Sunday Interview with Jacki Lowe: 'I attribute the success I had to many mentors along the way'

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 10, 2014 

Jacki Lowe is in her 40th year working for the Southern Company, which owns Georgia Power and Alabama Power.

Her career has led her through both companies, landing as a Georgia Power West Regional vice president in Columbus in 2005.

She has seen the role of women in the workforce change from support jobs to key leadership and management positions.

"The valuing of the differences that women bring to the table is something you see more often than what you might have seen 40 years ago," she said. "I also think that there are strengths that women bring to the table, the way they listen, they way they interact."

Lowe sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about her career, Georgia Power, Columbus and a host of other topics.

Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.

So you started with Georgia Power? Where?

I started in Forest Park. I was in the appliance service department, which we no longer have. And it was a summer job while I was in school. I had gotten married and moved to Atlanta, and I was at Auburn. I was a junior and I was going to go to Georgia State. So, when I went to Georgia Power it was just to help a friend out who was having a baby that summer and she didn't want to work.

That's an interesting way to start a career.

It is.

So when you started you had no idea you'd be ....

I was not expecting to stay there.

What kinds of jobs have you held with Georgia Power?

My first few years with Georgia Power, I was in an administrative support role because I was still getting my degree. That was in appliance service, it was also in the marketing organization in the downtown Atlanta office -- we were at the Omni at the time. After that, I was a quality circle facilitator in the world of Quality Circles, those types of things.

What's Quality Circles?

Quality circles is how you get ideas out of employees for continuous improvement, productivity improvements.

So you were basically reporting inside of Georgia Power on ways to make the company better?

Right. Exactly. That was a program that we had instituted in the early '80s to actually drive efficiencies and process improvements. I actually trained team leaders on how to run their meetings and processes to follow, and things like that. After that I was in human resources for about 10 years.

In Atlanta?

In Atlanta and then the other half was in Birmingham. I went to Birmingham and I was with Alabama Power. So, I spent about 10 years over there.

Where's home for you?

Home is in Dadeville, Ala. Do you know where that is?

I know Lake Martin.

That's where it is.

You started at Auburn?

I was at Auburn right out of high school. I was going to be a math teacher. That got changed quickly after my third class. Then, I went into the accounting side on the business side, and then when I went to Georgia State. I changed my major to marketing. They had a tremendous marketing program. Actually, Tim Mescon's father was one of my teachers in several different classes at Georgia State.

He's (Mike Mescon) a legend there.

He is a legend. That's true.

What did you learn from Professor Mescon?

He taught a lot about management principals, your management role. We weren't really into leadership back then like we are now with servant leadership and things like that, but it was more about managing. What your function was as a manager. Planning, controlling, execution and measurement type things.

Is that stuff you still ....

I absolutely still use.

So, that's a foundation.

It's very foundational. My marketing instructors, one was from Proctor & Gamble and he taught us a lot about selling vs. marketing, what the difference was. He taught us a lot about the features, advantages and benefits in a product you're trying to sell. Very applicable in a lot of ways. When I went into human resources, because when you're trying to help people get jobs, you're trying to talk to them as they are the product that they're selling. So, how do you establish your features and advantages and benefits, and how that will help someone who is trying to get a job. I've used my marketing principals throughout my entire career.

When did you end up in Columbus?

2005.

Having lived here for almost 10 years, were there any misconceptions about this community?

Oh, sure. I remember telling one of my Auburn friends that I was coming to Columbus. And of course in the '70s when we were at Auburn many people would come to Columbus and go to various places that at that age we probably shouldn't have been going, but you could get into places without an ID. So, that was the perception, the old Victory Drive, party town, Nichols Alley we went to several times.

And it was also the place where my roommate and I would come shopping. Downtown Columbus was full of department stores at the time. So, that was my vision of Columbus, but when I got here I found this beautiful, small-town feel with large-town amenities. That was my "ah-ha" moment, and it has only gotten better in the last eight or nine years.

When you say small-town feel, give an example of what you mean.

When you're in Atlanta you are basically an unknown entity -- you're a number, if you will. And Birmingham is much like that -- although it's smaller, it was growing when I was there. It's just a large city. Where in Columbus, if you are involved in the community everybody knows who you are and you know most everybody. Not everybody, but you know a lot of people. I think the accountability in Columbus is stronger because I bump into you at different places and you ask me questions about Georgia Power or the Chamber or a board, or something I'm on. So, you are expected to be accountable for the things you are involved in. I like that.

