November 29, 2023

CEO Profile - Susan Story

High Energy

Gulf Power CEO Susan Story has had a quick rise to statewide visibility that's rare for both women in Florida and executives from her region of the state.

Charlotte Crane | 3/1/2005
As Hurricane Ivan approached northwest Florida on the afternoon of Sept. 15, Susan Story and some 40 other key Gulf Power Co. personnel evacuated their window-walled headquarters on Pensacola Bay for the company's storm center in its district office on Pace Boulevard, one of the strongest structures in town.

As darkness fell, Story, the company's CEO, monitored cone-shaped icons that danced across a video display of northwest Florida, signaling tornadoes spawned by the hurricane. She watched helplessly that Wednesday as the count of electrical outages climbed. Around 11:30, weather reports showed the storm wobbling from its earlier projected path toward the east -- directly toward Pensacola. Story realized the implications. "I thought then we would get the worst of it. I just knew."

Just after midnight, Ivan's Category 3 winds blew through the metal hurricane shutters of the storm center and shattered a window. Glass sprayed into the room, injuring a supervisor. Story removed slivers of glass embedded in the man's head, hands and knees, while others hurried to seal the windows with plywood to protect the room's vital computers.
"You hear her talk, and you want to say 'sign me up,' " says one executive after Story gave a presentation on military base closings.

A second window popped minutes later, and the team moved to the basement. Nobody slept. Story wondered: With a hurricane-rated building unable to withstand Ivan, what was it like outside? On Thursday, with winds still blowing at 30 to 40 mph, she accompanied a crew in a bucket truck to find out. Downtown was flooded, with water lapping against the front doors of buildings four blocks from shore. The storm had devastated Gulf Power's headquarters building, collapsing the ceiling in Story's office.

On Friday, she flew in a helicopter over Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key and Navarre. "It took my breath away: The rubble, the piles of debris, homes that looked like firewood."

Not a light shone in Escambia County. Computer trackings of the distribution system showed 90% of Gulf Power's 396,000 customers across its 10-county service territory were without power -- an unprecedented outage. Pensacola's Plant Crist, the company's main power generator, was off line, the first such occurrence in the history of Gulf Power. And because the transmission line from Alabama Power Co.'s Plant Barry in Mobile was down, there was no immediate way to start it up. Restarting takes electricity.

Crews from outside the state were already on their way to help with Gulf's manpower needs. But hurricane planners hadn't anticipated the logistical challenge of housing and feeding a big influx of workers with 90% of hotel rooms uninhabitable, restaurants closed and roads blocked. Eventually, some 4,000 workers from 23 states and Canada came to help.

The first three days after the storm, Story slept for a total of four hours. She didn't go home until Monday, five days after Ivan hit.

Story says she realized that in the ravaged community, maintaining hope would be nearly as important as restoring electricity. "So we took that seriously from day one." She never allowed herself to be afraid, she says. "As leaders you can't be."

A burst of energy
In Story's case, Ivan has been a rude interloper in a quick rise to statewide visibility that's rare for both women in Florida and executives from her region of the state. The Southern Co. expects executives in its operating companies to assume leadership roles in the broader community, says David Ratcliffe, Southern chairman and CEO, who himself leads the Georgia Chamber of Commerce this year as chairman. But Story has paced herself into Florida leadership at an exceptional clip.

Barely two years after being named CEO of Gulf Power -- the first woman and the youngest executive ever to lead a Southern Co. operating company -- Story is active on the boards of at least a dozen economic development or industry groups, including task forces on healthcare affordability and universal pre-K.

"Everyone remarks on how she is able to get involved in so many initiatives and endeavors," says Pamella Dana, director of the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, who frequently works with Story on state issues.

One such initiative is the Advisory Council on Base Realignment and Closure, a group tasked with marshaling support to keep the state's military bases open during the ongoing federal BRAC process. Since being appointed to the council by Gov. Jeb Bush, Story has been "tremendously effective in educating communities around the state on the importance of defense and the military," Dana says. A presentation last summer before the Council of 100, to which she belongs, was typical: Direct, no-nonsense, with masterful use of economic and statistical data and a staggering level of confidence and energy. "You hear her talk, and you want to say 'sign me up,' " said one executive who has seen the presentation.

