Mark Crosswhite never owned a slide rule as past CEOs and presidents of Alabama Power have who were engineers.
That’s because history majors and law students don’t need the tools engineering students need.
It’s worth noting that fact to appreciate how Crosswhite – one of the few non-engineers to reach the president’s chair at Alabama Power in its 100-plus-year history – answers a fundamental question about the utility’s mission.
While the obvious answer is to keep the lights on, Crosswhite delved into history.
“Fundamentally our purpose for being here is to make Alabama a better place,” said Crosswhite, 53.
“One of the first mission statements one of our founding godfathers made as he was leaving the company was for us to remember that Alabama Power was developed for the service of Alabama. That runs through our DNA as a company. Obviously we provide electricity to power homes, businesses, schools, our communities and our state. That is how people see us and correctly so. But at our center we are here to help make Alabama better.”
Crosswhite grew up in Decatur. As a teenager he worked summers at Point Mallard where among other duties he helped run the wave-making machine at the large pool. He attended college at the University of Alabama in Huntsville where he received a BA in history. From UAH it was on to the University of Alabama School of law.
In 2014 Crosswhite was named to succeed Charles McCrary as president and CEO of Alabama Power, a company with a storied history and considered among the ranks of the most powerful businesses in Alabama, if not the most powerful.
Alabama Power provides electricity to almost 1.5 million Alabamians spread across 45,000 square miles, basically two-thirds of the state beginning just south of the Tennessee Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. It employs almost 7,000 people. Among them are some of the most able lawyers and lobbyists in the state who represent the company’s interest in the halls of the Congress to the State House where its influence is considered substantial.
Alabama Power sales in 2015 of electricity totaled almost $5.5 billion. And, just in case you have ever wondered, the electricity that comes into your home or business when you flip the switch on comes by way of over 84,000 miles of line strung across over 1.5 million polls and towers dotted across Alabama’s landscape.
Crosswhite never worked on any of those polls or towers or stringing line or in the big machines called power plants. Unlike previous company heads – engineers who spent years working in various capacities inside the company, Crosswhite has taken a somewhat different path to the top.
After graduating from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1985, Crosswhite joined one of Birmingham’s most prestigious law firms: Balch & Bingham. There he was assigned to the firm’s energy and utilities division, a position that put him on a path to a professional relationship with Alabama Power and its holding company – Southern Company – for 17 years.
During those years Crosswhite married, and he and his wife had two boys.
For much of his 17 years at Balch & Bingham Crosswhite’s sole client was Alabama Power.
Eventually Crosswhite left the firm to become Alabama Power’s general counsel, coaxed over by then-CEO McCrary who saw in Crosswhite an exceptional man and mind.
“I would begin by saying two things about Mark,” said McCrary. “First, he’s off-the-charts-smart. The company does testing, aptitude testing from time to time and when Mark’s results came back, well like I said, off the charts. The second thing I would say is Mark is very calm. In any room where a decision has to be made and it’s a hard decision and egos and passions can show themselves.
“Mark is the calm guy in that room. And in a room with a lot of very smart people, Mark is about the smartest guy in the room but he does not wear that on his sleeve. He does not seek out the spotlight, but he’s also not afraid to speak up. Overall, I would say Mark Crosswhite is very comfortable being Mark Crosswhite. He knows who he is and he knows what he’s doing. The company is in good hands.”
Crosswhite said he loved his work as a lawyer in both private practice and for the company. But when Southern Company gave him the chance to leave that legal role and become president of Gulf Power in Pensacola in 2011 he took it.
“For years I had been deeply involved in helping with the decision-making process, in offering recommendations, courses of action, but I was never involved in the final decision-making and when the chance came to cross over from the legal side to the business side that is why I did it.”
“In so many ways, I think it has been a natural migration into this chair.”
That “strong likelihood” became reality in 2014 when Crosswhite succeeded Charles McCrary into Alabama Power’s top job.
This is his first news interview since assuming the post.
