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BG&E;'S NEW HANDS-ON CHIEF Utility will need all of his skills to compete in '90s


Christian H. Poindexter, the man slated to be the next chairman of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., is an old hand at making fast, dramatic business decisions.

This trait dates back to when he was in high school and was raising steers near the small town of Odon, Ind. One day, while watching his steers, he saw one of them choking on an apple. "I could see the profit going down the drain," he recalls. He and his father jumped over a fence and sprinted to the suffering animal; Mr. Poindexter jammed a broom handle down the steer's mouth, pushing the apple down its throat and saving that part of his future profits.

Such quick response will come in handy beginning in January, when Mr. Poindexter will take over the helm of the country's oldest utility. BG&E; will face a new environment in which power companies will generate less of their own electricity and customers will be encouraged to conserve more. Flexibility will be a precious commodity in the traditionally staid industry.

"I think we've demonstrated we can change quickly," he said in a recent interview. "Our world is changing, and we want to drive that change."

Yet, he wants to retain aspects of BG&E;'s traditions, such as training and promotion from within and taking the long view rather than focusing on the next quarter.

Mr. Poindexter, 53, is a product of BG&E;'s traditional management style. A 25-year veteran of the company, he worked his way up through the ranks, holding a variety of jobs, ranging from nuclear engineer to company treasurer.

For at least the last year, he had been seen as the heir apparent to George V. McGowan, who announced in April that he will step down as chairman and chief executive officer at the end of the year. The company's board of directors made it official on July 17.

The selection was made without any outside search, unlike what other large companies have done in such cases. "There really wasn't a need to," said Paul G. Miller, a company director for the last 12 years. "Any utility would be hard-pressed to find a better-qualified candidate."

Mr. Poindexter indeed has an impressive resume. 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.

He switched gears in 1976, moving into the money side of the business as general supervisor of finance. In 1978 he was elevated to treasurer and assistant secretary, finance. In 1980 he moved back to the technical area, taking the job of vice president of engineering and construction.

In 1985 he started BG&E;'s non-regulated subsidiary, Constellation Holdings Inc., which is involved in real estate development, independent energy production, elder care and financial investments. He was president and chief executive officer of Constellation until 1989.

That's when he became vice chairman of the company, a job that last year paid him $348,508. He also received 7,800 shares of BG&E; stock on Jan. 1, worth $266,175 at that time. Restriction on the stock prevent him from selling it for five years.

In all of his different assignments, he gets high marks from his boss, Mr. McGowan, who has been his immediate superior for most of his career. "He has demonstrated the ability to function well under a lot of pressure and adverse situations," he said. "He has all the abilities and skills to do the job."

Not all of Mr. Poindexter's efforts have been unqualified successes.

Constellation, wounded by the crash in commercial real estate, has not lived up to BG&E;'s expectations and earned less last year than it did in 1985.

Mr. Poindexter said the company got into real estate knowing that there would be cycles, but he concedes that Constellation would have passed had it foreseen the steep drop. But the

company is willing to ride out the downturn. "We don't feel we have to unload anything at fire sale prices," he said.

But even without an upturn in real estate, Constellation profits should rise in coming years on the strength of its energy production division and investment operation, Mr. Poindexter said. And despite its past performance, he said, the subsidiary is more important than ever because of the uncertainty in the utility business.

His biggest challenge as vice chairman has been to deal with problems plaguing the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.

The problems at the plant started on Sept. 15, 1988, when a maintenance worker died trying to rescue another worker from a nitrogen-topped water tank. Then, in December 1988, the plant was put on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's "watch list" of plants needing special attention.

The NRC put the Calvert Cliffs plant on the list because it found a laxity in safety procedures and a management emphasis on production over safety. The plant was not removed from the list until Feb. 5, after federal regulators were convinced that the company had tightened safety procedures and had completed a long period of safe performance.

