Front Line Answer Man
Mark Crosswhite’s lightning bolt moment at Alabama Power came when he went from general counsel to managing external affairs.
As a law clerk with Balch & Bingham, Mark Crosswhite matriculated into a law firm that once included founding partner Logan Martin, brother of Thomas Martin, whose career at Alabama Power (1911 to 1964) progressed from general counsel to president and chairman of the board.
In hindsight, there was a particularly fortuitous moment that impacted Mark Crosswhite’s career like no other. It came when he showed up the first day as a law clerk at Birmingham’s Balch & Bingham in the summer of 1985.
“They assigned me to the utilities section,” recalls the 53-year-old Crosswhite. “At the time, L.A. Law was really big on television, and most law students in those days wanted to work as litigators, or in mergers and acquisitions or in sports law. Those were all the glamorous areas. No one, frankly, was standing in line to be a utilities lawyer.”
Crosswhite could not have imagined that his first day as a law clerk proved to be the first step on the road to becoming chairman, president and CEO at Alabama Power Co. But, at the time, he didn’t know that Balch & Bingham had been Alabama Power Co.’s law firm since forever. He was unaware that a founding member of the law firm, Logan Martin, was the younger brother of Thomas Martin, a longtime president of Alabama Power and the major force in its development.
“I knew nothing about Alabama Power Co.,” Crosswhite says. “I grew up in Decatur, and that was TVA territory.”
But Crosswhite loved clerking in the utilities section. “The people I got to work with at the firm and at Alabama Power were just great, and the work I got to do was fantastic,” he says. “I really took to it and enjoyed it. That was the first summer I clerked at Balch & Bingham, and it was just blind luck.
“The second summer I clerked there, I asked to work in the utilities section, and by the time I graduated from law school, I told them, ‘This is where I want to work, and this is what I want to do.’”
A graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law, Crosswhite worked 17 years at Balch & Bingham before joining the Southern Co. organization in 2004. He was named general counsel of Alabama Power in 2006 and, as far as he was concerned, had ascended to his dream job. But then a call came out of nowhere, and it was like a summons from on high.
“Charles McCrary (then president at Alabama Power) called one day and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to have some changes, and there are going to be some people moving around, and I want you to move to the external affairs area,’” Crosswhite recalls.
“External affairs included public relations, communications and dealing with the media, which was something I had never done before. It was dealing with environmental issues, a lot of legal work but also a lot of compliance and how we satisfy the environmental requirements. It included governmental affairs, so there was legislative work, too.
“It was similar to things I had worked on in the past, but I had never had many people to manage and oversee. I had never had that scope of responsibility. But moving into external affairs showed other people, and me, that I could do more than just practice law. I would say my career was an evolution up to that point, but that was kind of a lightning-bolt-type moment.”
Six years later — 29 years after that fateful day as a law student — after going from external affairs to other executive positions within the Southern Co. structure, Crosswhite was named as the retiring McCrary’s replacement. He is the first president at Alabama Power in 47 years who does not hold an engineering degree, but his legal background more than fits the times.
Alabama Power and electric utilities across the nation are in the midst of an unprecedented array of environmental regulations that have resulted in differing interpretations and increased uncertainty in the marketplace. Other potentially contentious issues hover and loom, just as they have during much of the company’s history.
Crosswhite, an ardent history buff who majored in history as an undergraduate at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, takes a long view. Asked what his biggest personal challenge is, he says, “For me, it’s recognizing that I’m the one who has to decide what we’re going to invest in. Our assets tend to have a long life — 30, 40, 50 years or more. So I want to do what I can to take the risk out of the business.
“What is the world going to look like in 2050? Knowing that my successors 20, 30, 40, 50 years or longer from now are going to have to live with decisions I make now is one of the most sobering thoughts associated with this job.”
Founded in 1906, Alabama Power supplies electricity to the southern two-thirds of the state and has long been one of Alabama’s largest and most visible companies. According to its 2015 annual report, the company has 1.4 million customers, roughly 7,000 employees, revenues of $5.8 billion and total net income of $811 million. Its operations include 24 power plants and more than 83,000 miles of power lines.
Crosswhite believes that managing such a vast company requires “really good people and looking for people who have strengths and talents different from your own. We have engineers, folks with financial backgrounds, people who are absolute experts in power plant operations, people who know about environmental sciences, and we talk a lot about decisions we have to make.
“I think a key is having a good, diverse team around you, with everyone willing to speak up and all of us willing to listen to each other, share ideas and reach consensus,” he says.
Crosswhite recalls his law schools days when Balch & Bingham’s senior lawyers and Alabama Power’s legal staff were so surprisingly friendly to him even though he was just a neophyte law clerk. He loved the work, but, “It really was more of how they treated me, not the work that I was doing, that impressed me,” he says.
Crosswhite attempts to bring a similar degree of civility and salesmanship to the table as Alabama Power’s CEO. “The first time you have to tell somebody to ‘Do it because I told you so’, you’ve just lost all your gunpowder at that point,” he says. “It becomes a mandate, and that is not the way to lead people.
“I like convincing people that what we’re doing is the right way to handle something. I think that gives you more moral authority than just telling somebody to do something. That doesn’t work very well.”
Charlie Ingram and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.