EPB's Harold DePriest honored as Chattanooga's top boss

EPB's Harold DePriest honored as Chattanooga's top boss

April 28th, 2013 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Electric Power Board president Harold DePriest holds a fiber-optic connection box during a 2010 news conference.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

Harold DePriest

Age: 64

Job: President and CEO of EPB

Industry leadership: He has served as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association, vice chairman of Seven States Power Corp., and director of the American Public Power Association Inc.

Education: Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering form Tennessee Tech, MBA from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Boards: Director for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Chattanooga Downtown Partnership Inc.

Personal: He and his wife, Rebecca, reside in Ferger Place.

If You Go

DePriest will be presented the Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year award at a luncheon on June 5, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., at the Convention Center. For more information, contact Valerie B. Gifford at 634-3563.

About the award

The Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year award has been presented every year since 1985 to a manager who has contributed as a leader in local economic development and is a role model for professional and ethical development. The organizations that participate in the steering committee that picks the winner includes the American Society of Training and Development, the Better Business Bureau, the Building Owners and Managers Association, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Chattanooga Engineers Club, Chattanooga State Community College, Chattanooga Technology Council, Executive Women International, city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments, the Institute of Management Accountants, River

Chattanooga's city-owned power utility doesn't often behave like a monopoly electricity distributor.

EPB's president serves on the executive committee of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. The municipal utility competes in the high-speed Internet market with Comcast and AT&T. Its customer service receives top marks -- highly unusual among monopolies who typically refer to customers as "ratepayers."

Even more unusual for a medium-sized municipal electric distributor, EPB has handily trounced search giant Google in the nationwide race to offer community-wide gigabit Internet speed, and has sent representatives across the nation to evangelize the economic development potential of ultra-fast broadband Internet.

Perhaps some of EPB's free-market, customer-focused tendencies can be traced back to its president and CEO, Harold DePriest, and his efforts to avoid being blindsided by deregulation.

DePriest, who has been selected Chattanooga's manager of the year for 2013, is nothing if not an engineer. When he took over as president of Chattanooga's 170,000-customer electric utility in 1996, so was everyone else.

"We did a survey and it came back and said if it's not engineering, you guys don't care about it," DePriest said. "That was accurate."

EPB was divided into micro-kingdoms where employees from different departments rarely talked or shared information.

"In the old days, the engineering people didn't like the operating people didn't like the customer service people didn't like the accountants, I mean it was pretty mutual," DePriest said.

With his house divided against itself, DePriest feared that EPB would struggle if the electricity distribution market was deregulated to allow new competitors -- something that in the mid 1990s, politicians were strongly considering.

Shortly after Jon Kinsey was elected mayor in 1997, he asked DePriest what, exactly, EPB did for Chattanooga.

"It kind of ticked me off," DePriest said. "I thought that's obvious. We supply low-cost power. Then I started thinking about it, and I realized that there are a lot of things we should be doing for Chattanooga but aren't."

That day marked the beginning of perhaps the biggest reorientation in EPB's history, as DePriest began to transform the monopoly power distributor into a competitive force that has entered new markets, lured customers away from rivals and frustrated efforts of national competitors to beat it.

In a way, DePriest's efforts grew out of his own frustration as a young engineer. Having come up through EPB's ranks, he was well aware of the utility's shortcoming when he took the reins.

"What was really obvious is that we were not able to focus at a high level when we spent all our time fussing and disagreeing with each other," he said. "A lot of effort was wasted."

Then, something occurred to him. Whenever a mega-storm hit the Chattanooga region, employees came together, set aside their differences and worked tirelessly to restore power. Some stayed awake for days, refusing to go home until the electricity -- without which a modern society cannot function -- was restored.

"In a storm, they very quickly get a picture of how badly they're needed, how much their customer needs them to do a good job," DePriest said. "I decided early on, my job was to re-create the elements of a storm."

His quiet campaign started with EPB's managers. For EPB to operate as one entity, the department heads needed to buy into his vision.

