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
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
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
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
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.''