Saturday, May 26, 2018
Business

Meet the stars of melodramatic Duke-Progress Energy soap opera

Last week's fast-expanding government inquiry into the power plays behind Duke Energy's bungled acquisition of Progress Energy may make many Florida ratepayers queasy. These are the clever business folks who now control our electricity?

But you can't deny that the week's hearings made great soap opera. More hearings promise more drama. Welcome to Days of Our Utilities.

Like any good soap, you can't appreciate the plot without knowing the cast of characters. So here's an introduction to the leading roles in this soap and the real-world people who play them in this unfolding Duke-Progress melodrama.

The Jilted Multimillionaire

Played by former Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson, who was ousted by Duke Energy in a power play on the same day he officially became CEO of the newly merged Duke-Progress. His testimony before North Carolina regulators last week was just the right mix. He offered outrage over his sullied reputation. He dished revenge in blaming Duke for its Machiavellian maneuvers. He feigned innocence in receiving more than $44 million in departing compensation.

And he supplied human frailty, coming close to tears after saying his wife had bought him a new tie to celebrate what should have been his new and bigger CEO title, and for being tossed aside before he could bid farewell to his loyal Progress Energy cohorts.

The Man Behind the Curtain

Played as a reluctant ruler by Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. He ran Duke Energy before the merger. And, after Johnson was booted, he graciously accepted his board's request to become CEO of the post-merger Duke.

Is the politically attuned Rogers really the Man Behind the Curtain we're not supposed to be noticing? Rogers played his public role well during four hours of regulatory questioning. No, he said, I don't want to speak ill of Bill Johnson. But yes, he admitted, Johnson was in the end too "autocratic" — too much the dictator — to be a CEO in charge of merging two big companies with very different cultures.

Is Rogers truly a reluctant ruler or was it Napoleonic ambition that secured the top job? Tune in to future episodes to find out.

The Scornful Director

Played with Iron Lady style by Ann Gray as the lead director of the original Duke Energy board of directors who led the coup to topple Bill Johnson as incoming CEO. She testified Friday that Johnson's offhand remarks early in the merger soured her impression of him, though an aloof Gray never seemed to make much effort later to get to know the person who was going to be CEO of the new Duke.

Like CEO Rogers before her, Gray damned Johnson with faint praise. His style, Gray complained, was controlling, "not only controlling of the flow of information but of the content of the information."

Then she added: "I'm really sorry to be here talking about Bill." Now that's one of those great "What did she mean?" soap opera lines. Perhaps Gray may be only too happy to criticize Johnson. Just not in front of state regulators.

The Belated Sheriff

Played with obligatory toughness by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who isn't about to let some small potato utilities commission monopolize the investigatory spotlight on the Duke-Progress merger shenanigans.

Did these utilities misrepresent themselves to the government? Are we protecting North Carolina customers?

Cooper has not yet shown all his cards. His role will take center stage in later episodes. But so far, he's demanding that Duke fork over extensive documentation leading up to the acquisition of Progress Energy.

The Deferential Regulator

Played by a dutiful Ed Finley as chairman of the North Carolina Utilities Commission. This role requires Finley to express public indignation to Duke for mishandling the merger and failing to keep state regulators in the loop. But the actual hearings smacked more of Corporate Kabuki Theater — big on orchestrated style and deference to Rogers but thin on content. There's also a hint of incest here. It turns out Finley once practiced law with the ousted Johnson. No conflict of interest here, right?

The Florida Salesman

Played with a distant sense of career concern by Vinny Dolan, who as Progress Energy Florida CEO in St. Petersburg expected to report to Johnson in the new Duke hierarchy just as he had done at Progress Energy.

Now Dolan must make an unanticipated swap of executive allegiance to Rogers amid a troubled merger. The national news media are starting to pay more attention to the nuclear stumbles by Progress Energy in Florida. That includes the broken Crystal River nuclear plant, a growing sore point at Duke. Can Dolan sell Duke to the Sunshine State?

The Irrelevant Regulator

Played with a facade of seriousness by Ron Brise, who as chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission must pretend that his agency has any real oversight role in the merger of two giant North Carolina utilities that happen to control the supply of electricity for most of west-central Florida.

Brise's PSC did request Duke's Rogers to show up in Tallahassee for a previously scheduled Aug. 13 hearing on the future of the Crystal River nuclear plant. Guess who will really run this show.

The Scorned Director

Played with a sense of outrage by former Progress Energy director John Mullin. Though he did not join the new Duke board of directors, he did lob a bad publicity bomb into the merger. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, he called the ouster of Bill Johnson "the most blatant example of corporate deceit that I have witnessed during a long career on Wall Street."

Or, to borrow a favorite soap opera plot, they developed a convenient bout of amnesia.

Bravo! This is exactly the incendiary language that will help keep the ratings so high on this young soap opera.

Check your local business pages for listings of the next episode of Days of Our Utilities. I'm smelling a Daytime Emmy.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]

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