Tampa native John Ramil takes over TECO 34 years after starting there

New TECO Energy chief executive officer John Ramil talks to John McLelland, managing director of fuels management, on Wednesday. After 34 years with TECO, the Tampa native takes over a company with 4,000 employees and $3.5 billion in annual revenue, succeeding longtime CEO Sherrill Hudson.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

New TECO Energy chief executive officer John Ramil talks to John McLelland, managing director of fuels management, on Wednesday. After 34 years with TECO, the Tampa native takes over a company with 4,000 employees and $3.5 billion in annual revenue, succeeding longtime CEO Sherrill Hudson.

For many underlings, it would have been one of those heart-pounding, sweaty-palms kind of assignments.

An employee for TECO's Peoples Gas responds to a service call at a home next to the house of a man who runs the company. Out comes TECO Energy executive John Ramil, greeting the employee, though not with an evaluation or critique, but a question:

Do you need anything?

It was vintage Ramil, offering a hand to one of his own.

Ramil's wife, Naida, chokes back tears, proud to have witnessed the display.

"They're really his family," she says.

And a proud one, at that.

A week ago, the company picked Ramil as the new chief executive officer of TECO Energy and its 4,000-member family.

The selection not only highlighted Ramil's successful career at the utility, but also punctuated a virtually textbook ascension from Tampa native son to senior community leader.

Ramil's resume: graduate of Tampa Catholic High School, engineering graduate of the University of South Florida, husband and father of two, chairman of USF's Board of Trustees, corporate board member of BlueCross BlueShield of Florida Inc., and 34-year employee of TECO Energy.

But perhaps more distinguishing than the noted accolades is his unflappable demeanor — something he'll need as head of a diverse power company.

He's responsible for keeping the lights on for 667,000 customers in the Tampa Bay area in a state with the highest number of lightning strikes in the country and the constant threat of tropical storms and hurricanes.

And he knows that consumers never much care for utilities because of the battle over rates and bills that seem to run up unchecked.

While watching out for the concerns of customers, Ramil also must look out for large utilities that see the company as a potential takeover opportunity. Even as a major utility, TECO remains smaller than the likes of Progress Energy and FPL Group Inc.

Ramil's champions say there isn't a better pick to take on the job.

"He understands this company and this industry better than anyone," says Sherrill Hudson, who retired as TECO Energy's CEO last week and handed the reins to Ramil.

Noting an old saying about good leaders, Hudson says, " 'You can't teach intelligence and you can't teach common sense' … John has an abundance of intelligence and an abundance of common sense.

"My No. 1 priority was to develop a great successor. And I did. But it wasn't because of me, but because of who John is."

• • •

It's 5 a.m. and Ramil begins his daily routine.

He grabs his laptop and checks out the newspaper before starting a 45-minute workout. He's on the treadmill and lifting weights.

"Since I'm 54, I have to do some work," says Ramil, a sports lover who has coached soccer and baseball during time outside of work.

By 8:30 a.m., Ramil is walking the halls at TECO Energy's corporate offices in downtown Tampa, catching up with senior officers about the company's local, national and international operations.

In addition to Tampa Electric's utility services in the Tampa Bay area, TECO Energy runs a coal mining operation and utility services in Guatemala.

"If you ask my kids what I do, they'll say I go to meetings and sign things," says Ramil of his 27-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and 25-year-old son, Christopher. "They're right."

Well, that's not all. Like with the Peoples Gas worker dispatched to Ramil's neighborhood, the affable leader makes an effort of connecting with employees and understanding their needs.

As he walks those halls, he stands out as a polished executive — clean-cut, starched shirt and tie. The brown-haired man has a warm-hearted approach that seems to endear people to him.

"We see him fully engaged throughout the building," says Rick Morera, a company spokesman.

"But they don't let me touch anything," Ramil fires back.

After 34 years with TECO Energy, it's easy for him to connect with people.

Ramil joined the company on a cooperative — a position students take for a semester to expose them to the business' operations — after becoming an engineering student at USF.

He never left.

Ramil began working full time as an environmental engineer. After becoming a manager in environmental planning, he rose to assistant director and later director of power resource planning. His place at TECO solidified further as he became a vice president and chief financial officer.

He stayed even as headhunters began recruiting him after he became president of TECO Energy's electric company division in 1998.

"My wife and I love it here," Ramil said. "It was the right decision to stay here."

And not just because of TECO, but also for the community. He's a lover of the outdoors, an avid saltwater fisherman.

"He's an alum that we're very proud of," said Tom Reidy, principal of Tampa Catholic High School, where Ramil graduated from in 1973. "He's still engaged in the school. He's someone that we're able to point to."

• • •

Ramil could not have landed in the new job at a better time, in particular now that the company is out of the troubled financial times it endured in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"I thought our name was 'Troubled TECO Energy,' " Hudson said. "You rarely even had a story that didn't mention our financial trouble. Now we're back on really solid financial footing."

The company has $3.5 billion in annual revenues and $3.5 billion in market capitalization.

This year, TECO Energy celebrates its 45 years on the New York Stock Exchange and will ring the closing bell on Aug. 31.

While the utility does not have any immediate plans for any rate increases, Ramil says his challenges include the need to continue building capital to invest in new technologies, critical to helping consumers reduce their utility costs.

"We have to help people understand these things don't come free," Ramil said. "One of the things that I think frustrates customers is they don't have control over what their bill is."

He believes broader use and further development of smart technologies will help consumers take more control over their electric usage. For example, trials of a smart thermostat allowed some consumers to shut off water heaters and pool pumps and better control temperatures on air conditioners. Ramil said the technology saved the consumers a month's worth of utility costs in the course of a year.

"That's a start in giving people more control," he said.

Ramil also hopes to inspire people to join the utility business. Among his challenges is recruiting enough welders and lineman.

"We have incredibly, highly skilled people working for our company," Ramil said. "We have to figure out ways to attract more talent."

Ramil sees an energy in his company that he believes has positioned itself for a strong future.

"The smartest thing a leader can do is surround himself with good people," Ramil says. "I'm really lucky that's the case."

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Tampa native John Ramil takes over TECO 34 years after starting there 08/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 14, 2010 5:33am]

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