Talk about your job. Give a quick elevator speech.

Keeping the lights on. Keeping the customers satisfied and communicated with and helping serve our customers downstairs.

Keeping the lights on -- that's a pretty important job?

That's my main job here.

The power company is one of those entities you don't realize or notice until your bill's too high or your lights go out. Right?

That's probably true. We're trying to do better. We're trying to help our customers with our outage communication tools that are on the system, as well as our customer support tools that are now online. We're trying to be a little bit more pro-active helping our customers be energy efficient, figure out ways to monitor their power usage -- there are tools that you can go out there and see just how much you've spent everyday. If you have a bunch of grandkids you have on the weekend, you can see your power bills spike up because you've got company, you're cooking or whatever you normally don't do. You can tell what drove those expenses.

Y'all are publicizing that?

We are.

You also have online tools when your power goes out that you can go and report it and you can also get a time estimate on getting it turned back on?

That's right. So, those are all new tools that we've just put in place in less than 24 months.

How do those tools change the company's relationship with its customers?

That's a great question. When you come into our lobby downstairs, you've got a face-to-face interaction; when you're going online, you don't have that. So, one of those transition things we're going through right now is how do we maintain that personal relationship with online interaction. So, we are working on that right now.

There are a lot of changes in your Veterans Parkway office. What is going on?

Two things that happened to us a couple of years ago: We are one of the busiest offices in the state and our drive-thru was at the back of the building. We had so much traffic coming through the back of the building and so little capability back there that cars were backing up on 11th, creating traffic jams on 11th and Veterans.

... We had begun looking at how we could increase our capacity to serve customers. When we brought in some designers and figured out how we could change, there was no way we could add capacity to the back of the building. So, we came up with the idea to get a standalone drive-thru. We rode all over town, and at the time there were a lot of old bank buildings for sale, but they weren't in the area where our customers were coming from. We started inquiring about purchasing the property next door. It solved two problems. It expanded our capacity, plus the traffic flow now is coming from Fifth back over to 11th.

The roof issue is as old as that project, but we couldn't do both at the same time. They did an interim fix on the roof to repair the internal gutter systems that were causing major leaks inside the building. I remember Mike Gaymon coming to see me one day and the elevator opened up and I had to hold the umbrella for him to get from the elevator to the floor because it was raining down the elevator shaft. ... That is how bad it was.

Obviously you have your duties and your job here at Georgia Power, but one of your duties -- it seems to me -- is to be involved in the community.

Very much so.

And you are president of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce board?

I was last year.

Why is it important for the face of Georgia Power to also be interacting with the broader business community, to be a leader?

It's more cultural than anything. If you go back to our roots when we were originally formed, the Southern Company was originally formed to revitalize the South after the Civil War. And if you looked in the southern part of the nation, agriculture was the only industry we had in place, if you will, the only economic driver. Once the Civil War took place there was no electricity to speak of. You did not have any plants, you didn't have businesses, it really needed some revitalization, so the electrification of the South that was put in motion in the 1930s, I believe, was part of what drove us. What became real apparent is how do you grow your business, and economic development is obviously a huge aspect of our business. But the other part is being a community partner in helping the economy, the community be a part of those decisions so that we grow the whole community. Do we benefit from that? Yes, but the entire community benefits from that.

Are chambers of commerce still an essential part of the business community?

Absolutely.

Why do you say that?

I believe they are because it is an opportunity for us to bring interested players together under an umbrella of a very action-oriented organization that can help drive change, drive things that need to be driven. For example, when we were looking at the possible movement of Fort Benning's 3rd ID back last summer, it was the chamber that put together the initiative in efforts to drive the decision makers to understand why we wanted that unit to stay here.

It had been a huge economic development tool for us; the economic impact was large for the community had it gone away. But the other part of that is a lot of public-private partnerships had taken place to bring the base realignment and closure efforts to fruition. So, we had spent like $6 billion in the community, yet just didn't make any sense to take a whole unit out from Benning and move it somewhere else where there are new building, there's new roads, there's new cafeterias and dining halls, there's new dormitories and everything like that at Benning.

We sat forth to help those decision makers understand we had truly prepared, not just the federal side of things, the federal funding, but we had also prepared as a community to build schools, to grow infrastructure, apartment complexes, housing, things of that nature, because we wanted the soldiers to come here.

What's the importance of Fort Benning?

Economically speaking?

Yeah.

Don't quote me on this, but the number, I'll get it for you, is in the $6 billion a year range. That's salaries, contracts, plus sales.

