Jacksonville, FL — JEA’s interim CEO and Managing Director is now transitioning to the permanent post.
JEA’s Board scored Aaron Zahn highest among three finalists, who were interviewed publicly by the Board Tuesday. Contract negotiations will now begin, to drop interim from his title. The vote by the Board was unanimous.
The search for a new CEO started in April, when then-CEO Paul McElroy stepped down, while saying the utility needed a different set of leadership skills moving in to the future. Board member Aaron Zahn resigned his seat in order to seek the interim CEO position, for which he was selected later that month. Zahn restructured that in to an interim Managing Director and CEO position while elevating the then-Chief Financial Officer Melissa Dykes- who had also applied for the interim position- to the position of President and Chief Operating Officer.
Zahn made it clear as he was applying for the interim position that he intended to apply to be JEA’s permanent CEO. He was chosen as one of four finalists, but one- Frankie McDermott- since dropped from the process. The other two finalists were Cris Eugster, who is the Chief Operating Officer for CPS Energy in San Antonio, Texas, and Pamela Hill, the Senior Vice President of PowerSecure International and former CEO of Bahamas Power and Light.
By a random drawing, Eugster was interviewed first. He spoke about the opportunity to create a partnership with the City to create a city of the future- an effort he believes the utility should lead. He says he has a history of creating partnerships, responding to issues, moving solutions forward, and solving problems in an innovative way. He was rated highly in innovation and had strong references in the power industry, although he has not previously served as a CEO.
The Board questioned Eugster at length about his commitment to Jacksonville, and specifically to this position. Eugster said there is a lot he is excited about with the opportunity to take on leadership in an emerging and transforming community, but added that he would not be able to definitively commit to the position today. He said he would need to speak with partners in San Antonio, and it would be a couple of weeks for him to respond.
The second interview was with Hill, who talked about experience specifically in public utility. She says she has spent time already driving around Jacksonville to start seeing the community, and would intend in her early days to listen and get a full understanding of various needs and the direction for the future. Hill said she would be prepared to accept the job, if the offer is extended to her.
Finally, Zahn made his case that he has followed the direction he outlined when he was selected as interim CEO, and that direction has yielded success. He says repairing and rebuilding partnerships with everyone from customers to state and federal parties was a priority. JEA has invested more in the septic tank phase-out, they’ve extended their partnership with the City, and he says he thinks they can do even more financially for the City in the future.
“The last seven months, we’ve set the stage together for any of us to be successful,” he says.
If given the job, he vowed to focus on ensuring JEA can adapt to change, finding opportunities to cut risk, and continuing to build a ten-year strategic plan.
Zahn was immediately asked by Board Chair Alan Howard how he plans to overcome suspicion and distrust among the community that he was the predetermined choice for the permanent job. He said he will continue to act as he says and show results, and trust will be built through those actions. He says he has been listening to stakeholders through this process, and would continue to listen and talk to boost relationships.
He admitted that he doesn’t have any background in utilities, but doesn’t see that as an obstacle.
“Saying the CEO of JEA requires a lot of traditional utility experience pre-assumes that that CEO will not listen to the team. I submit that the next CEO should listen, collaborate, and be a leader in the community as well as in the organization. We should face tough questions together, and deal with it head on, far more than being dictatorial,” Zahn says.
Instead, he encouraged the Board to consider his skills and how those could be used to push the utility in to the future.
“We are not the utility of yesterday, and JEA requires someone that has skill sets that are perhaps different than those that were enjoyed of the leaders of JEA in the past,” says Howard
Ultimately, Eugster’s unwillingness to commit to taking the job if it were offered to him led the Board to all but eliminate him before scoring even started. Several mentioned being thrown off or even blindsided by Eugster saying he would have to have discussions with partners at home before possibly accepting the job, with one even raising the notion that it appears he would want to use the job offer as leverage in Texas. While all Board members spoke highly of Eugster’s qualifications, they questioned his commitment to the city and community.
There was a motion put forward to not even score Eugster on their matrix, but the Board ultimately decided to keep him on the paper, with the understanding he could be eliminated still, even if he scored highest.
In the end, Eugster and Hill scored the same at 381 points. Zahn was scored at 420.5 by the Board.
“It’s extremely important that the person we put in to the CEO role of JEA has a commitment to Jacksonville, and I do believe that’s a quality that Mr. Zahn has demonstrated both today in his interview, in addition to the seven months that we’ve had to observe him,” says Board Member Kelly Flanagan.
“Community was the theme today, and that was important as JEA is a huge asset in this community, and that Mr. Zahn is vested in this community- not only raising his family here, but he has gone above and beyond to demonstrate that in his seven months,” says Board Member April Green.
Because Zahn has previously noted a lack of experience in the utility sector, he reorganized JEA’s management structure when he became interim, by adding a President/Chief Operating Officer. One Board Member raised the question whether that COO position should be contracted and Board approved, to ensure the utility was getting the operational expertise it needs. Ultimately, that was voted down, with the Board not wanting to encumber the CEO now or in the future from carrying out business as they see best for JEA.