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A Native Son Of Hartford Returns With A Big Charge

By Dan Haar

May 17, 2012

BERLIN - - There are two types of CEOs: The ones who clearly enjoy the banter that comes with the job, and the rest. John Lundgren at Stanley Black & Decker is in that first group, along with Mark Bertolini at Aetna.

I won't name any of the second group, but if you work for them you know who they are. Utilities are known for, shall we say delicately, a more reserved bunch.

Enter Thomas J. May, who until Wednesday morning was, for most of us, the faceless boss of NSTAR, that Boston company that merged with Northeast Utilities five weeks ago.

"People don't realize that I'm a poor kid from the streets of Hartford," said May, now the NU CEO, addressing reporters and photographers for the first time as part of his get-acquainted rounds. "I grew up in the shadow of Trinity College and it's a big kick for me to be coming back as the CEO of one of the largest corporations."

May moved to Wethersfield during middle school, graduated from high school there and went off to Stonehill College in Massachusetts, class of '69. He heads what is now one of the nation's largest electricity and natural gas delivery firms.

Now that he has a co-headquarters office in downtown Hartford, just a few blocks from where he was raised, everyone wants to know what he thinks about Connecticut's two-storm debacle of last fall, and what the company will do going forward.

"I'm a nut about customer service," May said. "One guy, or a smart management team, can't get the job done. You need all 9,000 employees."

May didn't say anything about the company's plans that we haven't already heard, but he left no doubt who's in charge, with a vision that calls for anticipation. "I tell our employees that one of the reasons Wayne Gretzky was so successful is that he skated to where the puck was going," May said, in the first of, by my count, five sports metaphors in four sports.

The way to build systems and rebuild trust, besides "communication, communication, communication," is, in his words, "blocking and tackling you've got to build that trust over time."

May, naturally, declined to criticize the Connecticut Light & Power and NU management, and made it clear that the storms, especially the freak October snowstorm, were rare and brutal. "I don't want to Monday-morning quarterback anyone," he said.

But he added, "We will be ready next time for this....we're putting systems in place right now that meet those objectives."

That includes figuring things out with cities and towns, which CL&P was trying to do after the Tropical Storm Irene when the October snowstorm hit.

"There's a balance," he said. When a big storm fells trees, "the towns want us to send crews in with chainsaws. I don't have lumberjacks. I have linemen."

How many of those linemen he will eventually have, and more to the immediate point, how many executives, is an open question that May and his crew are working on right now. A pre-merger agreement with Connecticut officials states, "the aggregate number of line workers will not be reduced as a result of the Transaction, either in Connecticut or in Massachusetts."

That's not true of managers, some of whom could be out of a job. As May pointed out, NU has already gone from two CEOs to one. (Former NU CEO Charles Shivery is nonm-executive chairman.)

"We're in the process of integrating now," he said. "We haven't made those decisions. That's what we'll be working on through the summer."

Afterward, I ran into May in the lobby of the sprawling CL&P headquarters, and he said the integration was slowed by unexpected merger approval troubles in Massachusetts. The upper level of management is mostly set one exception being the CL&P chief to replace Jeffrey Butler and over the next two weeks, department heads will be in place.

As for cuts, he said, "We don't have any preconceived number. This is about getting it right."

And in a remark that we can only hope holds true over time, he added, "It's a bottom-up process."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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