Most recently, Story was tapped as the 2004-05 vice chairman of Enterprise Florida, the second-highest position (after the governor) in Florida's public-private economic development partnership. She's the first woman and the first representative from the Panhandle to hold that position.

She assumes the post at Enterprise Florida at a key juncture, says Enterprise Florida President and CEO Darrell Kelley, as a new governance structure pushes the board to take stronger positions in recommending economic development policy to the governor and Legislature.

Says Story: "There are a lot of opportunities in our area and our region and in our state to do things where we can make a difference. I get really involved in things -- energized. I could never be in a maintenance mode."

Numbers game
Story appears to have been able to both get along and get ahead her entire career. Her description of Albertville, the small town in northern Alabama where she grew up, perhaps reveals as much about her own experience and beliefs as about the town itself. It was, she says, "a fun place, pure in values, a conservative place that was very patriotic."

Story's father, Tom Nolen, was a pipe-fitter and a marine; her mother, Joyce, was a homemaker. "Neither of my parents went to college, but education was always important in my family. My father would say, 'you can do anything and be anything.' I believed him."

Whether by inclination or from encouragement, Story always did well at mathematics. She remembers, as a 7-year-old, sparring with her brother, Steve, now a missionary working on his doctorate, at a board game called Krypto. The winner is the player who can add, subtract, multiply and divide the fastest. In high school, she maintained a 98.3 average. She also was president of her senior class, homecoming queen and Miss Albertville High School in her senior year.

As an undergraduate at Auburn, she worked her way through college, tutoring athletes in calculus and physics during the school year, working summers as a reporter for Albertville's Sand Mountain newspaper.

A counselor suggested that her future career would be better served by switching majors from math to engineering. Story's first job out of college was as a junior engineer at an Alabama Power Co. nuclear plant. She's been with Atlanta-based Southern Co. or one of its units since, promoted through a dozen assignments over a 23-year span.

"Neither of my parents went to college, but education was always important in my family. My father would say, 'you can do anything and be anything.' I believed him."

Predictably, Story's progress bumped into gender-related issues on at least one occasion. Early in her career, a supervisor said she was doing an excellent job but that he reserved high-performance evaluation ratings (which resulted in higher raises) for men with families. He told others in her work group that he did not believe women should be engineers. A few months later, a higher-up supervisor queried her about the discrepancy between her good work and the mediocre reviews she had been given. She told him what she had been told. The biased boss was removed from a supervisory role, and Story was promoted.

Around the company, Story has become known as much for the energy she burns as the energy the company sells. John Hutchinson, Gulf's manager of public affairs, says that while past executives at Gulf have stayed more involved in the nuts and bolts of power generation, Story, the engineer, is more concerned with whether employees are getting good leadership and customers are getting good service.

It's important for leaders to help employees see themselves at their best, says Story. "Ninety-nine percent of people want to work hard and be part of an achievement. I think you can set up environments where people will motivate themselves."

Gulf Power was able to restore power to 95% of its customers -- all of those who could accept power -- within two weeks, a week sooner than originally estimated. Story credits advanced planning, teamwork, the loaned linemen and employee dedication. Others give her credit: She made regular visits to the crew sites -- the circus-type tent cities set up to house visiting electrical workers from other utilities -- thanking them, keeping morale up, says Bernard Jacob, company vice president for external affairs and corporate services.

Gulf Power spent about $141 million to replace or repair 6,200 miles of lines, 5,000 poles and 79 substations. Only about $17 million was covered by insurance.

Her presence in the initial days after the storm, keeping the governor informed, lining up resources from other Southern Co. executives -- providing clout as needed in dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- all made a difference in expediting recovery, says power delivery general manager Rich Mandes, who commanded the power restoration effort.

Restoring electrical service cost Gulf Power about $141 million, for tasks including replacement or repair of 6,205 miles of distribution lines, 5,000 poles and 79 substations. Only about $17 million was covered by insurance; since Hurricane Andrew, no insurer writes policies for transmission and distribution systems, says Story. And the company had only $28 million in its reserve fund, an amount which, in light of previous storms, had seemed sufficient. In 1995, Erin and Opal cost just $25 million combined.

