A few months after taking the helm as president of the Connecticut Light & Power Co., Jeffrey D. Butler spoke at a business breakfast in New London County, telling a receptive audience about his vision for a more dependable and respected electric company.
"In the future, you'll see a whole level of difference in reliability and service to our customers," Butler said at the October 2009 gathering. "I want our customers to step back and see us as their advocate."
You can pull the plug on that idea.
A pair of devastating storms has drained whatever customer goodwill CL&P had hoped to develop. And in the process, Butler, a no-nonsense engineer, went from anonymous energy wonk to solitary lightning rod for the fury of nearly a million electric customers who spent all or part of last week shivering in the dark.
Editorial writers skewer him. One police department is threatening to hold him responsible for fires exacerbated by blocked roads. And some prankster has set up a Twitter account under the name "FakeJeffButler" with a constant stream of needling posts.
"The rumors that my gold-plated residential backup generator runs on the refined tears of orphan children are totally unfounded," one Tweet reads.
Twice a day, Butler walks to the podium in the Emergency Operations Center at the State Armory in Hartford and grimly faces skeptical reporters who out-shout each other for the chance to challenge the company's restoration projections.
It is those sessions that have made Butler the face of CL&P's public-relations debacle. And for all his responsibilities as company president, it is that under-the-spotlight role, those who know him say, for which he is least suited.
"I think that he knows he doesn't have a career in local television news ahead of him," said Tom Dalzell, a union official representing workers at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in California, where Butler spent most of his career. "But that's just his gruffness. That's the engineer. Engineers by definition generally aren't going to win personality pageants."
That image of the methodical, serious-minded engineer is the personality trait most frequently described by those who know Butler, and they say it makes him a far better utility company chief than utility company spokesman.
"He's not the kind of guy that would call you up and say 'Let's have a beer,'" said state Sen. John Fonfara D-Hartford, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Energy and Technology Committee. "I would say he's not a gregarious person. He's measured. He's an engineer, as many folks at CL&P are that I interact with. And all engineers have a slightly different approach as to how they see the world, as compared to, say, politicians."
Butler generally appears weary and uncomfortable at the daily news conferences, in stark contrast to the frenetic nature of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who precedes him at the podium. He has made missteps, initially appearing to point the finger at weather forecasters and later showing reluctance to apologize for the slow place of the company's restoration efforts. His daily expressions of empathy are not resonating with the public.
"He's certainly learned the public side of his job later than he learned the engineering side of his job," Fonfara said. "But I think that's something that he's learning is an important part of his job."
But not a part he relishes. He blanches when asked to ponder his own feelings and discuss the toll the outages have had on him personally.
"We're in business to serve our customers. And having almost 80 percent of your customers out of power, it does take a toll," he said. "It's something I take personally."
Butler is the son of a lineman, and has spent his entire career in the energy industry. He graduated from the California State University at Chico in 1979 with a degree in electrical and electronic engineering, and signed on with Pacific Gas and Electric, working a variety of hydroelectric jobs before moving into management.
In the early years, he often shared the hour-long commute from Fresno to San Francisco with Lee McVey, a staff supervisor in a different department, and the two bantered about company politics and other topics.
"Jeff's a sharp guy," said McVey, who has since retired from PG&E. "I was pleased to see him promoted."
Those promotions took Butler through most aspects of the energy business, including transmission, distribution, maintenance and construction. In 2006, he became the senior vice president in charge of energy delivery for the utility's 10 million customers.
He left PG&E in a management shake-up and worked for a European energy consulting firm for less than a year before CL&P offered him the presidency, replacing Raymond P. Necci.
Butler has made modest donations to politicians and he serves on a few non-profit boards, winning high marks for his community commitment, according to Larry McHugh, who works with Butler both on the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce and the board of trustees of the Goodspeed Opera House. But his tenure in Connecticut has been generally low-key — so much so that when asked for the names of individuals who know him well, he turned his focus to California. "I've only been here 2½ years," he explained.
But while Butler isn't flashy, he's no wallflower either. Butler's son is a minor league pitcher signed by the Milwaukee Brewers, and Dalzell, the California union official, says it's no surprise that Butler raised a competitive athlete.
"Jeff has a competitive streak," Dalzell said, adding that it is an engineer's competitiveness, a quest to conquer the hugely complicated task of energy distribution.
But there is growing concern that the competitiveness has evolved into a reckless pursuit of profits, and in the past week, some have cast Butler as a fat-cat executive willing keep customers in the dark for days if it meant lower restoration costs. In particular, Butler and CL&P have been criticized for a decision not to pay crews to be on standby in advance of the storm, and for an inability to secure crews once the cleanup began.
Even in California, Butler found himself in the now-familiar position of defending his company's response to outages, particularly during a series of a storms in late 2002, and a substation fire the following year.
"We've learned a great deal from this incident," Butler said at the time, sounding much like he did in Connecticut last week. "And now our job is to put that learning to use, and do better."
Butler's compensation is not publicly known. Although utilities are required to report the pay of their executives, CL&P has interpreted that to require disclosure only of the compensation paid to executives at parent company Northeast Utilities, including NU chief executive Charles W. Shivery, whose total compensation topped $8.2 million in the last fiscal year.
Butler's predecessor, however, typically made more than $1 million a year. And Butler paid $1.6 million for his nearly 8,000-square-foot home in Avon with a wine cellar and four-car garage.
For the record, at week's end, the house was without power, Butler told reporters, and while he had a generator — presumably not gold-plated — it had failed by Friday morning.
This is news he delivers without a hint of seeking sympathy from the masses.
"There are leaders that are liked and respected and feared. And if he had to rank those, he would say I want to be respected most of all, I don't want to be feared, and if I'm liked, fine," Dalzell said. "But I think his style of leadership is based on respect, not on warm and fuzzy."
Butler need not worry about the warm and fuzzies this week. And some people dealing with the massive power outage, such as Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary Glassman, express little interest in Butler's personality or business style. They're just looking to him to get the lights back on.
"Ultimately, the buck stops there, right? It's ultimately his responsibility to make sure that his company and his people deliver," Glassman said. "I've met him several times. He's very pleasant. He seems to have the same goal we all have as elected officials to restore power. I don't think he's got a list of places he doesn't want to restore power to.
"So the question is: Why isn't his company getting the job done?"