Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 8, 2017

Wade’s climb from grounded ‘helper’ to EPB CEO

- Alex McMahan | Hamilton County Herald

David Wade’s ultimate goal when he joined the Electric Power Board as an on-the-ground line helper in 1983 was to become a lineman, climb power poles, and someday troubleshoot and help restore power after outages.

In the early years, the East Ridge native spent most of his time digging holes, installing poles and transformers for homes and businesses and assisting the linemen, most of whom used their own agility, not bucket trucks, to repair power lines high in the sky.

After a while, Wade became a lineman apprentice, often replacing poles struck by errant drivers in the middle of the night.

Back then, there were few underground installations; nearly all of the lines stretched above homes, pastures and streets in what would now be considered an unsightly overhead mess.

“It was a lot of good experience and a lot of fun. I learned a tremendous amount being out in the field and getting to really be very, very hands on from the very beginning,” says Wade, 58, who in September 2016 became CEO of the 82-year-old utility, now EPB.

“I’ve spent many nights out in the field, being soaking wet and freezing, so I understand what challenges that [my employees] face out there every day.”

Wade was three and a-half years into his four-year apprenticeship when an estimator position opened up in the utility’s engineering design group. The decision to abandon the path for which he was training was one of the toughest of his career, he says, because it bugged him to stop short of finishing what he started. In his new position, he began designing the facilities he had formerly installed. He also went back to school and earned his engineering degree from UTC.

“Having the foundation of being on the construction side of things was so valuable,” he says. “When you’re sitting there in an engineering class and they’re talking about the physics of how lifting this transformer up puts stresses at each part of the load, having done that without knowing the physics of it, all of a sudden it all made a complete picture.”

Later, Wade shifted back to the construction side, scheduling jobs for the company’s crews. After that, he managed the new process improvement group, using his natural problem-solving skills in yet another way and getting his feet wet on the business side of things. Before long, he was serving as senior manager and vice president of the electric power system, then vice president of engineering and construction, chief operating officer and, now, CEO.

“One of the reasons [EPB] is a good fit for me is that it’s a company that’s not satisfied with the status quo,” Wade says. “In any position I’ve ever been in, I’ve been afforded the ability to come in and ask questions and to think about a way to make a change that improves. One of the things that’s continually challenged me is the ability to make a difference and know that I’m not put in a role where I just come in and do the same thing every day. Frankly, I’ve enjoyed every move that I’ve had here.”

No one, including Wade, could have predicted the debut of the municipally owned utility’s groundbreaking gigabit-per-second Internet service in 2010, or the rollout of its 10-gigabit option in 2015 (billed as the nation’s first), or the fact that EPB would become a global leader in the high-speed revolution. Today, EPB Fiber Optics serves 93,355 homes and businesses with video, voice and data services, with almost 11,000 customers subscribing to 1-gigabit and higher internet speeds. For the second consecutive year, this summer J.D. Power consumer surveys ranked EPB the South’s best mid-sized electric utility.

“When we first started, I’d receive them all the time, and I still get these calls and letters that say, ‘Man, I just hooked up EPB fiber. You guys have done a tremendous job. They showed up on time. They put on their booties, didn’t track mud in my house. They cleaned up after themselves. And, it worked when they left,’” Wade says. “And I’m sitting here thinking, ‘That’s something that’s that significant that you should write or call or compliment on?’ I think in some cases we were taking advantage of the bar being a little bit low to start with. But I’m proud that our folks are setting that bar, and it’s no longer a low bar that you can get by with.”

Wade says he’s been “blown away with the attention” EPB and “Gig City” have garnered around the world for the company’s high-speed online offerings. But there was a time, he points out, that the service wasn’t so well accepted.

“Many folks were saying, ‘Why do that? Nobody needs a gig. Nobody needs this technology,’” he says. “That’s just been one of the fun things to watch. The answer was that we didn’t really know nor did we even think it was our place to know. Opening up that opportunity for the community to take advantage of has been one of the most rewarding things ever. Whether it’s a community with broadband or an individual employee, you may not know what the outcome is, but the fact that you give them the opportunity to think, to expand, to do stuff, is pretty cool.”

Easygoing and approachable, Wade thrives on creating an open-door corporate culture that encourages new ideas, no matter how far-fetched. No topic is off-limits for employees on the internal “Ask David” website forum.

“We spend a lot more time thinking about those answers than I would’ve ever thought,” he says with a laugh. “It’s so important that we have an engaging organization because I certainly have a responsibility to set the direction, but it’s our whole team working together to make things happen. My strength is trying to look at things with a long-term view in mind.”

Wade prefers not to micro-manage. “I very much believe part of my role is to give folks the tools and the confidence to do the job and to serve our community,” he says. “And if I jump in on a detailed level and do it for them, all of a sudden what I’m ending up doing is taking away that confidence. I’ve been given the opportunity to see things and continue to grow throughout my career, and I really want to be able to allow others to do that and to contribute in a way that’s meaningful to the community.”

His leadership style appears to be paying off, at least in terms of staff loyalty.

“David’s been a real inspiration to challenge us to do things that we may not have thought about, to take a different approach, to look at it from another angle,” says EPB public relations coordinator John Pless.

“I’m kind of weird, I guess,” Wade responds. “I’m very much one of those where always after doing something big, I want to see what we can do next.”

In 2014, when he was still COO, Wade found out that the company’s leading cable television competitor wasn’t offering the upcoming Tennessee Vols football game in high definition. The event was just three days away.

That didn’t stop Wade from urging members of the EPB operations department to do the impossible and install the new SEC channel for their sports-loving customers in time for the game, even if it meant doing so in the middle of the night.

“There were a few odd looks,” Wade says, grinning as he recalls that staff meeting.

But, says Pless, who admits he was one of the skeptics, “There were lots of people that bought into it. We had customers happy with the fact that they had the Vols in high definition on the SEC network. And everybody (at EPB) stepped up.”

Wade is not above challenging himself as well. Five years ago, his 18-year-old daughter invited him to go tandem skydiving with her. But there was one major problem. At more than 300 pounds, Wade says, “I was well over the weight to be able to jump out of a plane with someone.”

Determined not to disappoint his daughter, he started swimming, biking and running, and lost more than 100 pounds. He competed in the Ironman competition three years in a row and braved the Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon, which he describes as “kind of an Ironman on steroids.” And, yes, he went skydiving. “It was a blast,” he says. “I had a lot of fun.”

In the near feature, EPB will be offering more flexible video products, says Wade. The utility recently launched its first community solar project, which is expected to generate enough sun-fueled power for 125 households, and has partnered with the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to use its smart grid as a national model for developing best practices.

The company is also working to keep up with rapid and imminent changes.

“The average consumer probably doesn’t see it today, but the electric industry as a whole is on the brink of more significant changes than it’s had in the last 100 years,” Wade says.

“There’s more technology available. There are more opportunities and more looking at our customers and saying, ‘What do you want?’ not “What do you need?’ Our community cares more about where the electricity is generated and how it’s generated than ever before.

“What we’ve done with the fiber optics, with the automation,” he adds, “has put us in a position where we’re probably better poised for that change than anywhere else in the country.”