What else?

It's customers. It's customers for you. It's customers for me. It's customers for our retail businesses. Think about the restaurants that are in town. When I first got here, we did not have a lot of restaurants to choose from. Look around -- they are everywhere. And part of our community are our soldiers and they are customers. They are school teachers, they are Little League coaches, they are Sunday School teachers, and not only that, they stay in the community and become active in the community.

Many people do not realize the important role Georgia Power and the Southern Company played. That water that is creating that whitewater course is also doing what?

Generating power.

What was the role of Georgia Power and the Southern Company?

Two primary roles we had. First, one of our goals was to maintain the viability of the hydro-electric dams there are upstream from the course because they are generating power.

How many dams?

Six dams up and down the river. Some of them are quite small up in the West Point area. I am talking the middle Chattahoochee system. Whatever is coming from West Point is coming on down the river. So, we have to use that capability to generate electricity to support our customers' needs. We could not put that at risk. By the same token, we wanted to also help with the development and implementation of the whitewater course because it is driving economic development up and down the river. So we were trying to balance both of those roles.

Was it a tricky balance?

It really was. We stayed in constant communication with Uptown Columbus, the city of Columbus, the Bradley Company. Our environmental team, our hydro generation team, our external team, our legal team. We were all working together. There were a lot of meetings. The engineers who were involved on the whitewater project team came to our dams. We tried to explain to them how everything worked. We needed the tailrace held up, and City Mills acted as that for a long, long time. To remove that dam, we had to build a weir north of City Mills to hold the tailrace back. We did that, and that was our contribution to the whitewater project. From time to time, we may not have all been on the same page, but we worked it out.

This was probably one of the most involved efforts that I have ever been involved in because you had so many entities at play. We had to meet our FERC license at that dam every day.

Are you surprised it got done?

No. I am surprised it took us less time than I thought it would.

Have you gone down the course yet?

I have not.

Are you going to?

I don't know. (Laughter). I am chicken. I'll wave at everybody as they go down. Everybody I know has fallen out of the rafts. I am just not into being pushed down into the bottom of the course.

What has whitewater done for the community, economically?

I don't know numbers-wise, but I do know they were expecting about 10,000 or 11,000 folks to go down the river last year and I want to say the number was, like, 16,000. That in itself means these people are coming to town. That is huge. They are eating in our restaurants. They are going to bars, they are staying in the hotels.

Hopefully, they are seeing some of our other beautiful venues like the Civil War museum, the Infantry Museum, maybe going up to Callaway Gardens, maybe shopping and going to restaurants on the northside or southside of town. Fort Benning, seeing what is out there. The Coca-Cola Space Science Center, Oxbow Meadows, the RiverCenter, Springer Opera House. I mean there are just so many things to do here. That is what I meant when I said the best small town with huge amenities.

Who would have ever thought we had such a beautiful RiverCenter? ...

Birmingham doesn't have a facility that compares to the RiverCenter?

No. Their civic center is where most plays like Phantom of the Opera are performed. And the acoustics are nowhere close to the RiverCenter. I have been to New York and been to some of the plays there. They are just as good there. That was a surprise moment.

What do you think of downtown Columbus?

It has been an unbelievable change.

I think Columbus State moving downtown created a sense of vibrancy. You are seeing young people walking the streets. They got their backpacks and their dogs and their coffee. You see them sitting everywhere. The art that was added to the downtown area creates a cultural feel. The landscape and streetscape that was done really enhanced downtown. I would like to see us do the side streets, as well. The building facades have changed. All of that has created a feel different from any town I have ever been to. ... You can walk over to Phenix City, looking back at the Columbus side. I think that is impressive. It is a nice view. You got the kayakers. I had dinner at the River Club the other night, and I went out off the deck. There were kayakers in the water at 9 at night. There is just so much vibrancy in the city today that was not here nine years ago.

After 40 years, you have got to be close to thinking about retirement?

I think about it. (Laughter)

How much longer will you work?

I don't know -- three, five years. As long as I am having fun, I will probably keep working.

What does retirement look like for you when you get there?

I might stay here. I have always had the desire to have a place at Lake Martin, but after all of these years I still have not bought one. If I am going to buy one, I probably need to be doing that. I have two grandchildren in Birmingham and three in Auburn. So, I am thinking about that.

Grandmother is a good role, isn't it?

