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Executive Profile

Full of

Duke Power's new president, 
a former top educator, is electrifying the old utility just as she stimulated her students

'I had the best job in the country as president of Central Piedmont, 
but I could not see myself staying there or at any community college for 20 more years
I was presented with this unique opportunity to go to Duke, a company for which 
I had the greatest respect and for the people who worked there. I am a Presbyterian, 
and my belief that this was the right plan for me to follow was strong.'

By Phil Kirk

Her classmates knew there was something special about Ruth Shaw nearly four decades ago. She was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by the Class of 1966 at Greenville’s J.H. Rose High School. That’s she done — and in several arenas, no less. She first made her mark in North Carolina as president of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, then built on that success during the past 12 years at Duke Power, culminating with her most recent promotion to president last January.

When she left CPCC, skeptics wondered how Shaw would adjust from being the top leader of a diverse community college to being a member of a basically all-male leadership team at Duke. But Bill Grigg, who teamed with fellow Duke executive Bill Lee to recruit Shaw to one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, says he had a gut feeling that she would make the transition seamlessly.

“She possesses many virtues: decency, loyalty, sensitivity and integrity,” says Grigg, who has since retired. “She is smart, articulate and highly regarded in her community. She brings tremendous energy, stamina and enthusiasm to everything she does. She always gets the job done, whatever it is.”

It has often involved community service, an area where’s Shaw’s mark is indelible. While president of CPCC she became the first woman admitted to the Charlotte Rotary Club and became its first female president. She also has served on the boards of the United Way, the Children’s Services Network, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and the Mecklenburg Boy Scout Council. “She is a recognized civic leader in Charlotte — someone the community views as a ‘go to’ person when the need is great,” says Wachovia chair and CEO Ken Thompson.

“Independent” is most often used in discussions about Shaw’s rise through the ranks of teaching and administration in several colleges and then through the leadership positions at Duke.

She and her sister Joanna spent their early years in Danville, Va., where their father, Ross Gwynn, managed farms and the Smith Douglass fertilizer company, and their mother, Frances Gwynn, taught school. “Danville was a joyous place to live when I was growing up,” Shaw recalls. “My sister and I were taken care of by a housekeeper who lived two miles away. The story is still told about my walking two miles to her house by myself when I was 4 years old.” To be sure, independence began at a young age for Shaw.

When Shaw was 10, the family moved to Greenville, where her father managed farms from the well-connected Blount family and her mother continued to teach. “It was a pretty idyllic, regular childhood,” she says. “My parents gave me a lot of space as a child, and I enjoyed a lot of independence. Greenville was a great place to grow up. It was a typical college town and ‘small town USA.’ ”

After graduating from high school, Shaw had designs on going away from home to attend college. However, her father had suffered a stroke four years earlier and her mother asked Shaw to stay at home and enroll at East Carolina. As an incentive, her mother promised her a car. “I have no regrets whatsoever,” Shaw says, noting that she drove to the ECU campus in a white Austin-Healy 3000 convertible.

While at ECU, she worked as a reporter at the Daily Reflector in Greenville. After graduation, she taught English at nearby Martin Community College. “I did not set out to be a teacher, but I took a lot of English and planned to write a great American novel,” she says with a smile.

Her learning and teaching experiences taught her the value of a strong liberal arts education that she continues to advocate today. “My education and early teaching were great preparation for everything I have done since,” Shaw says. “It helped to develop my analytical abilities and my critical thinking skills.”

She went on to earn her master’s degree at ECU and spent time training two-year community college teachers how to teach English. Still yearning to learn more, she moved to Austin and worked toward her Ph.D. in higher education administration at the University of Texas. That achievement, coupled with growing confidence, provided the impetus for numerous leadership roles in the Texas state school system, culminating with a stint as a community college president of the downtown campus in the Dallas Community College district.

Fate, timing and personal relationships brought Shaw back to North Carolina in 1986 as president of CPCC, the state’s largest community college. “My mentor in Dallas was leading the search committee work for CPCC and recruited me to apply,” Shaw says. “I was surprised to get the job — female community college presidents in North Carolina were rare at the time.”

She was chosen from a field of 140 applicants to become the school’s second president. During her time at CPCC, enrollment grew from 21,000 students to 37,400. Among her many accomplishments were forming effective business/education partnerships with IBM and Toyota and buying land for satellite campuses because there was no land available at the downtown campus.

Her position, combined with her volunteer work, allowed her to cultivate relationships with the powerful in Charlotte, such as Jim Woodward, the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “I met Ruth shortly after coming to Charlotte in the fall of 1989,” Woodward says. “I quickly found myself working with her on various not-for-profit boards and became impressed with her sense of community and extraordinary communications skills. She impressed me with the breadth of her knowledge and this marvelous sense of public responsibility.”

Shaw’s talents drew the attention of others, among them Duke Energy executives Grigg and Lee, who began wooing her in the early 1990s. To the surprise of many, they succeeded.

“I had the best job in the country as president of Central Piedmont, but I could not see myself staying there or at any community college for 20 more years,” Shaw says. “I was presented with this unique opportunity to go to Duke, a company for which I had the greatest respect and for the people who worked there. I am a Presbyterian, and my belief that this was the right plan for me to follow was strong.”

