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After storm, facing flood of critics

JCP&L chief defends reaction to Irene, but faults utility's communication

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    JCP&L President Donald M. Lynch
says after Hurricane Irene, the utility overhauled its communications practices, but they weren't yet in place for 
October's snowstom.
    JCP&L President Donald M. Lynch says after Hurricane Irene, the utility overhauled its communications practices, but they weren't yet in place for October's snowstom.

    Jersey Central Power & Light President Donald M. Lynch likes to fix problems.
    "I'm an engineer by trade," he said. "So when you see issues come up, you figure out how to solve it, how to make it better."

    August's Hurricane Irene and October's snowstorm brought down power lines — and brought on the wrath of local politicians and ratepayers. Each storm disrupted power for hundreds of thousands of JCP&L customers, some for more than a week — and JCP&L, more than any other utility, faced questions over the pace of its response.

    Lynch maintains the problem wasn't so much performance as it was a failure to communicate the actions the utility was taking. That's why the JCP&L lifer has set out on a new task — being the utility's communicator in chief.

    "We're a good company," he said. "I'd like people to know that."
    Lynch joined the utility in 1976 as a station engineer, right after graduating from the Stephens Institute of Technology. At the time, engineering jobs were plentiful, but Lynch was eager for a hands-on post.

    "So I took one of my (lower-paying) offers, which was at Jersey Central, because I wanted to get into a power plant," he said. "I wanted to get my hands dirty."
    Lynch rose steadily through the ranks, first working in power plants, then moving to the delivery side of the business. He became president of the utility's central division in 2000, a year before JCP&L's former parent company, GPU Inc., merged with Ohio-based First Energy Corp. He kept his job through the merger, was promoted again in 2006, and took over as the utility's top executive in 2009.

    Former JCP&L President Stephen Morgan said he recommended Lynch as his successor in part because Lynch had a long tenure at the company, and thus understood the effect the merger and other changes had on workers.

    "Having some affinity for what the people had been through for a decade or so was important," he said. "And Don was highly regarded by all of his colleagues and peers."

    Karen Alexander, president and CEO of the New Jersey Utilities Association, said Lynch is a collaborative leader who seeks input from people with knowledge of a given issue and factors that input into his decision making.

    "From my perspective, that's the hallmark of a true leader," she said.
    Lynch was chair of the association's board of trustees when Alexander was hired to run it in 2006. Alexander said he cares about his employees as people.
    "While he has very high-level responsibilities, the fact that he is president of a company doesn't go to his head," she said.

    Morgan said Lynch also had good relationships in the political community, with local politicians and mayors, as well as the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
    Some of those relationships became strained last year, as mayors in hard-hit towns went to their newspapers and to Trenton to complain about what they deemed slow responses by JCP&L.

    Lynch said Hurricane Irene was a once-in-a-lifetime storm that affected all 236 of the municipalities it served. His area managers were overwhelmed, he said.
    "They had 236 mayors," Lynch said, "and it was right before Election Day, by the way — and they just couldn't keep up with it."

    Hurricane Irene prompted JCP&L to recraft its communications process. The plan calls for out-of-state area managers to be called in as community-outreach reinforcements. Lynch also decided to hold daily phone calls with mayors during outages, an idea he got from a friend at Atlantic City Electric. JCP&L also joined Twitter, and posted explanatory videos on First Energy's YouTube page.

    The plan was still in the development phase when the October snowstorm hit, affecting about 90 percent of the customers in the utility's northern region. That storm prompted the BPU's then-president, Lee A. Solomon, to publicly give out his e-mail address, to solicit and forward complaints from JCP&L customers. Lynch said he called a handful of those customers each day to listen to their complaints.
    Bill Dressel, executive director of the League of Municipalities, credited Lynch and JPC&L for being proactive in the wake of the first storm, but its response efforts have yet to convince the masses.

    "We did see a marked improvement between Irene and the ice storms — there was a tremendous amount of communication between Don and the mayors in their service area," Dressel said. "But I also have to say I did get a lot of complaints. There are some mayors and local officials who are still disgruntled over what they perceived as a lack of responsiveness by JCP&L."

    Ultimately, Dressel said, the proof of JCP&L and the other utilities' improvements will be in how they respond to the next emergency.

    JCP&L spent $165 million in upgrades and repairs during the two storms. It also just announced a $200 million capital improvement plan for 2012, which will include substation and wire replacements, a stepped-up tree-trimming effort, and other upgrades.

    For all the battering JCP&L's reputation took last year, it got one ray of good news last month. The utility came in first among large utilities in the eastern United States in business customer satisfaction, according to J.D. Power & Associates.

    Lynch said he's looking forward to accepting the award, but he knows awards or promises of improvement won't be enough to win back customers' confidence.
    "I think it's up to us to show it," he said. "It's human nature. You can say one thing, but at Jersey Central, what we're about is actions — and I recognize that."

    E-mail to: jkaltwasser@njbiz.com
    On Twitter: @JaredKaltwasser

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