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Updated Thursday, September 4, 2003
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Posted on Thu, Sep. 04, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Utility CEO in hot seat today
FirstEnergy's Burg praised in Akron for civic efforts

Beacon Journal business writer

When H. Peter Burg sits in front of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee today, most people will know only that he's the head of FirstEnergy, the electric company that has found itself at the center of the blackout probe.

Many who will be watching Burg in the national spotlight won't know much about him because he has shied from interviews since the first of a series of severe problems struck the utility early last year.

But back home in Akron, Pete Burg, 57, is a local boy who has worked his way up the ranks of the electric company and who gives back extensively to the community.

``Pete's the type of guy who rolls up his sleeves, jumps in and gets to work,'' said Wayne Brennessel, Summit County Red Cross CEO. Burg led the Red Cross' $7.3-million fund-raising effort to build its new center on West Market Street.

But community leaders say it's not only Burg who gives back, but also FirstEnergy employees.

``If you go up and down the organization from the guys who drive the trucks to the people at corporate headquarters, they're all involved in nonprofit organizations,'' said Brennessel.

Burg was raised in Goodyear Heights, graduated from St. Vincent High School and holds two degrees from the University of Akron. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate by UA two weeks ago.

``I don't think there's an organization in this town that he hasn't had some influence on,'' said Bill Considine, CEO of Akron Children's Hospital.

Burg is on the board of Akron Children's; he spearheaded the creation of Akron Reads, a volunteer program that pairs adults with children as reading partners; he was the campaign chairman for the 2001 United Way/Red Cross campaign, which raised $10.6 million; and he's chair of Akron Tomorrow, a group of CEOs in Akron, and of Team NEO, a collaboration of organizations whose mission is to attract new companies and jobs to Northeast Ohio, among others.

Considine, who has known Burg since high school, said giving back to the community comes naturally to Burg.

``His energy level is second to none in terms of his commitment to the community. He's done that not at the expense of the company, either,'' said Considine.

A strategic mind

Burg joined Ohio Edison in 1968 as a financial-analyst trainee. He's held the titles of treasurer, vice president, senior vice president, chief financial officer and chief operating officer. After FirstEnergy was formed in 1997, he was named president and CEO in 1999. He was elected chairman in 2000.

``He has a very strategic mind and vision and is working through these challenges with high energy and a good group of talented people around him,'' said Considine.

To be sure, Burg has many challenges in front of him. Initial reports after the historic blackouts that put tens of millions of people in the dark pointed fingers at FirstEnergy. Some officials are now backing off those assertions while trying to figure out what caused the blackout.

But in the last 18 months, FirstEnergy has had to deal with a maelstrom of problems, including: damage to Davis-Besse nuclear power plant; cancellation of the sale of four power plants that would have brought in $1.5 billion to pay down company debt, because the potential buyer went bankrupt; its president, Anthony Alexander, having to make a special trip to meet with New Jersey's governor to explain power outages along the Jersey shore over the Fourth of July weekend; a federal judge ruling that the company violated environmental rules in upgrading its Sammis coal-fired plant in Ohio; and stunning investors last month by saying it would restate earnings going back to 2002.

Not out front

FirstEnergy critics say Burg should be more forthright in speaking to the public. Burg has mostly kept quiet, declining Beacon Journal interviews since the Davis-Besse problems arose, as well as other media interviews, and relying on his public relations staff and prepared statements. Company spokesman Ralph DiNicola said Burg was ``absolutely not available'' for this story, saying Burg could not accommodate the hundreds of interview requests of him because he is focusing on what happened in the outage. DiNicola offered a short interview Friday after Burg is to return from Washington, D.C.

Shortly after the blackout, a local television crew staked out the FirstEnergy parking lot to talk to Burg.

Considine, who saw the segment on television, said he was impressed by Burg's reaction. ``He answered the man's questions. He didn't show any anger. He didn't say `no comment.' He tried to take the high road,'' Considine said.

Erin Bowser, state director of the Ohio PIRG, an environmental and consumer advocacy group, said Burg, as head of FirstEnergy, has an obligation to speak to the public. ``The public has the right to know why the lights went out,'' she said.

Other leaders' views

But many community leaders say Burg is the type of person who wants all the details and doesn't want to shoot from the hip. He's relying on his public relations staff while he's doing his job of figuring out what went wrong, they said.

``I don't think he's dodging at all,'' said Considine. ``As a CEO myself, sometimes the hardest thing to do is resist making a comment.''

Sylvester Small, Akron Public Schools superintendent, said many corporate executives are not public figures. Burg is ``a quiet kind of leader,'' said Small, who added that Burg and FirstEnergy have been great supporters of the Akron schools. ``Peter is a leader of leaders,'' said Small, who attended UA with Burg.

Brennessel said it has been alarming to hear and watch the national media attack FirstEnergy. ``What I've seen in the media is FirstEnergy painted as a corporate demon that descends and sucks out of the community,'' he said. ``I would say it's really quite the opposite.''

UA President Luis Proenza said he hopes Burg's testimony today in the congressional hearing won't be a continuation of the blame game. But Proenza, who is on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and who has testified before Congress on other issues, said he expects Burg will be put in the hot seat.

``I expect that people will be trying to, indeed, loosely point the finger. So I certainly expect there will be those that will be angry with the questions,'' said Proenza. ``Hopefully there will be many who will prevail with more constructive questions asking about recommendations that might be, indeed, amenable to providing a much more robust distribution system.''


Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com
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