Women in Power: Three leaders of electric companies in Tampa Bay share tales of working in a man’s world

In what is traditionally an extremely male-dominated industry, the Tampa Bay area breaks that tradition. With three local electric companies being run by women, this edition of the “Women of Influence” series is significant.

Bridgette Bello, CEO and publisher of Tampa Bay Business & Wealth, interviewed the panelists in front of a live audience at the Godfrey Hotel & Cabanas Tampa. Below is an excerpt from that discussion, edited for brevity and clarity. (See more photos from the event below.)

The panelists

• Lisa Johnson, CEO of Seminole Electric Cooperative.

• Catherine Stempian, president of Duke Energy Florida.

• Nancy Tower, president and CEO of Tampa Electric Co.

Presenting Sponsors

AV Partner

Hospitality Sponsor

Gold Sponsor

Let’s start with you, Lisa. Please share your journey to the C-suite and what the view looked like once you got there.

Johnson: As I look back on my journey, I see the common theme was nothing is common. I’m an engineer, by training, and I ended up in the power industry sort of by mistake. Frankly, it was the best job offer that I had when I got out of school and I was very much motivated to be in a place where I could be independent and where I could contribute all the things I had just learned after a very robust education in engineering school.

I spent time in the first part of my career being an engineer and that was great. I got to work on a lot of different things with a lot of different people. Many of them became mentors of mine. But that journey was a lot about exploring new things. One day, somebody came into my office and said, we need a maintenance supervisor. I’m like, what’s a maintenance supervisor? It was my first shot at leadership and my first shot working with a team of people, managing a crew of 22 pipe fitters and welders, all men, most of which were coming up on their 30-year anniversary. And I was 26 and a half … [Audience laughs.]

I bet they were thrilled by that. [More laughter.]

Johnson: I could talk a lot about that, but I won’t. I just mentioned it because it was an opportunity that was pretty scary, very much unknown. It really started a journey of, again, looking for opportunities that were different, so that I could learn new things and every time I took a new chance, that turned into another chance. I think, in a nutshell, it was all about letting the journey sort of come to me as much as it was me seeking it out. But the learning and the curiosity piece was key.

And the willingness to step up and say yes. Catherine?

Stempian:  I think you’re going to hear a lot of common themes, even though we’re all different. I appreciate this kind of story because I’ve got a sophomore in college right now and she has no idea what she wants to do. I will say that she’s following a very lucrative major in psychology with a minor in French. [Audience laughs.] I tell her that it isn’t really about what you’re studying in school, necessarily.

If you can understand people, what motivates them and know how to talk with them, then you got it. You got it good, you got it better than most.

It actually took me a while to learn that because I started out in a different kind of technical field, in law. I went to law school and I did the whole law firm thing. I was a litigator where you just have to win the next case and you keep moving up.

I had a boss at AT&T in New Jersey and he gave me a lot of trust and authority, much more responsibility than I should have had at my age. He eventually left the company and I went and did something else. I followed my husband to Colorado. And then, as things happen, he found me a few years later. He wanted me to come work for him. And so, I did. I kept doing different things, kept getting different responsibilities, kept trying new things. And I like to say that I’m a mile wide and an inch deep, so I learned a lot of different things along the way. It was a bit of pushing myself to take some leaps of faith that I wasn’t sure that I could do. In the end, it has brought me to an amazing place at Duke Energy Florida. The view from the top is that I couldn’t be here without all the people around me. I am so fortunate to have an amazing team around me and they make me look good every day.

That’s awesome. How about you, Nancy?

Tower: I spent 20 years with [TECO’s] parent company, Emera, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and in 2016 Emera, purchased Tampa Electric. That’s how I ended up here.

I just thought this was a wonderful opportunity. I was hired as controller and one day after working there a few years, the then-soon-to-be-CEO came to me and he said, “If you ever want to be anything more than a finance person, you’ve got to get into operations.” He sent me to a power plant. I spent a year there learning the power generation operations and then I spent three years running what we call our wires business, what we call the transmission and distribution system.

