It’s not quite 8 a.m., and the horn on Keller Kissam’s Chevy pickup is getting a workout as he cruises through SCE&G’s 160-acre operations complex.
The utility’s newly promoted chief operating officer brakes and honks for every employee he sees, stopping to ask a mail-room worker about her ailing knee, trade inside jokes with a material handler and wrap a lineman or two in bear hugs.
“I see you ain’t found a razor yet!” Kissam calls out to a bearded employee outside a warehouse. “Hey, I love you, man,” he tells another as he jumps back into the truck.
Kissam is nothing if not affable. The 1988 Citadel graduate makes a point to know his employees’ names, their families and their backgrounds – and says they are his family, too.
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Now, their futures sit partly on his shoulders.
Kissam, 51, now is the new public face of a new regime at Cayce-based SCANA, the stockholder-owned utility whose failed attempt to build two new nuclear reactors in Fairfield County has cost its S.C. customers and shareholders billions of dollars and thrown the company into turmoil.
His ascension comes with the departures of chief executive Kevin Marsh and chief operating officer Stephen Byrne. Those moves had been long sought by fuming S.C. lawmakers who say the two executives were remorseless in hearings into the debacle.
Those same lawmakers say Kissam’s brand of accountable leadership is sorely needed at a Fortune 1000 company hoping to avoid bankruptcy or a takeover.
“There may be too much water under the bridge at this point,” said state Rep. Russell Ott, a Calhoun Democrat who has known personally Kissam for years.
But, Ott added, “If this thing can be fixed, he’s going to be the guy who fixes it.”
There may be too much water under the bridge at this point. If this thing can be fixed, he’s going to be the guy who fixes it.
— State Rep. Russell Ott, a Calhoun Democrat who has known personally Kissam for years
As president of SCE&G’s retail operations, Kissam’s only involvement in the nuclear project was leading the construction of 500 miles of transmission lines meant to carry new power from Fairfield County to the company’s customers.
That $700 million portion of the nuclear power project is on budget and on schedule, Kissam says, and will be useful when it is completed in mid-2018.
But Kissam and SCANA’s new chief executive, Jimmy Addison, are inheriting a mess.
The utility’s electric customers are outraged, having been charged $1.7 billion in higher rates for two nuclear reactors that won’t generate power.
Lawmakers want to block the company from continuing to charge its customers $37 million a month to pay off the costs of the scuttled project.
SCANA’s stock price is plumbing new lows, hitting a new 52-week low Friday. Out-of-state utilities are mulling a takeover. Customers and shareholders are suing, and bankruptcy is a distinct possibility.
Atop Kissam’s priorities, he says, are restoring public trust in the state’s largest publicly traded company – where he has worked since graduating from college.
Some S.C. lawmakers say Kissam is the man for the job. He gets customers’ nuclear frustrations, they think.
That stems from an upbringing in Creston, S.C. – population 33 – where a man’s word is his bond, Kissam says.
“We did not do what we said we were going to do – that is, to build that power plant,” Kissam told The State in an interview Friday. “I want to tell you this: To our customers, I’m sorry. To the constitutional officers and elected officials who have had to spend their time on this matter, I’m sorry. To our employees – particularly those in the public eye on a daily basis and have had to endure the most tumultuous time in our company’s history – I’m sorry.”
We did not do what we said we were going to do – that is, to build that power plant. I want to tell you this: To our customers, I’m sorry. To the constitutional officers and elected officials who have had to spend their time on this matter, I’m sorry. To our employees – particularly those in the public eye on a daily basis and have had to endure the most tumultuous time in our company’s history – I’m sorry.
— Keller Kissam, SCANA’s incoming chief operating officer
‘He was willing to fight’
Kissam is popular among S.C. elected leaders and the 1,000 employees who report to him.
SCE&G workers say Kissam has earned their respect by having their backs. For example, he publicly has defended SCE&G’s tree-trimming policy, which reduces power outages but is unpopular with homeowners.
“He was willing to fight for it and make sure we were able to continue doing it ... against political pressure,” said SCE&G supervisor Royce Shannon.
