BGE chief has held to merger course as if oblivious to the angry clouds 'Great deal of pressure' on Chris Poindexter

April 22, 1996|By KEVIN L. McQUAID | KEVIN L. McQUAID,SUN STAFF

If the stress is getting to Chris Poindexter, the Baltimore Gas and Electric chairman and chief executive shows few signs of it.

He exhibits no sign, for instance, of any pressure generated by a pending merger with the Potomac Electric Power Co., a partnering that would create the nation's ninth-largest power concern and double BGE's size.

He displays no signal that he is anxious, even though federal, state and Washington, D.C., regulators could significantly alter the structure of the planned $15.4 billion utility, or reject it completely.

There is no sense of any turmoil stemming from anticipated deregulation or heightened competition -- changes that will -- and are -- forever altering BGE and the once-staid, monopolized utility industry.

Calm and affable during his first interview since the Pepco merger was announced in September, Mr. Poindexter reveals little of the business maelstrom in which he is caught.

"It's been a period of rapid change, and I've had to make a lot of decisions about how we've done business for a long time in light of external pressures in the environment that we live in," Mr. Poindexter said. "But I like to think we're staying ahead."

The latest storm clouds will dissipate tomorrow, after BGE completes its annual shareholders' meeting. At least Mr. Poindexter, a Naval Academy graduate who has spent 29 years at BGE, knows what to expect there.

If a special stockholders' session held late last month to approve the Pepco merger is any indication, Mr. Poindexter can expect to be barraged with questions and statements from shareholders.

Shareholders who are upset that BGE would be changing its name to Constellation Energy Corp. in March 1997, angry that the company's headquarters would move to Annapolis from downtown, frustrated that Pepco stockholders would receive a 20 percent premium for their shares after completion of the merger while BGE owners would not.

There are other problems.Problems such as the persistent efforts of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to break BGE's 180-year history of being union-free.

"Mr. Poindexter is an individual who believes that no one else has the right to challenge his authority," said Gary A. Heald, an IBEW representative. "He doesn't understand what a union is about, and he doesn't understand that people are the greatest ** asset to a company. He says he's not anti-union, but he is."

And there's the continuing campaign by the Maryland Alliance for Fair Competition, a consortium of businesses that has plagued BGE's attempts to expand into new markets through deregulated subsidiaries such as appliance repair, alternative energy or chilled-water air conditioning.

"BGE used to be such a great compa-ny prior to Mr. Poindexter taking over," says Larry L. LeDoyen, chairman of the Maryland Alliance. "I don't know whether it's just that times have changed, or that the company has changed because of Mr. Poindexter."

There is also no sense of apprehension over the threat of more than $100 million in potential fines that could be levied by the state's Public Service Commission in connection with outages in 1989 and 1990 at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant. Nor is there a hint of tension about $100 million in probable decommissioning costs associated with converting the Lusby, Md., plant to a non-nuclear generator, should the company decide not to seek a renewal when the license on the first of the two reactors there expires in 2014.

For his part, Mr. Poindexter insists that he is not anti-union, but pro-BGE. He insists he feels no animosity toward the organizers, and will work closely with the IBEW if employees decide ultimately to be represented.

He insists that unregulated subsidiaries are necessary in an era when income growth from the regulated business will be limited. The problems at Calvert Cliffs have dissipated, thanks to new control systems, he says, and the plant is functioning so well that a license extension will likely be requested.

"I have a lot on my mind," concedes Mr. Poindexter, who was elected chairman and chief executive in July 1992. "Most days, I have fun, but there are some days I'd just as soon have behind me."

Mr. Poindexter acknowledges that he is not the most popular of recent BGE leaders with employees, the result of unprecedented layoffs during his tenure, aggressive cost-cutting, his opposition the union-organizing effort on the grounds that it would make Constellation less flexible and other decisions intended to make the company more competitive.

As part of the Pepco merger, for instance, it is planned that Constellation Energy would eliminate 1,350 positions, or 10 percent of its work force.

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