When I was appointed to lead that business, I thought they would think the CEO had taken leave of his senses, putting an accountant and a woman in that role. But that was a huge role for me. And I spent three years there. I ended up being there in the mergers and acquisitions practice, and led the transaction to buy TECO.

I would echo Catherine’s words. I have a wonderful team and I’m grateful every day for the 3,500 people that are at Tampa Electric. But, as I said to someone the other day, you never stop thinking about the business and you have to like that to do this job.

You guys made me realize, while we were chatting before the event, that it was a man in every instance that believed in you and gave you that opportunity to excel, and that’s because for the most part, it’s men in those positions to do so. Nancy, one of the things you said when we spoke was that there’s a study out there about the promotion of women to management levels and what happens to companies that don’t. Can you elaborate on that topic?

Tower: There’s a study that talks about the broken rung in hiring and the point they make is that if you look at the data, it’s about that first promotion. That first promotion to a manager role is really important. And so that caused me to look at our numbers and it is disappointing. We don’t have enough women yet in senior roles and we need to do a better job.

Johnson: The minute a woman—or anybody that is different than maybe what the majority is in a particular environment—takes that step and starts to become a role model, you set the course for others. I think we sometimes take that for granted and don’t realize how important it is for people to see someone that looks like them in a role that they might aspire to eventually.

Ladies in the room in leadership positions, it’s your responsibility to pull and bring another lady along with you. Men in the room in leadership positions, take a chance on us. We’re pretty good, obviously.

How do you go from being an engineer to learning the accounting side or an accountant learning the engineering side on a subject matter such as utilities?

Tower: I think you just have to learn as much as you need to learn. I have learned a bit of engineering perhaps. But I think you just need to know how to run a business. I remember the first day standing in my office saying, OK, now I have this big organization, what the heck do I do now? What are we trying to accomplish? What’s our budget? What are the objectives? And you sort of just go back to first principles and say, what are we trying to do and who are the really good people that are going to help us do it? I think whatever your discipline is it’s really about running the business, at the end of the day.

Stempian: I agree, 100 percent, but I’ll also add, ask a lot of questions. I never go into a room thinking I’m the expert on anything. I’m not. I’m usually the least-knowledgeable person about the topic that we’re going to talk about. Sometimes, they may come across as stupid questions and sometimes the stupid questions are the ones that make people go home and think about it a new way. You have to get past the fear of “I’m going to look stupid.”

Johnson: Pay attention to when those opportunities present themselves, because sometimes you don’t realize it at first. I’ll give you an example.  I was a year out of college and working for a small development company in Philadelphia developing, designing, engineering, and ultimately building small power plants. It was a privately held company and it was small. We were in a really close environment and so you really couldn’t help but hear what other people were doing or getting engaged in some way.

Across the cubicle from me was a really sharp financial guy. He did all the pro forma work. He did all the financial construction of putting the deal together, if you will. I listened to him and every once in a while, he’d come over, and ask me for information. We developed a dialogue and we got to be really good coworkers. One day he came in and he said, “I’m leaving. I’m going back to Texas. I’ve got this great job offer.” And I said, “Well, who’s going to do all this stuff?” He said, “You are. We’ve been doing this long enough. You know what you’re doing.” And he left the next day. ♦



TBBW’s “Women of Influence” series is an exclusive, invitation-only, monthly event that brings together some of the Tampa Bay area’s top business leaders to meet and mingle.

This event was presented by TD Bank; Shumaker; LEMA Construction and Duke Energy. The gold-level sponsor was RSM. The hospitality sponsor was the Godfrey Hotel & Cabanas Tampa. TBBW’s event production partner is DCE Productions.

Events begin with a cocktail reception for about 120 guests, followed by a live interview of local C-level executives who provide insight into their personal lives, careers and views on issues affecting the business community. The interview is conducted by Bridgette Bello, TBBW’s CEO and publisher.

Partnering with TBBW on this event provides an opportunity to network with the area’s business elite, generate new business opportunities, and increase brand awareness.

For information about event sponsorship opportunities, email Jason Baker at [email protected].

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