Kissam, who vowed Friday not to accept an increased salary with his promotion, says he stays grounded by taking some customer calls directly and handling their issues himself.
In one case, he says he sat with a woman from Columbia who was distraught over her trees being hacked away from power lines. In another case, during a trip to Charleston, he stopped by James Island to pick up flags an SCE&G crew had left to mark a gas line on a man’s property.
“I had to endure his wrath to begin with, but now he calls me to talk about things that aren’t even about work,” Kissam says.
Kissam also is known as a prankster with a quick wit.
At a 2015 conference, for example, he dialed the number of a speaker who had just urged the audience to silence any cell phones. The speaker’s phone rang loudly, tickling the crowd.
“In some ways, he’s an irrepressible 12 year old,” said the butt of that joke, Electric Cooperatives of S.C. chief executive Mike Couick. “That’s what comes through, this curiosity and enthusiasm that’s just contagious.”
In some ways, he’s an irrepressible 12 year old. That’s what comes through, this curiosity and enthusiasm that’s just contagious.
— Cooperatives of S.C. chief executive Mike Couick
Before this week, Kissam has mostly been known as the public face of SCE&G’s storm response team – leading the utility’s efforts to return power to its customers after hurricanes or ice storms.
Hurricanes and ice storms are one thing, Kissam says, but the political maelstrom surrounding SCANA’s abandonment of the V.C. Summer nuclear expansion is a different animal.
“These are uncharted waters,” he says. “Instead of putting your hands on material (to make post-hurricane repairs), you’ve got to put your eyes in front of people, and you’ve got to work collaboratively to restore that trust and confidence.”
Kissam says he wants to work with lawmakers, electric cooperatives, state regulators and other stakeholders to reach a settlement for the failed project.
“We’ve got to offset as much of these nuclear costs that are in customers’ bills as we possibly can,” he says. “It didn’t happen overnight. I don’t know if we can cure it overnight.”
But, he added, SCE&G employees – including linemen who are catching flak from customers about the nuclear project – deserve to be proud of their company again.
Kissam on SCANA’s future
SCANA in danger of bankruptcy?
Incoming SCANA president Keller Kissam could not promise Friday that the utility’s nuclear problems would not bankrupt the company. A plunging stock price, and political and regulatory uncertainty could drive the SCANA to the brink, he said.
“I can’t definitively say no, that’s not true,” Kissam said. “We are in a precarious situation from a financial (standpoint).
“I worry about our company. I worry about our employees. I worry about it for our customers.”
Coming to a settlement with lawmakers and other stakeholders about how much, if anything, SCE&G customers should pay for the scuttled project, is “critical,” Kissam said.
“I’m willing to talk with anyone I can in order to broker a settlement,” he said.
A deal for customers?
Kissam hinted at an effort to find some relief for SCE&G power customers who still are paying an average of $27 a month toward the failed project.
“We’ve got to offset as much of these nuclear costs that are in customers’ bills as we possibly can,” Kissam said. “It didn’t happen overnight. I don’t know if we can cure it overnight.”
“The thing that I hear from customers more than anything is, ‘We’re paying for something and we’re not getting anything out of it,’ ” Kissam said. “And you know what? They’re exactly right. We’ve got to figure out some way that our customers can received something out of this.”
A ‘bull’s eye’
SCE&G customers have taken their nuclear frustrations out on the utility’s linemen, the utility’s employees say.
Kissam said uniformed SCE&G linemen angrily have been confronted in restaurants with newspaper articles about the utility’s nuclear debacle, in addition to seeing more middle fingers than usual from passing cars.
“That logo on the side of that truck might as well be a bull’s eye,” Kissam said.
No higher salary
Kissam told The State Friday he won’t accept a higher salary as part of his promotion to SCANA’s chief operating officer.
SCANA’s executive team pay – $14 million in 2016 – has come under scrutiny in light of the project’s failure and the company’s higher electricity rates.
“Until we stabilize this company, I just don’t feel like it’s warranted,” Kissam said. “I owe that to my employees.”