Susan Story: Power Player
Power PlayerGulf Power CEO Susan Story Has Emerged as a Statewide Leader on Economic Development, Education, Energy and Taxation Issues
By Gary Fineout
For the past two years, Susan Story has been building her retirement home on a sliver of land she owns on the deep blue waters of Pensacola Bay.
No, the hard-working, hard-charging 48-year-old chief executive of Gulf Power Company isn’t planning to retire anytime soon.
But Story, who spent most of her childhood in northern Alabama, said that she and her husband, Dr. Joe Story, have decided that no matter what happens next, they will always call Northwest Florida home.
“We just love it here,” said Susan Story, whose corporate offices near downtown Pensacola overlook the same waters of Pensacola Bay. “Whatever else happens between now and retirement, which is many more years down the road, this is where we want to retire. We decided to go ahead and build our retirement home while we were young.”
But don’t expect Story to start slowing down just yet.
Focused on Customers’ Needs
In the five-and-a-half short years since she took the helm at Gulf Power, the former nuclear power plant engineer has become a force, rising to leadership positions in powerful organizations such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and being called on by Florida leaders to help guide the state’s future.
Story has merged her love of science and math to become an advocate for change in education, while also having a passion for economic development and the military that landed her a ride in a fighter jet. She was tested by Hurricane Ivan, whose savage fury in 2005 knocked Gulf Power’s main power-producing facility off-line and plunged hundreds of thousands of customers into the dark.
“Susan Story is one of the most effective business leaders in the state because she has high-voltage energy, an impressive intellect and fantastic people skills,” said former Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed Story to serve on a panel charged with helping Florida maintain its military bases.
And while Story has given her time on everything from tax policy to helping redevelop Pensacola’s downtown area, she also remains fully engaged in tackling the challenges confronting the power industry, including making energy cheaper while also encouraging ways to make the production of energy more environmentally sensitive.
One example: Story has pushed her company to do a survey to find out what percentage of their income Gulf Power’s customers spend on their electric bills. While Story says power companies need to come up with ways to generate power that take less of a toll on the environment, she says electricity must remain affordable.
“The biggest thing I want to make sure is I never lose sight of what our customers’ needs are, what they are living through,” said Story, who notes that ultimately it is her company that has to turn off the power if someone can’t pay his or her bill.
“We have to make sure that we take care of the environment and that electricity is there when they need it and that they can afford to buy it,” she said. “That is a huge challenge . . . If you only think about the environment, people aren’t going to be able to afford electricity; if only think about cost, you are going to destroy the environment.”
Story expects the use of biomass as an alternative energy source to grow in the years to come in Northwest Florida, and when it comes to the use of renewables, she says Gulf Power is “in the game.” For example, the company already offers net metering – a process in which a customer can earn credit on his or her bill – to anyone who produces electricity from renewable sources.
Gulf Power also is launching its EarthCents program, which includes a three-year pilot program to offer $1,000 incentives to customers who switch to solar water heaters, as well as a comprehensive multimedia education and consumer awareness program aimed at both students and consumers.
But Story says that one big way power companies can help the environment is by working with businesses on energy-efficiency to lower demand. In 2008, Gulf Power helped a McDonald’s restaurant install a geothermal system that relies on installing pipes underground as part of a heating and cooling system that takes advantage of the Earth’s relatively stable temperatures to lower utility costs.
‘I Pretty Much Knew She Was Driven’
Story’s focus on the pocketbook stems from her own childhood, during which her family at one time “lived paycheck to paycheck.”
Growing up in the Sand Mountain region of northern Alabama, Story’s mother and father worked at a cotton mill before he father finally landed a job as a pipe fitter. Her father, Tom Nolen, would play games with his children, including a card game called “Krypto,” that requires players to quickly add, subtract and multiply numbers.
Games such as these, as well as an eighth-grade algebra teacher, steered Story into math and science. But this didn’t mean that Story spent all her time immersed in books. She was so well-liked and popular that she was elected Carnation Ball queen during her senior year in high school.