Gulf Power borrowed short-term to rebuild and now is looking at options for refinancing that debt at a lower cost, says Story. One option is to issue bonds, but under state law, the Public Service Commission must obtain permission from the Legislature to authorize such a sale.

Helping the area fully rebuild will take time. In hardest-hit Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, initial damage estimates are $2 billion to $4 billion, but ultimately the cost could be half-again that much, says University of West Florida economist Rick Harper. Among the losses: Thousands of homes, either damaged or destroyed; a volunteer group working to rebuild the homes estimates the cost could hit $200 million or more.

Whether Story will be in the state when all the rebuilding is finished is a question whose answer depends on corporate succession within the Southern Co. For all Story's success, Gulf Power is the third-largest of the company's five utilities. And Ratcliffe, Southern's chairman, says, "I don't intend to move her in the near term."

But he also hints that it's essentially a matter of time before she rises again. "Susan has great future potential. I consider that she is being groomed by virtue of her experience there for a future leadership position. You can't be in a room with her without getting excited about what's going on. There's a contagious enthusiasm about her."

Susan N. Story

Age: 45

Florida Resident: Two years

Title: President/CEO, Gulf Power Co., Pensacola. Previously, she was executive vice president, engineering and construction services, at parent company Southern Co. She joined Southern in 1982 at Alabama Power Co.

Education: B.S. in industrial engineering, Auburn University; MBA from University of Alabama in Birmingham; Advanced Management Programme, Oxford University, England; post-graduate work: Finance, University of Alabama, and law, Birmingham School of Law.

Family: Met Joseph L. Story, a physician, almost 11 years ago, on a blind date arranged by her co-worker, his sister, and was married eight months later. The couple have no children. Joseph Story was born in Guntersville, Ala., a few miles from Susan's hometown of Albertville, and attended Albertville High School eight years ahead of Susan. His mother was the librarian at Susan's elementary school and later vouched for her, says Joseph, calling her "a good kid."

"I get really involved in things -- energized. I could never be in a maintenance mode."Off Time: She's taught Sunday school to teenagers for 20 years, currently at the Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church. She reads mysteries by Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and Patricia Cornwall, likes to golf but not to practice and relaxes best aboard the couple's 22-foot deck boat, "Doc of the Bay."

On Darwin: Story's personal beliefs -- reflected in her Sunday school teaching -- lean toward the creationist view. She sees no irony or conflict between those views and her scientific training as an engineer. It's a matter of faith, she says: "You cannot prove creationism from a scientific standpoint, but you also cannot prove evolution." Incidentally, she's read all of the Left Behind series.

Tactics: Story is also a World War II history buff, intrigued by the similarities she sees between military strategy and business strategy and by the psychology and sociology that produced Adolf Hitler. Among her recent business reads are two books about the fall of Enron. Story says she is amazed "at the hubris and the arrogance of that company."

Optimist: "My personal faith has a lot to do with my hope that things always can be better. We can make a difference."

Economic Bonus

When Southern Co. picked Susan Story as Gulf Power CEO in April 2003, Pensacola-area economic development boosters got an added dividend in her husband. Joseph L. Story was a popular, 20-year Birmingham family practitioner and an experienced entrepreneur who had co-founded a rehabilitation center. He's also a visionary in wellness medicine who has put ideas in motion at his new address.

"I retired here -- for three days,'' says Story, 53. "I love projects, creating things.'' He quickly teamed up with Baptist Health Care as its vice president of business development, then helped persuade Birmingham colleague and famed sports medicine specialist and surgeon James Andrews to consider sharing his vision: A world-class center for orthopedics and sports medicine at Gulf Breeze, across the bay from Pensacola.

Groundbreaking on the $30-million, 126-employee Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, in partnership with Baptist Health Care, will be in April. Story earlier launched another project for Baptist, Portofino Medical Spa, which opened last summer. The posh waterfront facility offers cosmetic surgery, spa services and aesthetic and anti-aging procedures. Story has a couple of other things in mind, he says. "They're going to change our area."

Tags: Around Florida, Energy & Utilities, Northwest

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