and increased reliance on natural gas, a less-expensive fuel source promising lower carbon emissions. He also was at the helm as Georgia Power was pushed to significantly increase reliance on renewables, particularly solar power.
He won rate increases from state regulators, yet Georgia Power’s electric rates remained below the national average.
Womack, who served in senior roles at Georgia Power in the past, said he will continue Bowers' legacy while also leading and “putting my own spin on it.”
As for diversity in the top ranks of public companies, “across Corporate America there is work to be done,” Womack said. Southern has a significant number of Black leaders in senior roles, he said, including the head of Atlanta Gas Light. But he said the company must have a leadership role in doing more.
African Americans have founded and led sizeable businesses in Georgia. But nationwide, Black CEOs are rare among the largest companies. Only four — less than 1% — were serving as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, according to a report last year by consulting firm Korn Ferry. Georgia Power is a subsidiary of a Fortune 500 company.
A government-regulated monopoly, Georgia Power has 2.6 million customers, from residential customers to big manufacturers and some of the state’s biggest companies. The utility and its leaders have historically been heavy political donors, advisors to politicians, crucial contributors to nonprofits and regular volunteers on boards around the state.
The company plays a powerful role in prepping for and wooing employers that promise to bring jobs to Georgia. Most Georgia Power customers don’t have a choice in picking an electricity provider if they sit within the company’s territory.
Joe Wilkinson, a former Republican state legislator from Sandy Springs who worked in public relations at Coca-Cola Company and praised Georgia Power’s civic spirit, said the utility often held more power in the state than the global beverage giant. With Coke, Wilkinson said, “people could choose not to drink products of my company.”
Calvin Smyre, a Democrat who has served more than 45 years in the state legislature and is African American, called Womack’s rise to the helm of Georgia Power “historic” for the state.
“His influence will be across the board in our community and our state,” said Smyre, who several years ago retired as executive vice president of corporate affairs at Synovus.
Said former Atlanta mayor and former United Nations ambassador Andy Young, “Diversity is good business.”
He said Southern and Georgia Power have long had good reputations on the diversity front and that a company executive was among his first supporters when he first ran for Congress in the 1970s.