EDGE Powering Gig City: EPB's new CEO never stops running

EDGE Powering Gig City: EPB's new CEO never stops running

November 1st, 2016 by Dave Flessner in EDGE

David Wade, president of EPB, stands in the downtown Chattanooga office's seventh floor overlook.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

About David Wade

Job: President and chief executive of EPB

Education: An engineering graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Age: 57

Career: Wade joined EPB in 1983 and has later became senior manager, vice president and then chief operating officer for the city-owned utility.

Personal: He and his wife have three children and live in Chattanooga

Hobbies: He is a running enthusiast who completed the Iron Man competition in Chattanooga last year and is training for a similar Iran Man competition next year in Alaska.

About EPB

Established: The city of Chattanooga created EPB as a municipally-owned utility in 1935

Governance: A 5-member board, appointed by the mayor of Chattanooga, governs EPB, which is regulated by the Tennessee Valley Authority

Power customers: 170,000 in its 600-square-mile service territory.

Fiber optics customers: More than 85,000 buy at least one of the fiber optic services, which include high-speed internet, cable television and telephone connections.

Distinction: EPB boasts the fastest citywide internet connections in America (up to 10 Gigabits per second anywhere across the community-wide network).

Electric revenue: $563.8 million for 2015-2016

Fiber revenue: $135 million for 2015-2016

Staff: 556 employees

In the 81-year history of EPB, David Wade is only the seventh person to head the municipal utility.

Like his predecessors, Wade is an electrical engineer who has spent nearly his entire career at EPB. He joined the power utility as a line helper and ground man digging holes and setting poles at age 24 after working for his father's painting business and working as a maintenance electrician. Wade, who was married with two young sons at the time, says he joined EPB looking for more job stability.

But as an engineer and manager, Wade has been a key change agent at EPB, helping the city-owned utility to break the boundaries of the traditionally staid utility industry and leading Chattanooga into becoming the first city in the Western Hemisphere to offer communitywide Gig internet service.

"I wanted more job stability and security when I joined EPB, but I also have always liked big challenges," Wade says. "I've always been intrigued with seeing if you can build something or accomplish a great task and the bigger the challenges, the more fun they were."

Wade doesn't see a conflict between change and stability.

"In fact, making change and taking on new and bold endeavors may be what enables stability," he says. "Failure to change is sometimes much less stable and secure than staying ahead of what is going on."

Wade succeeded the retiring Harold DePriest as head of EPB in September. DePriest, a 44-year employee at EPB, was EPB's president for 20 years.

EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson said the utility's board decided not to look outside of EPB for DePriest's successor because of the talent developed within the business and the uniqueness of EPB as a multi-faceted provider of both electricity and communications services.

"There is nobody else in the country that is doing what we're doing here at EPB," Ferguson says. "When we considered looking outside for a new talent, we recognized that we could find seasoned people out there who could run a power organization. But we're into new technologies and ventures that nobody else is into and our people are really on the cutting edge."

Wade, who worked early in his career planning for and extending power lines across EPB' 600-square-mile service territory, began working a decade ago on how to also make Chattanooga's power grid more interactive and controllable through the installation of fiber optic lines linked to transformers, power controllers and electric meters. That so-called smart grid also provided EPB with a fiber optic communications network upon which the utility also built a telecommunication business with telephone, television and high-speed internet.

Expanding an electric utility into telecommunications was regarded as too risky by those worried about the hefty investment and unfair by some private telephone and cable TV competitors opposed to competition from a government entity.

"Broadband networks are expensive to construct and upgrade," says Dr. George Ford, chief economist for the conservative Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies who has studied municipal broadband ventures. "If there's money to be made, then private providers will make the necessary investments. Getting broadband to under-served areas is a difficult and expensive proposition, since by definition investing where the private sector will not will assuredly lead to financial losses and thus higher taxes or electricity rates to cover the difference."

But after only six years, EPB has grown its fiber optics business to serve more than 80,000 telecom customers, who last year paid EPB more than $135 million for Internet, television and telephone services. EPB's fiber optics division has paid down all but $18 million of the $69 million of debt incurred by fiber optics division, and the division is expected to be largely debt-free within the next year.

Wade said EPB has proven its success in serving a wide area with high-speed broadband while attracting the customer base and using the network in multiple ways to make it successful without having to use electricity ratepayer or local taxpayer dollars.

Ferguson credits Wade and the team he built at EPB for much of that success.

"Harold (DePriest) may have been the author of the smart grid," Ferguson says. "But David (Wade) was not only the architect of figuring out how the smart grid was going to work and getting it on paper, but also the engineer and builder who made it the smart grid and all the other things things we are doing work in such a great fashion."

DePriest, who helped select his successor, praises Wade for leading teams of engineers in both the electric and fiber optic arenas.

"David Wade has been a driving force in EPB's transformation into a company that combines electrical systems and communications in a way that has become a model for the rest of the nation," DePriest says.

Wade was named vice president of engineering for EPB in 2002 and seven years later began designing and building the fiber optic network that EPB launched to help upgrade its electricity network.

The fiber network also allowed EPB to begin to provide high-speed telecommunications services for its customers. Backed by an $111.6 million federal stimulus grant, EPB in 2010 launched America's first citywide gigabit-per-second Internet service, which helped Chattanooga lay claim to being "Gig City." EPB was able to build out its smart grid and high-speed Internet network sooner and more broadly than initiatives for Gig service by Google Fiber, AT&T and Comcast in other cities.

Wade, an affable and soft-spoken engineer, gives praise to others at EPB who helped build the communitywide fiber optic network.

"My model of leadership is to hire and train the best people and then let them do their job," he says. "EPB has always been strong in taking on and accomplishing big projects and we continue to look for ways to utilize the network we have built."

EPB's fiber network is being studied by researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory who are searching for ways to use the massive amounts of information collected from the smart grid to improve power reliability and services.

Wade said his own management approach at EPB is similar — bring people together and to let them find new approaches to problems.

"One of the challenges any organization has is to get smart people and then to let them be smart," Wade says. "Our team is fantastic and they work hard to make it work."

Through his career, Wade has sought to develop his own skills while performing a variety of jobs at EPB. For nearly a decade when he was in his 30s and early 40s, he studied electrical engineering at UTC, attending classes at UTC at night while working at EPB during the day.

"It seemed like everyone else was younger than I was and it a long time to get my degree," Wade recalls. "I remember one class I took when I walked in everyone thought I was the professor because I was the oldest one in the room."

But Wade is lifelong learner who says he enjoyed going to class and taking on new projects.

Four years ago, at age 53, Wade also began another personal development journey. Wade, who has been married for 37 years and is the father of two sons and a daughter, said he decided to get off the couch and start working for the sake of his health and future for his children.

Since then, Wade has lost 120 pounds and gone from a largely sedentary lifestyle to working out regularly. In the past year, he has competed in several Ironman contests, which include a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26-mile running marathon.

"I started working out and liked it, got more energy, and just kept going," he says.

That's not unlike his own career path at EPB. Wade said he continues to enjoy making a difference for Chattanooga.

"That's what keeps EPB vital and going," he says.