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Utility executive blazes new path on way to the top

Nancy Tower, behind a never-stop-learning ethos, worked her way to the top of major Florida utility. She has more she wants to do — and learn.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. May 3, 2019
  • Leadership
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When Nancy Tower was in her early 30s, she didn’t dream of working her way to CEO of a multibillion-dollar organization. Though she was a CPA and had banked a wealth of experience helping restructure her family’s jewelry and luggage store business, she sought something more manageable with a young child at home. So she took on an office administrator job at Ernst & Young.

She quickly realized the role wasn’t challenging enough — it wasn’t pushing her to learn more. She also saw colleagues move up the professional ladder and thought, ‘If I’m going to put the hours in, I should be advancing my career.’ So she asked some partners if she could assist with taking on some client work. One of the clients she took on was Nova Scotia Power, which eventually became Emera, the Halifax, Nova Scotia-based parent company of Tampa Electric Co.

After a series of promotions, the 60-year-old Tower is now president and CEO of Tampa Electric Co., leading the utility’s 2,000 employees who serve 765,000 customers. Tampa Electric covers some 2,000 square miles, including most of Hillsborough County and parts of Polk, Pasco and Pinellas counties. One of several other utilities Emera owns, Tampa Electric does about $2 billion a year in revenue. Emera acquired Tampa Electric in 2016 and Tower was promoted to her current role in late 2017.

In her first 18 months on the job, Tower has learned, and re-learned, some important lessons — about communicating to employees and customers, making quick decisions and being persistent against naysayers. And though her three grown children remain her No.1 priority, Tower loves that her job continues to challenge her — just like she sought decades ago.

That kind of thoughtful rise-above-the-obstacle mentality is evident to several area business leaders who have worked with Tower, including Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. President and CEO Craig Richard. Tower is on the EDC’s board, and Richard calls Tampa Electric’s involvement with the organization essential toward carrying out its mission. “Her m.o. is to roll up her sleeves and get to work,” Richard says. “Even before she relocated her family, she dove into some work for us.”

Raise your hand

It’s not your typical CEO progression. But digging into Tower’s resume gives a peek at how extensive her experience has been and makes a case for the importance of raising a hand to volunteer for new opportunities when they arise. Outside the resume, Tower’s leadership success stems, in some ways, from doing lots of little things right.

“It’s easy to distinguish yourself by working a little harder, asking more questions (and) writing a thank you note,” Tower says, in addition to asking for as much feedback as you can get. 

Rene Gallant, vice president of strategy and business development for Tampa Electric, who has worked alongside or with Tower for several years, says the CEO's 'ask questions' mantra and leadership style is infectious. The questions will come not only with Tower's direct reports, Gallant says, but when she's on the floor of a power plant or out with linemen.

"A strong aspect of her leadership is her willingness to ask questions," Gallant says. "Some people don't want people to think they don't know everything."

Emera hired Tower to full time as controller in 1997, after her EY stint. From there, she moved her way from a senior position in finance to learning more of operations — going to a power plant for a year as manager of a combustion turbine, for example. That led to her becoming vice president of customer operations at Nova Scotia Power, where she learned how to lead a contact center and energy control center. The job had never been done by a non-engineer or by a woman — but Tower was not intimidated. “If you have good technical people working with you who understand the business, and you bring the business approach, you can form a good team with complementary skills,” Tower says.

She continued to work her way up, eventually becoming CFO. In that role, working hand-in-hand with the CEO, she helped grow Emera substantially from 2004-2011.

When the company looked for someone to lead a $1.6 billion project to build an undersea cable connecting a utility in Newfoundland and Labrador to Nova Scotia, the first of its kind, Tower again raised her hand. Once that piece was done, Tower signed up to take on yet another role, leading mergers and acquisitions for Emera as chief corporate development officer. Her big success in that role was buying Tampa Electric in 2015 — which doubled Emera’s size.

