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Bill Coley is constantly electrified by his job running the Carolinas' largest utility

By Kevin Brafford

Bill Coley is engaging, delightful and witty. Business acquaintances say he's smart and boasts impeccable ethics. Employees say he's friendly and compassionate. His son says Dad is his best friend.

All agree that the Duke Power group president is a busy, busy man, one who possesses the lasting power of the Energizer Bunny and the patience of Job. Fitting it is that since parent company Duke Energy was formed following a merger with PanEnergy Corp. in 1997, two of the three words most often associated with him are “power” and “energy.”

“I'm constantly amazed at the pace he maintains,” says Patsy Baker, who would know. She's worked at Duke Power for nearly 25 years, all but the first of those as Coley's administrative assistant. “I know how taxing it is just trying to put together his schedule. I can't imagine doing all those things and being in all those places.”

Coley can, and he looks you squarely in the eye when he tells you how much he enjoys it. “This is not an unexciting business that has a lot of routine work,” says Coley, who'll turn 58 on the 24th of this month. “It's challenging and fun, and has never been more so.

“If you look at the times our industry is in right now and you're not excited, you'd better check your pulse.”

His zest is one of the traits that set Coley apart, according to Mike Coltrane, the CEO of CT Communications in Charlotte. “He's very high energy,” Coltran says, “and it's infectious. He's helpful and he always has suggestions, but yet he offers them in a constructive way.”

Coley never has strayed far from his North Carolina roots. Born to Alice and the late Lloyd Coley, he was raised in Belmont, years ago a small community that today is squeezed from an overstuffed Charlotte to the east and a hungry Gastonia to the west.

He was a sandwich himself, with an older brother (Terry) and a younger sister (Jane) who were taught that hard work and education were the keys to a successful life.

“My father was in the heating and air conditioning business,” says Coley. “He had a lot of technical aptitude, and I think I got a lot of that from him. Thinking back, I really can't recall a time when I wasn't interested in engineering and technical work.”

By the time the second semester of his senior year at Belmont High School (now South Point) rolled around, Coley had a couple of specific interests: designing and building hi-fi systems, and Jane Hall.

He had known Jane for years and his family had known her family longer than that. “Jane's mom was an English teacher,” he says, “and she taught me, my younger sister, my older brother and my mother.”

Think this man isn't on top of things? “We had our first date on Dec. 26, 1960,” he says. “We went to the Manor Theater (in Charlotte) and saw `Swiss Family Robinson.' ”

The couple never parted. She went to Salem College and majored in religion. He enrolled in Georgia Tech's cooperative program, which enabled him to go to school for half the year in Atlanta and work the other half of the year in Charlotte. “That sure made it easier on Jane's and mine's relationship,” he says.

It happened that Coley's co-op was with Duke Power. He viewed the opportunity as a means to an end — and the end was only a few years down the road. “At that time, I had no intention of working in the electric power industry,” he says. “When I was in high school and college, the space program was really attractive and creating a lot of excitement.”

As time passed, he found excitement within Duke Power, through his peers and the knowledge and skill that he gleaned each day. “The company had a great heritage, a great history,” he says. “The people I worked with were wonderful. The whole place just had a great feel.”

Coley applied for full-time employment at Duke Power early in his senior year (he would graduate with a degree in electrical engineering) and within weeks learned that a job was waiting for him if he wanted it. While he interviewed with other companies, including Burlington Industries and Hewlett-Packard, Duke Power “just felt right.”

The year was 1966, and William Alfred Coley had just signed on as a junior engineer at Duke Power's Marshall Steam Station in Charlotte. On that July 16th, he and Jane signed on as husband and wife before about 250 witnesses at First Presbyterian Church in Belmont.

Nearly 35 years have passed, and Coley says both relationships feel as right as ever.

He knows what you're thinking, that working for the same company during a lengthy career surely has had its boring moments. He says you're wrong.

“If you look at my career path, I've actually changed jobs 20 times through the years,” Coley says. “I've been in almost every area of the company. I've been in nuclear fossil production and helped start up an information systems department. I've been in transmission operations, distribution engineering, retail services, marketing organization — and I had the international and unregulated businesses for a period of time.

“I have had, without a doubt, the best of both worlds. I've been able to change jobs, yet stay with the same company.”

He's also stayed the same person, according to Baker. “The one thing that I've told people through the years is that I knew Bill when he was nobody,” she says, “and that he hasn't changed since he's become somebody. They say the true secret to success is to be true to yourself, and he's done that.”

Coley spent his first 16 years at the Marshall Steam Station, holding down a variety of tasks in the production department and serving six of those years as manager of the engineering services section. He was named manager of information system planning in 1982, vice president of operations in '84 and vice president of the central division in '86. In February 1988 he was appointed vice president of distribution and eight months later was promoted to senior vice president of power delivery.

In July 1990, Coley was elected to Duke Power's board of directors; one month later, he was named senior vice president of customer operations. In November of the following year, he was promoted yet again, this time to executive vice president, customer group. In 1994 he was named president of the Associated Enterprises Group, a position he held until being promoted to his current role following the merger with PanEnergy in June 1997.

Getting that deal done, he says, was the product of nearly a decade of strategic planning. “We started in 1988 in seriously looking at the future of the industry,” he says. “We felt that it would be deregulated at some point in time, and that we needed to be in midstream gas — not exploration and production and not retail gas — but in the gas gathering and processing, transportation, marketing and wholesale.”

It wasn't as if Duke Power was struggling, certainly since it was one of the country's largest investor-owned electric utilities with revenues of more than $4 billion and some two million customers in North and South Carolina. But Duke's powers that be envisioned an uncertain future and began looking at midstream gas companies. Houston-based PanEnergy, Coley says, topped the list. “We met initially with the thought of a joint venture, not a merger or acquisition,” he says. “As we talked more and more with them, we realized that we had the same vision and very similar cultures. I'm amazed we were able to put together two companies with such ease.