Compounding these problems, from May 1989 until last summer, one or both reactors at the Southern Maryland plant were out of service because of mechanical or safety problems. As a result, rates were boosted to pay for more-expensive replacement power. But People's Counsel John Glynn, the state official who represents rate payers before the Public Service Commission, charges that the increased rates are due to BG&E;'s mismanagement and that shareholders, not consumers, should bear the $500 million cost. The case is still pending before the PSC.

The company's reaction to the Calvert Cliffs problems has been criticized for being less dramatic and far-reaching than other companies' reactions in similar circumstances.

"There is no doubt they were slow to recognize and correct the problems," said Thomas E. Magette, manager of nuclear programs for the state Department of Natural Resources from 1987 to 1990.

Other utilities companies reacted to problems at nuclear power plants with firings and sweeping reorganizations, Mr. Magette said. But BG&E;'s response was "shifting of the same people into new positions," he said.

Mr. Poindexter defends the company's handling of Calvert Cliffs, saying the utility was taking a long-term view of the problem and wanted to improve the performance of its own leadership as part of its long-standing human resources development program. "I felt pretty confident that we had a strong team," he said. "It was a very considered decision."

While the company did bring in outside people for key positions, it avoided wholesale personnel replacement. Mr. Poindexter said didn't see any reason to put a "a lot of people in charge that don't understand the company's history."

Despite his criticism, Mr. Magette, who now works for the federal Energy Department, said Mr. Poindexter was always cool under pressure and easy to work with. "I always enjoyed dealing with him," he said.

Richard I. McLean, the current manager of nuclear programs for the state Department of Natural Resources, has only praise for Mr. Poindexter. "He's an affable person and accomplished manager," he said.

Mr. McLean is particularly impressed by Mr. Poindexter's hands-on approach and his openness to discuss any problem.

The problems with the Calvert Cliffs plant had hurt the company's attractiveness as an investment, according to Gary F. Hovis, director of utility research for Argus Research Corp., an independent research company in New York. But now that the problem is over, Argus has put a "buy" recommendation on the company's stock.

"Its one of the best-managed utility companies in the country," Mr. Hovis said. "I think it will fare much better with Chris Poindexter. I think he's a good manager, a good leader and probably one of the top utility executives in the country."

While Poindexter intends to stand by some BG&E; traditions, he does expect a change in the company's culture as it competes in a reshaped industry.

In the past, utilities built power plants and sold the electricity at a rate that was determined to make it a specific profit. But in recent years, non-utility companies have challenged the power company's monopoly on electrical generation, and their role will increase if pending legislation is passed by Congress.

The growth in power consumption will also be slowed as the result of new programs to encourage customers to use more energy-efficient equipment. At the same time, the utility companies are eyeing the prospects of new markets in natural gas or electricity-powered vehicles.

The company is already promoting the use of natural-gas vehicles, and will dedicate a natural-gas-vehicle refueling station Aug.13 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to be used by state-owned cars.

To compete in this new environment, Mr. Poindexter said the company will be more sensitive to customer needs and try to tailor services. For instance, cheaper service might be offered to industries that can tolerate power interruptions, because they have other sources of power, than to those requiring continuous power.

Mr. Poindexter said he got his first lessons in customer satisfaction from his father, the president of a bank in Odon, a town of 1,500. "I grew up listening to him talking about delivering good customer service," he recalled.

He also grew up working. His first job was as a shoeshine boy at a barber shop, getting a dime a shine -- a quarter if he did a really good job.

Mr. Poindexter was inspired to get the job by his older brother John, who had a paper route. "He had money and I didn't," he said.

It would not be the last time that Mr. Poindexter would follow in the footsteps of his brother, who went on to become an admiral and then national security adviser under President Reagan. He became a key figure in the Iran-contra affair.

A recent change for Mr. Poindexter has been his name.

Although he was named after his father's Uncle Christian, his mother wanted to avoid a long awkward name and gave him the shortened version, Chris. But in 1986, John Poindexter did genealogical research on the family and found that Christian was a recurrent name through the centuries.

This prompted Mr. Poindexter's mother to say she regretted not giving him the full name of Christian and asked him to legally change it. "She really wanted me to do it," he said.

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