Transplanted New Yorker Bill Kilbride helps lead Tennessee Valley Authority and Chattanooga area businesses

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Bill Kilbride at the Times Free Press studio on March 29, 2023.

As chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Bill Kilbride helps oversee America's biggest government utility which delivers power and promotes the economy for more than 10 million people in seven Southern states.

Before joining TVA, Kilbride headed the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce working on economic development in his hometown after serving for nearly two decades in key leadership roles for what grew into the world's biggest floor covering manufacturer in Calhoun, Georgia.

For all his leadership in the South over the past three decades, Kilbride, 72, spent nearly half his life in New York where he was born, or in Chicago where he met his wife, Mary, before they relocated to Tennessee.

Kilbride says he acquired his love of the South going to Tennessee Wesleyan College more than 50 years ago in Athens, Tennessee where the Long Island native was attracted to a school "that checked all my boxes."

"It was somewhere different where I never thought I would be again; it was in a place where I could hunt and fish, and it was within a day's drive of New York City where his family still lives," Kilbride recalls.

Kilbride, who his college friends nicknamed "Oz" because they said he was such a wizard in school, got his liberal arts degree at Tennessee Wesleyan before working briefly in Athens and then returning to New York City. In the Big Apple, Kilbride first worked as a banker, then as the director of surveillance at the New York Stock Exchange and eventually as an executive for Dean Witter Reynolds.

Tennessee ties

The New York native kept a tie to Tennessee with one of his college fraternity brothers from Sigma Phi Epsilon, John "Thunder" Thornton, and that ultimately led Kilbride to return to Tennessee. In 1992, after five years of asking, Thornton convinced Kilbride and his then-pregnant wife to move from New York to Chattanooga and serve as president and chief operating officer of Thornton's rapidly growing American Rug Craftsmen.

Thornton, who started his rug company in 1984, likened his growing business at the time to a 180-pound 12-year-old.

"We had physically grown and were doing a lot of business, but we really needed some strong financial help," Thornton recalls. "Bill was the smartest financial guy I had ever met so I really wanted him to help us build the business, which he did."

A Sears-ing romance

While in Chicago working for Dean Witter, Kilbride met his future wife on a long elevator ride down from the 68th floor of the Sears Tower, where she worked just a floor above him as director of investor relations for Sears. It had been a Friday evening, both he and Mary working late, and she was the only other person on the elevator.

By the time the two had ridden down the 68 floors, Kilbride had asked her to dinner and the romance began. The two were married 18 months later after he returned to another Dean Witter job in Manhattan. Mary, a certified public accountant, also found a job on Wall Street.

Kilbride worked for years on the 74th floor of the World Trade Center, but in 1992 the Kilbrides moved to Chattanooga -- nine years before the offices where they once worked toppled during the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

"I knew many of those who died in that tragedy and, but for the fact that we moved here, I might have been one of them," Kilbride says.

A new home in Chattanooga

Since moving to Chattanooga in 1992, the Kilbrides have made Tennessee their home with both Bill and Mary being active on a variety of community and business boards.

Kilbride served as president of American Rug Craftsmen with Thornton for less than two years before the company was acquired by Mohawk Industries. Kilbride was subsequently named president of the Mohawk Home division and later as the company's chief sustainability officer. Kilbride helped grow the division from about $100 million in sales when Mohawk bought the firm to about $900 million in sales two decades later when he retired in 2014.

But Kilbride didn't stay retired for long. When Ron Harr stepped down as CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, then Chamber chairman Howard Levine urged Kilbride to take the top job at the Chattanooga Chamber.

Kilbride was Chamber president in Chattanooga from 2014 to 2017 and helped the business association gain recognition as the 2017 Chamber of the Year for midsize cities by the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. During Kilbride's tenure, the Chamber exceeded its job creation goals and boosted Chamber membership by more than 700 businesses while helping to lay the groundwork for a new workforce development initiative known as Chattanooga 2.0.

Leading TVA

In 2019, after Kilbride had retired from the Chamber two years earlier, Kilbride was nominated by President Trump at the urging of then Sen. Bob Corker, a neighbor of Kilbride in North Chattanooga, to serve on the TVA board. After he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Kilbride joined the 9-member TVA board and two years later Kilbride was elected by his colleagues as TVA chairman -- the first such TVA chair ever from Chattanooga.

As chair of America's biggest government-owned utility, Kilbride presides over the board's quarterly meetings and helps direct the part-time board to set policy, approve budgets and oversee TVA's operations, including setting the pay of TVA's CEO. Although Kilbride was appointed by Trump, he differed with the former president's view of compensation for TVA's CEO.

Jeff Lyash, who was hired to head TVA a few months before Kilbride joined the TVA board, is America's highest paid federal employee and Trump wanted the TVA board to cut Lyash's multi-million-dollar compensation "by a lot." Trump even fired two previous TVA chairs for their support of TVA's CEO pay levels, but Kilbride said Lyash is worth the nearly $9.8 million paid in salary and bonuses to the TVA head last year.

Among comparable CEOs, Lyash's pay is in the bottom one-fourth of all utility executives, according to TVA's compensation consultants.

"I wouldn't want this job going to the lowest bidder," Kilbride says. "I think Jeff has done an incredible job and TVA is in its strongest position it has been in in years."

Kilbride is scheduled to give up his chairmanship of TVA in November and leave the TVA board by the end of the year.

"I think we all agree that Bill Kilbride has done a great job as chair," TVA Director Beth Harwell, a former speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, said at a February TVA board meeting where directors elected Joe Ritch as the next TVA chair.

Kilbride has been and continues to be active on a number of local boards, including The Bright School board of trustees, the Tennessee Arts Commission, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chancellor's Advisory Board, the Tennessee Wesleyan College board of trustees, the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority, the Hunter Museum of Art and First Centenary United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.

"I can't think of any couple that has had the terrific responsibilities and made such a profound impact on our entire region as Bill and Mary have for this entire region," Thornton says.

  photo  Photo by Dave Flessner / Bill Kilbride chairs the TVA board during its February 2023 meeting in Florence, Alabama. Kilbride heads the 9-member TVA board, which conducts public meeting every three months to oversee the nation's biggest government utility.
  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Bill Kilbride at the Times Free Press studio on March 29, 2023.
  photo  Staff Photo by John Rawlston Bill Kilbride Charles Wood Sybil Topel of the Chattanooga Area Chamber speaks to members of the Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial board on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.