BG&E chief trying to mix business, social obligation

March 02, 1994|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

This has not been a good winter for Christian H. Poindexter.

As chairman and chief executive of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., he watched his giant utility bend under the weight of a record cold spell, leading it to impose rolling blackouts across the Baltimore region.

Customer ire was further raised by record high electric bills received in January and February.

And last week, BG&E became part of the story surrounding the deaths of nine people -- seven of them children -- who were victims of a fire in a house where the electricity had been cut off.

But instead of retreating behind corporate barricades, Mr. Poindexter has taken the offense, offering payment plans to ease the pain of crushing bills and thanking customers through television commercials for their understanding during the crisis.

Now, in an effort to prevent other horrific fires and miseries, he has decided that his company will turn the power back on for those who can demonstrate that they are hardship cases.

"It was my decision," Mr. Poindexter said yesterday. "I was very saddened that nine persons lost their lives."

He made it clear, however, that the restoration of service was a stopgap measure until a more comprehensive solution is found.

"I want to get us out of the business of being the final arbiter in making a decision" to cut off electricity, he said. "Before the next winter, I hope to have some better arrangement between us and all the social agencies."

The problem of selling electricity to people who cannot afford it has been a particularly vexing one for BG&E. The company has set up special programs to encourage people to seek state assistance and it contributes $400,000 annually to fuel funds. It points to $16 million worth of bad debts that it carries on its books as evidence of its efforts to keep people on the system.

One of its latest efforts has been to offer incentives of up to $144 year to get low-income customers to pay their bills on time.

And in a separate offer, trying to ease the burden on its customers, BG&E said in late January that it would allow customers to pay 70 percent of their bill for January and spread the remaining 30 percent over the next several months interest free.

Mixing a hard-headed business approach with a sense of social obligation, Mr. Poindexter credits his upbringing in a small Indiana town with showing him that devoted customer service as well as a helping hand can be good for business.

He was raised in Odon, Ind., a town of 1,500, where his father was a banker with a penchant for customer service. "Every night he would preach to me about customer service," Mr. Poindexter said.

A 1960 graduate of the Naval Academy, he spent seven years in the Navy, in which he was a pilot and was trained in the service's nuclear program.

He joined BG&E's nuclear program in 1967 and became the project engineer at the company's Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in 1973. In 1974 he added the position of chief nuclear engineer in electrical engineering.

At the age of 55, he is the product of BG&E's traditional management style. He worked his way up through the ranks, holding a variety of jobs, ranging from nuclear engineer to company treasurer.

Now, with 26 years of service at BG&E, he clearly sees the utility's fortunes as interlinked with those of Baltimore.

"As Baltimore and the community goes, so goes our company," he said.

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