Grandmother is the best role -- ever. I think you are able to enjoy your grandchildren without having to worry about raising them to adulthood. When you are a parent, you worry so much about making them be responsible adults that you sort of lose the fun part. As a grandparent, I am enjoying the fun side of parenting.

What is the age range of the grand kids?

One month to almost 6.

You came into the workplace just as women were starting to get expanded roles?

I did. Yes.

Now, you have women running companies. Talk about how the business climate for women has changed over your career.

When I came in, I came into a utility company, which at that time was probably at least 90 percent male. Part of it was the nature of the work. Part of it was engineers and accountants were typically male. Your secretarial force, your administrative support force were typically female. In those days we still had home economists that were all female. So, the roles in the company were aligned with your typical roles of women in the workforce.

What year was that?

That was '74. I came from a real small school. I was the valedictorian. I was the president of my class. I was going to college and I was going to be a teacher. So, when I changed my major to marketing, I began to realize how many different roles there were out there. As far as the role of women, it was difficult to get from the administrative, non-exempt role to an exempt, consulting type of role. That was the hardest transition. I had several mentors helping me figure out how to navigate through the company.

To this day, there were three people I consider key to my success in making that transition. You wouldn't know any of them, they are all retired. Our district manager made me go back to school. He said, "Jacki, you're beyond a junior and you have got to go to school." I just transferred, working downtown Atlanta. So, he helped me get my schedule such so that I could go to school at night at Georgia State. It is because of him -- he saw something and wanted me to finish my degree.

How long was the gap between when you left Auburn and enrolled at Georgia State?

Probably about seven years. I was in school, taking different classes at DeKalb Tech. But it took home pushing me.

How important was that?

It was huge. You could have easily gotten into the family role, enjoying your work, making money, buying houses, that kind of stuff, and not done that. But I forced myself to do that.

Without the degree, you are not here today?

That is correct. And then, 10, 15 years later, without the master's you are not going to go as far. When I went to Birmingham, I had a great opportunity to go through a master's program at Samford that they were starting that was based off the Harvard Business-case model. We had instructors coming in from Harvard designing our courses. That was huge, too.

It was difficult transitioning, but I attribute the success I had to many mentors along the way -- male and female. They would kind of jerk you and say, "Don't do this; don't do that." I don't think people do that as much any more.

Are women perceived differently in the workforce today than they were 40 years ago?

Yes. Most definitely.

For the better or the worse?

I think for the better. ... As a female, I have a lot of intuitive skills that I can't put down on paper as Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. It is more of a gut feeling. I rely on that gut feeling in addition to the business case. I think it is a balance.

You will go with your gut?

I will go with my gut. And the older I get and the longer I have been here, the more I will do that.

Why have you been successful?

I think part of it has been work ethic. You are not going to find anyone around who works more than I do. I need to work smarter, but I work very hard. I try very hard to figure out what I need to be doing to be successful in my job. One of my mentors told me a long time ago, "You need to be looking at what you want to do next, but you need to be doing your current job as if it is the last job you ever did." So, never lose sight of performing your current role at the expense of trying to find the next role. I was just focused on the role I had. If something else came my way, great.

If you could talk to a young woman who is graduating from college, and you could tell them one thing, what would it be?

Get a mentor. They don't need a nice mentor. They need a mentor who will tell them the truth. They need to be willing to listen to the truth -- and sometimes it's not pleasant. If you can't get the feedback that way, ask for the feedback. It is the rare person who will volunteer the feedback. Ask for the feedback. Get a mentor.

The mentoring is being honest?

Absolutely. And sometimes you need to be brutally honest with people. I will tell you why I say that. When I transferred from Georgia Power to Alabama Power, I knew the people who were above me, but I did not know the people who were my peers or direct reports. I should have asked a whole lot more than I did. So, I found out some things about perceptions about me later, after I had been there a couple of years, that nobody ever provided to me. My lesson learned was don't wait around for someone to tell you. Ask. And be self aware. All of us have faults. I know sometimes I can drive pretty hard for results. I know that about myself.

BIO

Name: Jacki Lowe

Age: 60

Job: Vice president, Georgia Power Co., West Region

Education: Dadeville (Ala.) High School, 1972; Attended Auburn University, 1972-74; Georgia State University, BBA, marketing, 1982; Samford University, MBA, 1995.

Family: Two sons, Matt, who is married to Anna and lives in Birmingham, Ala., and Jeremy, who is married to Haley and lives in Auburn, Ala. Grandchildren are Gaines, Libby, Samuel, Carter and Hudson.

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