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Former Navy Pilot Doug McGowen New CEO of Memphis’s Largest Utility, Braces for Infrastructure Overhaul Challenges

"CEO leading utility infrastructure revamp"

Doug McGowen Takes The Helm at Memphis Light, Gas and Water

Doug McGowen, a Pennsylvania native and former Navy fighter pilot, took the reins of Memphis Light, Gas, and Water (MLGW), the nation’s largest three-service utility, in the tail end of 2022. Charged with the herculean task of running a sprawling utility with 7,900 miles of electric lines, 4,700 miles of gas lines, 3,900 miles of water lines, 30 properties, and 2,600 employees, McGowen illustrates the spirit of a leader ready for this challenge.

The Task Ahead

MLGW, suffering from a rapidly aging infrastructure, has seen its share of struggles. Notably, the utility’s electric grid experiences twice as many outages as a decade ago, lasting twice as long and in some cases, up to five times longer than comparable utilities. More than half of MLGW’s water wells and pumping stations are more than half a century old, leading to issues with water pressure and forcing the issuance of multiple boil-water advisories.

It is here that McGowen has found his first opportunity to make a profound impact. The new CEO acknowledges the need for a new strategy, stating, “We’re going to have to do many things differently than what we’ve done in the past.” He identifies the actions of the past, including the run-to-fail operation model, as unsustainable. Instead, he argues for preparing for future disruptions and changes.

The Challenges

The challenges facing MLGW are many, including climate change, technological advancements, legal and regulatory changes, potential cybersecurity threats, and the modernization and financing of an aging utility structure. On top of these, McGowen inherits a Faustian bargain with the residents of Memphis, who enjoy some of the lowest combined utility rates in the nation, but at the cost of aging infrastructure.

McGowen plans to rebuild the community’s trust and confidence in the city-owned utility. He wisely accepts his role regardless of the situation he inherited, saying: “I can’t look back and say, ‘I just got here, this isn’t my fault.’ People don’t care. They just want it to work. And that’s my job: to make it work.”

Lessons from the Past

In trying to navigate these waters, McGowen draws on his diverse experiences in military and public service. Known for his ability to assess complex problems quickly and deliver results, he has been at the forefront of several civilian deployments, including acting as the executive director of Mayor A C Wharton’s Innovation Team, and as Chief Operating Officer in Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration.

During his tenure, McGowen has played a significant role in mitigating crises, from battling fast-rising floodwaters and tree-snapping windstorms to handling fast-moving viruses and pipe-bursting cold snaps. He has also spearheaded major civic improvement programs in Memphis, winning high praise for his dedication and discipline.

Looking Forward

As the CEO of MLGW, McGowen now has to harness his decades of experience and leadership skills to bring about a sea change in the utility. As MLGW tries to modernize its operations, McGowen is aware of the steep climb ahead. However, he is ready to take on the challenge, stating: “To me, that’s the definition of leadership.”

Powerful words from a man who has dedicated his life to service. If there’s anyone prepared to turn the lights back on for Memphis, it’s Doug McGowen.

HERE Memphis
Author: HERE Memphis

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