Coley says today's Duke Energy is very much a growth company and not what people look for in a typical utility. “We have revenues of just under $50 billion,” he says. “We're involved in businesses all around the globe. We have investments in Asia and South America.

“I'm biased, but I do not know of a company today in the energy sector that has the aggregate of skills in the form of 22,000 employees, the hard assets, the technical expertise. We are well prepared to handle whatever comes our way.”

William Hall Coley is unquestionably cut from his father's mold. He answers the phone in his suburban Denver, Colo., office as “Bill Coley,” and the caller can't help but pause for a second.

This Bill Coley is 25 and carving an impressive niche for himself at Agilent Technologies, a spin-off of Hewlett-Packard. He was known as “Big Bill” in the family growing up because his daddy didn't like the sound of “Little Bill.”

The son remembers a fond childhood for him and his sister, Mary Elizabeth, now 29 and an English and history teacher at Providence Day School in Charlotte. “They brought us up to a strong sense of values,” he says of his parents. “We were taught that there was a certain way to act and to treat people.”

Big Bill remembers being encouraged to explore the aspects of engineering and technical work at an early age — like father, like son. “We'd build these circuit boards together and make AM radios,” he says. “We'd start playing around and he'd say, `Let's go down to Radio Shack' and off we'd go.

That was the early 1980s, and his father's long hours at Duke Power were already beginning to mount. “I remember that he was always busy at work, but yet he always took time out to go to all of my baseball and basketball games when I was in the Pee Wee leagues,” he says. “I know that was painful, because we were so awful.”

When it came time to choose a college, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and MIT topped the list. “I was looking for an engineering-type school, and Dad sort of influenced me a little,” he says.

So Georgia Tech it was, in pursuit of first a bachelor's, then a masters, degree in technical engineering. A couple of summers brought work at Duke Power, and a full-time position probably could have been a job option out of school.

“I had offers from companies in North Carolina, Georgia, California and Colorado,” he says. “I sort of wanted to go out on my own and do my own thing, but I wasn't sure. Dad told me frankly that he thought the opportunities in California and Colorado were better for me.”

For now. William Hall Coley married the former Jenny Su in Atlanta last April 1. At some point, they'll return to the Southeast, because twice-a-week phone calls back home just don't cut it — certainly not when your father's also your best friend. “It's Dad and then there are like 10 blank spaces and everyone else,” he says. “He was my best man at my wedding.”

That's a day Big Bill will never forget, but for more reasons than you might expect. “Just before the ceremony, we were back there behind the scenes signing the wedding certificate with the minister,” he says. “I was really, really nervous, but he kept cracking jokes and reassuring me. When we out in front of everybody, he sensed that I was still nervous, so when my groomsmen were walking up, he cracked on them, too.”

Last year, all of the Coleys got together in Wyoming for a couple of weeks for vacation. This past Christmas, the Colorado Coleys were given roundtrip plane tickets by the North Carolina Coleys for a week's stay at the latter's new second home in Pinehurst.

“Golf is one of Dad's hobbies,” he says. “I keep asking him when wants to retire and start playing more golf — he and Mom play together a lot.”

The retirement question is one that many want to know. “He doesn't need the money and I know he loves doing things with his family and getting away from the office,” Baker says. “But he also loves his job, and it's still fun and challenging to him.”

Coley doesn't mind talking about birdies and bogeys, but it's evi-dent that a heaping of daily nourishment come from his work. “There are all sorts of ways to get satisfaction out of your job,” he says. “You get satisfaction by delivering the earnings to the shareholders that you told them you would. You get satisfaction in customer service. And there's a lot of satisfaction in delivering your product, a vital product, to the public.”

He sees the public — his customers — at various speaking engagements. Many share opinions and most want his. “The question I hear most is, `What happened in California and can it happen here?' I tell them that I don't think it will, that I am confident the regulators and legislators in North and South Carolina won't let us get in that position.”

Coley says California would have experienced its recent brownouts and blackouts regardless of deregulation that it suffered from an imbalance between supply and demand. “Between '96 and '99, California's load increased by 5,500 megawatts,” he says. “The total new generation added in that time was 600 megawatts — just over 10 percent of its growth. The math just doesn't add up.”

Duke Power maintains energy reserves in the Carolinas of 15 to 17 percent. That, coupled with an increased awareness of the impact of electricity, makes for a bright future. “People who are not in our business have become more educated about our business,” Coley says. “They understand the correlation between growth and electric supplies and growth and the economy.

“It takes six-tenths of a kilowatt hour to produce one dollar of domestic gross product. That's a proven correlation over time, and that's why you see countries like China trying to grow their electric supply 25 percent a year — they know it's a way to grow the economy.”

Baker says Coley can speak effectively and efficiently on every facet of the company and the industry. “He's very quick,” she says. “He can read thick documents quickly and be ready to march.”

Twenty-four years together breeds familiarity and aids the daily decision-making, she adds. “I'll read his mail, and it's amazing how often I'll know what he wants done with it even before he sees it. I liked the days before cell phones better, because generally now when he gets in the car, he calls. We're almost in contact more when he's traveling.”

That's most of the time. Coley faced his own March Madness — a travel itinerary that included three jaunts to Washington, five days in Germany, three days in Atlanta, three days in Florida and day trips to Hickory and Columbia, S.C. And it wasn't an usual month.

“I go more now than I did 10 to 15 years ago,” he says, “and I really don't mind it. The biggest frustration is not having enough time to spend with customers and employers. They're the ones who've made us what we are.”

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