“She always treated everyone the same, which didn’t always happen with high school kids,” said her younger brother, Steve Nolen, who is a pastor and missionary.
Story’s love of math, including trigonometry and geometry, eventually led her to engineering school at Auburn University. While in college, Story earned money by first working as a reporter for her hometown newspaper and then tutoring other students. She graduated from Auburn in less than four years.
“I pretty much knew she was driven. Even from a young time in life, she had a vision of what she wanted to do,” Nolen said.
Climbing Up the Ranks
At a time when there weren’t many female engineers, Story weighed job offers and ultimately decided that her future was in the power industry.
“I wanted to work for a company that what they did made a difference,” she said.
Since that fateful day, Story has steadily risen in the ranks of Southern Company, the utility giant that owns Gulf Power, as well as Mississippi Power and Alabama Power. She has done nearly everything in the utility business, from working as an engineer at a nuclear power plant – a job that forced her to climb and crawl all through the machinery – to more straightforward corporate jobs such as customer operations and human resources. And yes, she has even climbed a pole with the linemen responsible for keeping the power lines humming.
Her steady climb in the corporate hierarchy wasn’t complicated by her gender, Story said. If anything, Story said she found more resistance due to her age – becoming a company executive at 33 years old and a CEO at 43.
“I got more feedback about my age and more pushback about my age,” said Story, who is the only woman in a CEO position with Southern Company. “I don’t think it’s been a detriment (to be a woman.)”
Story now leads a company that serves more than 425,000 customers across Northwest Florida. It generated nearly $1.26 billion in revenue, with a net income of $84.1 million, in 2007, according to its annual report for that year.
Hurricane Ivan Delivers a Blow
Story had been on the job a little more than a year when Hurricane Ivan, a dangerous Category 3 storm, slammed into Gulf Shores, Ala., and devastated the entire Pensacola area, spawning killer tornadoes as far east as Blountstown and Panama City Beach.
Story and other Gulf Power executives had moved from their glass offices near the bay to a secure, supposedly hurricane-proof building elsewhere in Escambia County, only to have the 140 mph winds of Ivan blow out the windows when the storm hit in the middle of the night.
The storm’s ultimate damage to Gulf Power was immense, knocking its main power-generating facility off-line, blowing down countless wires and plunging the entire region into darkness. The challenge to get the lights back on was made even worse by the fact that Hurricane Ivan had cut off Pensacola from the rest of Florida, because it damaged the bridges that link the city to the rest of the state.
“It was a life-changing event, not just professionally but personally,” said Story, who worked non-stop with little sleep for three weeks.
One of the early decisions that Story made to respond to the crisis was normally unthinkable: She agreed to let in members of the news media watch the company’s meetings at its storm center so they could understand the monumental task that Gulf Power confronted in getting the lights back on.
Story also made another decision: to keep any doubts or fears to herself while dealing with the hard-working employees racing to get power restored.
“It was a lot of chaos and turmoil,” she said. “You have to stay calm; you have to stay strong as a leader.”
Her composure through the crisis won her praise.
“She led Gulf Power through the brutal hurricanes in an impressive way,” said Bush, who was governor when the state was hit by Hurricane Ivan and seven other storms during the remarkable hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005. “She created the standard of transparency and effectiveness in communicating with her customers.”
Gulf Power, and its sister companies under Southern Company, learned from the experience and swiftly responded to the damage in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. The company can roll out self-contained units capable of sheltering and feeding employees that are sent to storm-ravaged areas. Gulf Power was on the scene in Alvin, Texas, following Hurricane Ike and restored power to that town.
“People came and helped us, and we need to help them,” Story said.
Raising Northwest Florida’s Profile
Story went beyond just working with her own company on recovery efforts. She got involved in a community-wide effort called Rebuild Northwest Florida that has helped return 1,700 families in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to safe homes.
It’s just another in a long line of groups and organizations that Story has squeezed into her busy day.
