John Rowe, CEO, Exelon Corp.
Exelon Corp. CEO says keeping the lights on has given his career a purpose
Exelon CEO John Rowe being interviewed in his office at 10 S. Dearborn on the 53rd floor, with an incredible view of the city. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune)
But that wasn't the view that made John Rowe linger. From his office on the 54th floor of Chase Tower downtown, the 66-year-old Exelon Corp. chief waited, before a commanding view of the skyline, for the dawning of his lights, those powered by Commonwealth Edison.
"When you fly into Chicago at night and you see those lights that go on and on and on, you just get the shivers," he said, dressed impeccably in a suit and carefully chosen tie, his cuff links outfitted from two Athenian tetradrachm, the silver currency of ancient Greece.
For Rowe, keeping the lights on across all those miles gave purpose to his 28 years as a utility executive.
"Electricity is a wonderful business. But it's also very difficult," he said. "It's important to everyone, rich or poor. It has huge environmental effects, for good or worse."
When Rowe retires early next year, he will leave an industry he helped shape for about a quarter of its lifetime. Soon, his office — it's filled with the artifacts of the Pharaohs, kings and emperors whose sagas he turns to for advice — will be stripped of his effects and prepared for his successor.
The usually overbooked time slots on his calendar have begun to open up, leaving him more time to devote to the charter schools that bear his name, to his role as trustee of the Chicago History Museum and to the speaking engagements where, more and more, he is prone to unscripted reverie about his lengthy career.
"I notice vice presidents around the Chase building solemnly chanting: 'The king is dead, long live the king.' God, I wish they'd wait until I stop putting moisture on the mirror," Rowe said recently at a conference of 20- and 30-somethings from North American Young Generation in Nuclear, a professional organization.
For a CEO who answers and deletes his own emails faster than his staffers are able to read them, the process of ceding control of the $19 billion company has been emotional.
"This company is my baby," he said. "The truth is, I don't do anything else very well."
The persuasive and affable Rowe spent the majority of his tenure at Exelon pushing for climate legislation in Washington. He ruled the nation's largest fleet of nuclear power plants, machines that collectively produce enough electricity to power 17 million homes. He oversaw the massive merger of Peco Energy Co. and the parent of Commonwealth Edison Co. that created Exelon Corp. in 2000, and, as CEO, he is responsible for 19,114 employees.
Now, after a series of failed deals and the disappointment of his 10-year fight for cap-and-trade legislation flaming out last year, Rowe is set to exit with a final, $8 billion acquisition under his belt, that of Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Group Inc.
But as a man who devours books on ancient Egypt and China, American and Spanish history and the Byzantine Empire, Rowe realizes that part of overseeing Exelon is ensuring it can survive without him.
Alexander the Great, who by age 30 ruled land stretching from the Himalayas to the Ionian Sea, died without choosing an heir. It didn't take long for his vast empire to dissolve into chaos.
"What happens is, none of Alexander's generals have the same charisma he has, so they start fighting amongst themselves," Rowe recently told the class of advanced-placement World History students he teaches monthly at the Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy in West Humboldt Park.
There also are tangible reasons to plan a succession and move on, Rowe said later.
"I have to start going to the gym and losing weight. Adding a pill a year just isn't working."
Rowe came to Chicago from a New England utility, arriving as head of Unicom Corp., owner of Commonwealth Edison, in 1998, a time when the city's lights didn't always reliably turn on. Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley was outraged about the power failures. There were outages and riots on the West Side, and things had gotten so bad that the city was considering a move to purchase and oversee its own electrical system.