While Shaw trusts in her ability to solve any challenge put before her, she is also a realist. “As a person who assesses risk, I knew if I went into the business world and was not loved or did not love the change, I could return to higher education,” she says.

Shaw’s career at Duke began in September 1992 when she was named vice president of corporate communications. Two years later, she was named senior vice president of corporate resources. From 1997 until her recent appointment to the top job at Duke Power, she served as executive vice president and chief administrative officer. Her responsibilities included corporate services; human resources; environment, health and safety; public affairs; information management; global sourcing and logistics; diversity, ethics and compliance; and market and brand strategy. In that role she also served as a member of the company’s policy committee and as president of the Duke Energy Foundation.

Stick Williams, a longtime Duke executive, confesses that Shaw surprised him by being so effective so quickly. “I expected Ruth to seriously struggle with the transition from Central Piedmont Community College to the engineering-dominated and technologically complex Duke Power Co.,” he says. “But what a quick study she was. Very few people work as hard as Ruth Shaw — she has done an amazing job preparing herself to take on the exceptional responsibility of leading Duke Power. She has remained a fun person to know and to be with on this climb. She is a great communicator and conversationalist.”

“People enjoy spending time with Shaw,” echoes Wachovia’s Thompson. “Ruth’s deprecating style and warm sense of humor make her great company.”

Shaw is not one to take credit for her success. In fact, she credits her mother with challenging her to be independent and persistent. Her mother is still her closest and best friend at age 90. “She lives at the Pines in Davidson and I call her every day. She is sharp as a tack and watches a lot of C-Span and tells me what is going on and what books to read.”

Her management style plays to her strengths. “I am inclusive and open,” she says. “I listen and engage people directly as a part of my leadership team. I look at leadership as service and understand what we need to do in our business. We must pay attention to servicing our customers.”

That is not accomplished by sitting in a downtown office or in front of the computer or talking on the telephone. Shaw believes in getting out in the field with employees and customers — especially during stressful times such as ice and snowstorms and hurricanes. Every quarter, she meets face-to-face with the top 100 managers at Duke Power. Since reaching the top at Duke, she has conducted 10 regional meetings and has listened and spoken to more than 1,500 Duke employees.

Shaw also knows the value of meeting one-on-one with customers and she does a lot of that, in addition to holding quarterly dinner meetings with customers and elected officials. “It is of extreme interest to me what is happening to our customers,” she says. “I am listening hard to what they need, what they want, and what their opinions are. I put a real premium on listening.”

Her involvement in the Charlotte community can be traced to her family upbringing, she says. “Making a difference is what rings my bell,” Shaw admits. “I happen to be lucky enough to be working for a company that has citizenship as a part of its culture.”

The same is true for her continued involvement in education. “We recognize the critical role that our educational institutions play in the quality of life and in the future of our society,” she says. “We are going nowhere unless we educate our people. We care deeply about the future of the Carolinas and we certainly know the importance of education.

But all is not work in Shaw’s busy life. Family is very important. One son, Henry Fleming, is 35, and he and his wife Candice have a son, Emerson, and a daughter, Carter. Henry is a partner with Accenture and they live in nearby Davidson. A second son, John, is 21 and studying biology and chemistry as a junior at UNC-Charlotte.

Husband Colin Shaw retired as a senior administrator with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College two years ago. “He is a hands-on volunteer,” his wife says proudly, noting that he works a couple days a week with Habitat for Humanity. He also is a naturalist at heart, spending a lot of his time working the 2 1/2 acres where the Shaws live in Davidson. “He is also very knowledgeable about fine wines and has quite a collection.”

Shaw’s circle of friends is wide. In fact, she and several friends have gone to a “rustic cabin with no modern conveniences” in Colorado for each of the last 20 years.

Crandall Bowles, CEO of Springs Industries, counts Shaw as a friend, dating to when she first read about her when Shaw was serving as president of CPCC. “She seemed very dynamic,” says Bowles. “But when I had the pleasure of working with her at Duke Power (Bowles was on its board when Shaw came to the company), I realized dynamic was an understatement.

“She’s very smart — always a few steps ahead of everyone else — and very articulate. I can always count on her to help me out, whether in business, volunteer or political efforts. Plus, she is down to earth and funny, and a great asset to Charlotte and to Duke Power.”

Most of her friends know that one of Shaw’s favorite hobbies is horse riding. What they all may not know, however, is that she was forced to wear a hard plastic body jacket for more than four months last year after suffering a fractured vertebrae in a fall.

But true to her personality, she never considered not riding again. “Absolutely not,” she says. “To the contrary, I couldn’t wait to get back on.”

Shaw’s faith in herself, her family and her co-workers never wanes — a testament to her personal faith, she says. In a devotional she gave at First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte in January, shortly after the announcement of her presidency at Duke, she said, “Every year that I live, I am more aware of those who have mentored me, supported me and prodded me. I have been blessed by my birth in America to caring, middle-class parents, and to a mother whose strong ethic lives with me. I have been blessed to love and be loved by a good man and to have two fine sons who manage to be both independent and close.

“All things are by the grace of God, and I stand on a foundation built by others,” she added. “I am thankful and grateful, to God first and always, and also to those who went before, and those so close beside me.”

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