Pepco Holdings Chairman Joe Rigby might have been an onion farmer, had things gone differently.
Instead, the down-to-earth 57-year-old Philadelphia Phillies fan became an accountant, earned his stripes working his way up through South Jersey utility companies, and last week engineered a $6.8 billion deal to sell the century-old Pepco — with more than 2 million customers stretching from Washington to New Jersey — to Chicago-based nuclear power giant Exelon.
The sixth of seven children of a carpenter and a homemaker, Rigby grew up in the southern New Jersey town of Sicklerville, in the house his father built. He worked summers picking, packing and cleaning scallions, which helped pay his way through Rutgers University, and he earned a master’s from Monmouth University.
His parents taught him two things, he said. “If you work hard enough, you can probably fix almost anything. And tell the truth, so you don’t have to look over your shoulder.”
A self-described “so-so accountant,” Rigby has worked in all facets of the utility business, from accounting to human resources. He became chief executive and chairman of Pepco Holdings in 2009.
Rigby, who announced his retirement earlier this year, lives in downtown Washington with his wife, whom he met in his junior year of high school. The two have been a couple for 42 years and have two grown children.
I caught up with Rigby on Thursday afternoon, before he headed north to New Jersey to help mulch his son’s yard.
Twelve summers picking and packing scallions on a family farm in South Jersey?
I loved that job. I was outside, in shape. You could actually see what you got done. In the morning, you could pull these scallions out of the ground, put them in crates, load them onto the truck. Then drive them to another building, where they were skinned and bunched. I made $1 an hour working 11 hours a day. We washed them and put them in other boxes and would drive them to Philly. The first time I drove over the Walt Whitman Bridge, I was 14. It was absolutely illegal. That’s the only crime I ever committed.
Is there a lesson there somewhere?
Enormous respect for people who work with their hands and depend on their body to get the job done. When my guys are out there in the bucket truck and it’s hot, cold, windy and storming, I have an enormous respect for what they are doing.
Were you surprised when Exelon chief executive Chris Crane called you about an acquisition?
He and I saw each other in December at an industry meeting, and he made a comment to me that he would like to get together and talk. The next time I heard from him was the day after I announced my retirement. I was in my Jeep and he called me.
Is a company better when it is locally owned instead of being owned by a Chicago company?
The world’s a lot smaller. There is going to be a head of Pepco Holdings here. Somebody in the building responsible for the day-to-day operations.
But not a local board of directors?
I don’t know what they are going to do with the board.
Do you ever lose power in your Penn Quarter home?
One time. The reliability is really good. The lines are underground.
Ever get angry phone calls in the middle of the night?
Yes. From political leaders. They say, “Joe, what’s going on? What’s happening? Can you give me some information I can tell my constituents?”
How would you convince an average person that working for a utility is interesting?
Have you ever been to a neo-natal care center? We are bringing the power to make that happen.
The second answer is: We are in the process of changing the technology and the way we bring power. We are putting a smart grid in place. Let’s say your power is out on your beautiful tree-lined street because a branch pulls down a feeder line serving 2,000 people. We can put a switch on that line and reroute the power so that 1,900 homes come back on within seconds.
What skills are the most useful in your job?
It’s important to manage with facts, to surround yourself with really smart people and to let people say what’s on their mind. More often than not, the answer is in the room.
Was there a job that propelled you on the track to be a chief executive?
In 1994, I was working in our treasury department at Atlantic Electric. I was tapped on the shoulder to become a project manager of Atlantic Transformation. I had a chance to tap into skills I didn’t know I have. I found myself making presentations to the guy who was to become the CEO of the new company.
Did you ever have a mentor?
It was a guy we hired as a consultant in the late 1990s. He was from Wales, a retired DuPont executive. I was 44. I never forget him describing the officers of the company as “the cardinals.” He said, “Someday, Joe, if you become pope, you will need the cardinals.”
What do people say when they hear that you work for Pepco?
If they ask, I usually say I work in management. Sometimes they roll their eyes. But sometimes they say, “I see you guys are working hard and things are getting better.”
What is your biggest success?
When our company came under a lot of criticism, a lot of frustration, and people were angry. We set upon to fix that problem and to improve things. We made a lot of progress, but we aren’t done yet.
Looking back, are there any things you would do differently?
We sold our generation assets in 2010. In hindsight, we would have done that sooner. I wish we had sold the plants sooner to ramp up spending on the wires business.
How closely do you monitor the weather?
I get weather alerts all the time on my iPhone. We get full reports every day. I am constantly looking at the map to see if there is something happening. We subscribe to several weather services.
What are you going to do next?
Travel a little bit. I would like to get on the board of a company. I have seen what it takes to be a really good board member. It’s nose in. It’s feet out.
What do you do to relax?
My wife and I have a date night every week.
At a restaurant. I am not going to tell you which one.
Tell me something about yourself that would surprise people.
I threw the first pitch at a Phillies game in 2000. We had a big advertising contract and they let some poor puke like me come out. I was scared. I had 80 employees there. I knew if anything went wrong . . . . So I had a guy come with me and I threw 40 throws in a hallway. I threw it right over the plate.