N.C. Power Company's Point Man Empathizes With Powerless Customers

When the lights went out for more than a million Duke Power Co. customers, E.O. Ferrell III was the face the utility put in front of the cameras to explain the logistical nightmare of restoring power.

Judging by his performance so far in one of Duke Power's biggest challenges — one out of every two customers was left in the dark by this week's ice storm — he's at home with the job.

On Friday, Ferrell, 58, Duke's senior vice president of electric distribution, stepped before of a gang of reporters who peppered him with questions on one theme: When will power be restored?

One asked if more crews were being sent to Charlotte, where some 225,000 customers were still without power, than to Greensboro, where the number was 93,000 by midday Friday.

"Our goal is to finish the entire system at the same pace," Ferrell said. "Our intent is to have our customers back on line around the same time in South Carolina, Charlotte and the rest of our service area."

That means more crews are working in regions with more power outages, he said. But it doesn't mean Duke isn't paying more attention to one city over another.

Mayor Keith Holliday was still anxious for his constituents. "The chief complaint I'm getting from people is they are not seeing any (Duke) trucks in their neighborhoods," he told Ferrell.

Ferrell explained that restoring power is a complicated process that can't always be traced by the sight of large trucks with Duke's name on the side.

"Our crews were working, they were out," he said.

Holliday said after the meeting that he was satisfied with Ferrell's responses.

"I'm very confident in his abilities," he said. "I recognize Duke has a big mess on its hands."

Later, Ferrell said it's part of his job description to deal with customer complaints, as well as pump up the morale of weary linemen who are working long, difficult hours.

"If I can calm a customer down, I am doing my job. I may not always be able to give them the answers they want," he said.

"My experience after 32 years with this company is sometimes I can make a new friend of someone who can be our most adamant critic," he said.

A native of Raleigh, Ferrell joined Duke Power in 1970 as a junior engineer after graduating from North Carolina State University and earning his MBA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

He moved up through the ranks, working as district manager of the Anderson, S.C., region in 1980. After several more promotions, he was appointed to his current position five years ago.

A loyal team player, Ferrell's face lights up when he's asked about the enormous job facing Duke Power's crews out in the field.

"They are professionals, true professionals," he said.

As general of an army of workers that rivals the size of a military division, Ferrell rarely finds himself barking orders or questioning the work ethic of his troops.

"There's a lot of trust when you are working in this kind of job," he said. "It's not my style to get on them. Not that I don't have high expectations. But I'm no General Patton."

Like Patton, Ferrell has been to battle a number of times as head of Duke Power's electric distribution unit. And like a good military leader, he has certain battlefield details committed to memory.

Like the last big ice storm in Duke Power's service area that knocked out the lights to 690,000 customers in 1996. Ferrell remembers it took eight days to get everyone back on line.

Ferrell also knows that Mother Nature can inflict a serious financial blow on Duke Power's bottom line. Hurricane Hugo cost the utility $69 million in 1989 and the 1996 ice storm was a $24 million hit, he said.

"It's clearly going to be more than $24 million," Ferrell said. "I hope it's not going to be $69 million."