Ask questions        

The acquisition wasn’t easy.

Tampa Electric put itself up for sale, but because Emera was the same size as Tampa Electric, the investment banker acting as broker didn’t even consider the Canadian company. When Tower and her team actively reached out for more information and were declined, she refused to take no for an answer. “We elbowed our way into the process,” says Tower, named to Financial Post magazine’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada list in 2011.

It’s the business decision she’s most proud of, though she was not alone in making it. Tower was also successful in convincing Emera’s board it was the right thing to do. Says Tower: “I had a feeling in my heart that this is the right transaction for us... participating in the auction (of Tampa Electric) and being successful was a career highlight.”

When Tampa Electric CEO Gordon Gillette retired in November 2017, Tower was asked to move to Tampa to step in his place. The role is not too out of the realm for Tower, who has seen many of the same issues the business faces in other points in her career. “Be it a financial challenge or regulatory challenge, they let me leave the technical challenges to the technical people,” says Tower. “In terms of running the business, the content is new, but matter is not.”

Mark Wemple. Nancy Tower says asking questions is one key to being a great leader.
Mark Wemple. Nancy Tower says asking questions is one key to being a great leader.

The secret to her success so far, she adds, is “continuing to be curious about the business and understand how you can make it better. You need to love the business you are in and ask a million questions. It’s not just focusing on the initial stages — it’s understanding details about how the business works and what the business model is.” 

Safety first

Tower’s first big challenge at Tampa Electric was tackling safety, something that still keeps her up at night, she admits. “No one should get hurt at work,” she says.

When she joined Tampa Electric, it was under scrutiny for sending its employees to complete a maintenance project at Big Bend Power Station, a dangerous mission that left five workers dead and resulted in a handful of fines. Tower has since made safety her top priority. The company hired a vice president of safety, and is integrating safety practices into all departments.

One of the company’s top priorities is also investing in going green, behind a $1.67 billion commitment to accomplish two major projects. One project, following feedback from customers, is adding solar to its fleet of plants, an $850 million investment. Another $850 million project is to update its fleet at Big Bend Power Station. That project includes two new efficient gas fire generators, modernizing one of its four coal burning units and decommissioning a second unit in 2023. Tampa Electric officials say the Big Bend project isn’t connected to the accident.

Amazon experience

Tower says the company needs to upgrade its technology as well, to keep up with customer expectations for experience. “You have to serve customers in a way they expect to be served,” she says, meaning just like ordering from Amazon.

In addition, the company wants to invest in installing smart meters, which would alert the company when power is out, rather than waiting for customers to call. They’ll also have better data to view individual consumption and overall consumption patterns, and perhaps better tie rates to certain times of day. Data analytics can also help with restoring power faster, by predicting when power will go out based on weather, customer density and condition of equipment.

'You need to love the business you are in and ask a million questions.' Nancy Tower, Tampa Electric Co.

Another challenge Tower faces, no surprise in the Tampa area, is continuing to stay competitive to maintain talent. “Linemen are in high demand,” she says. “We have lost some to other companies because there are opportunities to chase storms” working as a contractor. To combat that issue, the company has brought in more apprentices and is increasing the amount of apprentice courses. It’s also in negotiations with the union to find more ways to attract more journeymen linemen.

Over communicate

Another area Tower has worked on is in opening communication and feedback channels, to break down organizational silos. Following an employee survey, the company determined employees wanted more information on priorities on a regular basis. To address this, Tampa Electric started providing supervisors information to cascade to their individual teams.

As CEO, Tower has also learned people — employees and customers — want to hear her voice. Though she tends to defer to listening, she now makes sure she demonstrates her “knowledge, care and concern by speaking up when the situation requires it.”

That especially goes for a crisis, which happens more than occasionally in an industry impacted by weather. The key is “keeping the human element in front of you: who has been affected and what you need to do for them,” Tower says. “Get out in front of issues instead of waiting for someone to ask the questions.”




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