After two years on the job, Crosswhite didn’t hesitate to say what did not surprise him.
“The employees. We have great people at this company,” said Crosswhite. “I knew that going in, and there has not been one day in the last two years that I have not been reminded of how many great people we have here.”
And what has surprised him the most about the job?
“I would say the weight at times people will give to views coming out of this office.”
What’s the reason for that?
“It’s because Alabama Power is one of the most significant companies in the state,” said Crosswhite. “But until you sit here and go through it, well it’s a little hard to describe.”
How has this new position of influence changed him?
“I like to think it hasn’t changed me,” said Crosswhite. “But I do have more opportunities to speak in this role and I realize many people will listen. But I like to believe I am the same person I have been.”
So, where does Crosswhite think Alabama Power is as a company?
“The company is in a good space,” said Crosswhite. “First and foremost, when people turn on the lights the power is there. In terms of reliability, the (power) grid is reliable 99.97 to 99.98 percent of the time. Flip the switch it is always on.”
Crosswhite said the company has put $500 million to $600 million in capital improvements to make the power grid more robust, reliable.
“And I would add that the things that Alabama Power has focused on from the beginning continue to be our focus: the safety of our employees and the public, our focus on our customers, the communities that we serve and economic development. I would tell you those are the principal areas that Alabama Power has been doing for a hundred years and continues to do,” said Crosswhite.
Going back decades how Alabama Power generates electricity – and for that matter how all utilities do – has been of great concern. That concern has only increased as the earth’s temperature has increased.
In recent months’ new reports have shown significant decreases in emissions from Alabama Power’s plants and also the company using less coal to produce electricity.
Asked if those two things were directly related, Crosswhite paused before answering.
“Well, yes but not entirely, not completely,” said Crosswhite. “We have been seeing reductions in emissions since the mid-90s. Since that time … emissions are down about 80 percent compared to the mid-90s.”
Crosswhite said millions of dollars have been spent making generating plants cleaner, but that also the decline in the use of coal is a factor in reducing problematic emissions.
“Power plants have been getting cleaner, in the sense of emitting less. And in the fairly near term, we have started using less coal.”
Crosswhite said if one went back 20 years, emissions are down 80 percent. And go back 10 years you would find coal made up 70 percent of the electricity generation recipe.
Today that number is a little less than half and falling.
“The first quarter of 2016 we are using about 42 percent (coal) to fire our production of electricity,” said Crosswhite.
The drop in the use of coal, according to Crosswhite, is for several reasons.
“Environmental regulations have made coal more difficult to use and more expensive to use. And all that is while natural gas has become cheaper to use,” said Crosswhite.
In 2015 Alabama Power was 49 percent coal, 21 percent nuclear, 15 percent natural gas, 6 percent hydro and 9 percent purchased power, including wind energy, he said.
And in the next 10 years?
“In 10 years or so and knowing predictions are almost certain to be wrong, I would say we will see more natural gas usage assuming prices are stable. We will likely see more renewables, solar, wind, alternative energy. Much longer term, I think nuclear energy will increase as well, but who knows for sure, but the trend is that way.”
And the use of coal?
“Coal will continue to be an important part of the mix, but its use will be reduced,” said Crosswhite
In the area of economic development – a key concern and interest of the company – Crosswhite said that Alabama has lagged behind some other states in recovering from the Great Recession, but he believes conditions are improving.
“Job numbers are not fully back and I know of no one satisfied with it but we are seeing improvements,” said Crosswhite. “I think 2015 was a pretty good year for economic development in the state. We saw more than $7 billion in capital investment in the state and 19,000 jobs created.
“And I can say that Alabama is in the running to land several projects that could create a significant number of jobs – in the 1,500 to 2,000 range.”
Moving forward Crosswhite has a vision of his role.
“My job is to set direction and to be the chief spokesman of the company. How we do that may vary from time to time but for me what I want us to be seen as is a company very involved in community development, involved in economic development. How do we make Alabama better? … … It is in the end what this job is about.”