RICHMOND -- Jack Harvey Ferguson once described himself as being "pretty easy to work for" but in the same breath acknowledged that he "can be a hard-nosed SOB."

Those who have watched Ferguson's transformation of Virginia Power from one of the dogs of the utility industry into a consistently top performer say it was one of the few times the rangy Coloradan was only half-correct about anything.

"He is not easy to deal with," said William J. Dircks, a former staff director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"He's a very hard-nosed, tough manager," added Darrell G. Eisenhut, the NRC's former deputy director of nuclear reactor regulation.

Nonetheless, Dircks, Eisenhut and other energy experts credit the turnaround at the nation's 14th largest utility largely to the force of Ferguson's sometimes prickly personality, one that brooks no criticism of him or any of the company's other 14,000 employes.

Over the past seven years, the tall, bearded, chain-smoking engineer has been Virginia Power's most tireless and visible promoter, taking any challenge to the utility's performance record almost as a personal affront. In the process, Ferguson has imbued the once-lumbering corporate giant with new vitality, has gained the ear of Gov. Gerald L. Baliles and has been courted by the White House to become a director of the troubled Tennessee Valley Authority.

In December, when a steam pipe burst at a Virginia Power nuclear plant in Surry, fatally burning four construction workers, Ferguson was one of the first to tour the accident area. "I can learn more by seeing than by hearing about it," he explained.

Three months later, at a news conference announcing the utility's request for new rate increases, Ferguson went out of his way to attack those who were still suggesting that the Surry accident was caused by mismanagement.

"I am here today to put my credibility on the line as the chief executive officer of one of the best operators of nuclear units in this country," Ferguson said.

When Ferguson, 55, arrived in Richmond in February 1980 after a globe-trotting career at General Electric, Westinghouse and other large power companies, Virginia Power was on the ropes.

OPEC's oil embargo had driven energy prices through the roof, the company's North Anna 2 nuclear plant was barely functioning, and the utility's image was at an all-time low. Virginia Power officials would not even put the corporate logo on their gleaming new headquarters building in downtown Richmond; in what may be the ultimate tribute to Ferguson, they finally relented this month.

Today, North Anna and Surry are consistently rated by federal regulators as two of the nation's most efficient nuclear plants, in terms of operation and maintenance costs, and Virginia Power's stock is worth three times its 1982 value. Meanwhile, the company's rates, which in 1980 were nearly 30 percent higher than the national average, are now below the norm; the typical American family has a monthly electric bill of $74, while Virginia Power households pay an average of $69.

In addition, the company says increased efficiencies at its coal-fired and nuclear plants have helped bring down the annual cost of those fuels -- which are factored into customers' bills -- from $1 billion in 1980 to $750 million in 1984 and $825 million this year.

"Vepco was one of the utilities the staff liked to kick around," recalled Eisenhut, an 18-year veteran of the NRC who now is a private consultant. "Jack Ferguson certainly has guided and directed the utility to where it is now recognized as a solid performer."

For Ferguson, who thrives on challenges, these days of relative stability are somewhat bittersweet. The only reason he declined the TVA job, he said, was because of "onerous" conflict-of-interest rules that would have required him to relinquish his investment and pension benefits in Virginia Power.

Even with an annual salary approaching $300,000, running Virginia Power "is not nearly as much fun today as it was five years ago," Ferguson said. But, he added, if "somebody takes a cheap shot at us, I'll still get irritated."