She just wrapped up a year as the chair of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the statewide association that represents business. She has served on the board of Enterprise Florida, the public-private economic development agency, and on the board of Maritime Park Associates Inc., an organization put together to help guide the development of a baseball stadium, maritime park and retail space on 30 acres of waterfront property.
Pensacola leaders say that Story’s elevation to high-profile positions have helped remind other Florida leaders about Northwest Florida.
“Sometimes we get left off the map,” said Evon Emerson, president and CEO of the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. “She has brought a prominence and presence to Northwest Florida back to other parts of the state.”
Story sits on the board of directors of the James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank that favors private school vouchers and government deregulation, and on the advisory panel of Florida “Step Up for Students,” a group that supports vouchers for low-income students.
She says she believes in the James Madison Institute’s espousal of such ideas of “free markets” and “personal responsibility” but also believes in a “safety net,” and that there is a need for some types of regulation to “provide structure and prevent abuse.”
But her main reason for getting involved with so many groups is relatively simple: She says more needs to be done to revamp education – including getting more American kids interested in math and science – because that’s what will help Florida get more jobs.
“When you look at all the things that I and others in the company are involved in, they are for the purposes of strong communities,” Story said. “That’s good for everybody, and that’s good for our business . . . The jobs are going to come where the people are. It’s not the old economic development model (in which) you’ve got cheap land and incentives and you can get whoever you want.”
Story says that Florida’s strength in the future will be its small businesses and that the state needs to do more in encouraging university research and working with the military to encourage commercial applications of military projects.
Her civic involvement hasn’t been limited to business organizations. Bush appointed Story to an advisory panel charged with helping Florida brace itself for possible military base closures, while former Florida Senate President Ken Pruitt appointed her to the Florida Tax and Budget Reform Commission, a statewide panel that meets every 20 years and has the power to place amendments directly on the ballot.
Story wound up being one of the few members of the panel to vote against a controversial proposal to eliminate school property taxes and replace them with a combination of either sales tax increases, budget cuts or other revenue sources. Her vote was noteworthy because she had initially supported the measure, but then changed her mind.
“Whatever boards I am on and whatever decisions or votes I am called upon to make, I always try to listen carefully and weigh the facts and circumstances on all sides before casting my vote or making a decision,” Story said. “I also typically verbalize, for understanding, the reasons I reach the decisions that I make. And that is true regardless of whether it is in the minority or majority view. What is most important to me that my decisions are well thought and reasoned, and that above all I maintain my integrity.”
Bush said that Story was instrumental in helping Florida emerge from the Base Realignment and Closure process relatively unscathed because she took her job on the state’s advisory panel seriously.
“Rather than just attend a meeting or two, she went to every base to meet the commanders and community leaders,” he said. “It helped us tremendously, and the net result was that we increased jobs and missions.”
Striking a Balance
Story has a strong affinity for the military, saying that joining the U.S. Marines helped save her father’s life when he was young by providing him a way out of a bad family life. She still regularly meets with base commanders and was named an honorary commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing in 2004, which earned her a ride in an F-15 fighter jet.
And even with all the statewide organizations Story is involved with, she and her husband, Dr. Joe Story, also find time to help out with Pensacola charities. In addition, Susan Story spends Sunday teaching a class to high school students at Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church.
“They have really gotten involved in the community, more than they need to,” said Collier Merrill, who is in the real estate and restaurant business in Pensacola and served with Story on the Maritime Park board. “Joe and Susan have taken it 10 extra steps . . . I hope they never leave, because they have been a good team here in Pensacola.”
Joe Story, a former physician who now heads up research efforts at the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, admits it can be hard to keep a balance between professional and personal life. He says he and his wife try to spend spare time exercising, boating or golfing. Susan Story also likes to spend time with her two dogs.
“I try to get her to balance her life,” Joe Story said. “She’s a hard worker. One of the things I get onto her about is she doesn’t say no well.”
But Story can say no to one thing: She has no desire to enter politics or leave behind the industry that has propelled her to her office overlooking Pensacola Bay.
“I’m a geeky engineer, I really am,” Story said. “I love power plants and power lines.”