"You don't want to start talking about teamwork with your employees until you can get your leadership team on board," DePriest said.

The rest was leadership 101. Reward hard work. Get rid of people who are hurting the company. Promote people when they're ready. Let them make mistakes. Measure success. Hold leaders accountable.

"In all cases, it's groups of people working together and being really, really smart," he said. "I think maybe a better word is 'wise,' which is what we in the South call 'common sense.'"

DePriest developed a knack for growing people, said Joe Ferguson, chairman of EPB's board.

"We've had so little turnover over the years, and I attribute a lot of that to the leadership style of Harold," Ferguson said.

Once EPB's workforce began playing well together internally, the next step was to learn how to take care of customers. This too, it turned out, was easily accomplished through the studied application of common sense.

EPB fields an average of 120,000 calls each month. The average call time is three minutes. The utility collects data on how quickly problems are fixed, and how happy customers are afterward.

"One of the shocking things I've discovered, is I want people in my call center who are smart and friendly and are capable of thinking on their feet," DePriest said. "I can't train any of those things. You hire people like that, then you train them on your systems."

His most lauded accomplishment -- the first community-wide installation of consumer gigabit Internet in the United States -- came about through a similar combination of country wisdom and engineering expertise.

But first, he had to overcome the same hurdles that have slowed Google's efforts to install fiber to the home in Kansas City

Fiber-optic cable has been around for decades, and companies have been putting it into the ground since the mid-1970s. That wasn't the problem. The problem was the electronics needed to send, receive and translate signals at the speed of light.

The technology worked in a lab, but it didn't work in the field.

Intrigued by the idea, Harold assigned Larry Hinds to watch the technology and construct a plan for how EPB could roll it out one day. Hinds, a former cartographer, had shown himself to be a capable network architect. DePriest decided the mapper would be a perfect man to plan out the complex fiber-optic system.

For seven years, DePriest waited.

More than 2,500 days later, Hinds came to him with news. The components had been invented, the cost of the technology had decreased, and EPB's workers were capable of installing and running the system. EPB made a business case for fiber to the home, acquired a $111.5 million federal matching grant and the rest is history.

There have been some speed bumps.

Competitors have opposed the public utility's efforts, putting pressure on lawmakers and opposing EPB in court. They say it's not fair for a public utility to use hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer and electric system funds to compete with private companies.

The utility's gigabit infrastructure has come under fire for being overly costly and impractical for those who would actually use it. In one instance, EPB failed to provide gigabit speed to the winner of the EPB-sponsored 2012 Gig Tank competition, who turned to arch-competitor Comcast instead.

Customers, however, are voting with their feet. EPB now has more than 50,000 paying fiber-optic Internet, TV or phone customers, and has installed smart power meters on the vast majority of its 170,000 customers' homes. DePriest's bet on Hinds paid off.

In a way, DePriest's biggest strength -- selecting smart, capable leaders -- is also his biggest weakness, he said. He's just not good at it. So he figured out a system: let people select themselves.

"Let them show you how smart they are, how quickly they can learn, how well they can work with other people," he said. "When you're impatient, sometimes, it's easy to think that you can put somebody into a job and they will grow into it, but that's like marrying someone and thinking they'll turn into a perfect spouse."

Warren Logan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga and EPB board member, said one of DePriest's biggest talents is recognizing talent in others.

"He doesn't second-guess his team, he relies heavily on their judgment," Logan said. "Obviously from the standpoint of where EPB was to where it is now, in comparison with other utilities, you can tell he's an incredible leader with incredible vision."

Kinsey, who still remembers challenging DePriest to set a higher bar for EPB, eventually served on the board of the utility for four years after he left the mayor's office.

"I was able to see close up how he just totally changed the culture of the entire EPB organization," Kinsey said. "Without Harold DePriest as the head of EPB, you would not see EPB by the entity that they are today."

DePriest will turn 65 in 2014. He hasn't decided when to retire, but does say it's sounding better every year.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.