Twenty years ago, John Bryson helped found one of the nation's most aggressive environmental organizations.
Today, the former environmental activist takes over as chairman and chief executive officer of one of Southern California's largest polluters.
The significance--and irony--of Bryson's ascendancy to the top job at Southern California Edison Co. and its corporate parent, SCECorp, has not been lost on either the business community or the environmental movement.
Members of both camps hope that Bryson will become a prototype for a new generation of top corporate executives who understand how to manage a major company in a climate of growing environmental awareness and regulation.
"John's appointment suggests that the carriers of the environmental ethic may now be able to carry out those ideas from a position of power, rather than as critics of those who hold power," said Richard E. Ayers, who was a co-founder with Bryson of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970. Ayers now heads the group, which is known for its readiness to sue government and business to enforce environmental laws.
The choice of Bryson, who at 47 succeeds retiring Howard P. Allen, is widely viewed as an inspired public relations move for the image-conscious utility.
Bryson stressed in interviews last week that his primary loyalty is to the utility's shareholders and he cautioned that "the company is not in the business of providing (for) social needs."
"We will . . . provide electric service in a way that is very sensitive to the environment," Bryson said. "(But) there is nothing that says in every case, every environmentalist will like what we're doing. In the environmental community itself there are always disputes about one thing or another."
Bryson's rise to the top at Edison--which serves 5 million customers as the nation's largest operating electrical utility--under-scores a move among U.S. corporations to recruit executives for high-profile positions who have experience with environmental issues. For many companies this reflects a growing awareness that it makes good business sense to pay closer attention to the environment.
Government environmental regulations are getting tougher, particularly in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez and other oil spills. A negative public image on environmental issues can cost companies dearly in lost sales.
Exxon, Monsanto and other companies have added board members with environmental credentials. Even Walt Disney Co. recently created a new corporate position of vice president for environmental policy, appointing a marine biologist to the post.
Perhaps the best-known appointment came at Browning-Ferris Industries, the nation's second-largest waste management firm. The company was widely applauded when it hired William D. Ruckelshaus, two-time administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as CEO and chairman of the board in 1988. But some environmentalists have criticized Ruckelshaus' performance for falling short where environmental quality is concerned.
SCECorp, whose profits are set by the California Public Utilities Commission, earned $778 million last year on revenues of $6.9 billion. As a government-regulated utility that operates, in effect, as a monopoly, Edison is under more pressure than most companies to be sensitive to the environment.
Bryson, who joined Edison in 1984 as a senior vice president, will be put to the test as soon as he walks through the door at the company's Rosemead headquarters.
The utility is embroiled in a major controversy over its proposed $2.5-billion merger with San Diego Gas & Electric Co. Environmentalists and other critics, including state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, object to Edison's plans to shut down older power plants in San Diego and shift electricity generation to under-used facilities in the South Coast Air Basin, the nation's smoggiest urban area.
Meanwhile, criticism lingers over Edison's opposition to a far-reaching plan to bring Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties into compliance with federal clean air standards by 2007.
Edison vigorously fought the plan and spent at least $1 million on a rival proposal. The utility agreed to support the South Coast Air Quality Management District's version only after winning important financial concessions. The compromise has not yet been approved by EPA.
Bryson, whom one colleague describes as a "thoughtful, bulldog-type of man," has consistently supported Edison's position on both sensitive issues and sees no conflict with his environmentalist roots.
"The public is concerned, correctly so I think, about a healthy environment," he said. "Energy, and particularly electricity, is at the heart of the modern economy and I would say we as electric utilities have an obligation to provide that reliably, but also promote sound environmental objectives."
Bryson also may face management challenges within Edison. Some observers say mid-level executives at the utility have been slow to grasp environmental concerns and the importance of energy conservation.
"Edison's middle management is still somewhat confused about whether it should be selling more electricity or less," said Amory Lovins, the well-known alternative energy proponent who is a Bryson supporter.
Bryson can be expected to attract critics among those opposed to the SDG&E; merger and others who believe the AQMD plan is not strong enough.
"We'll have our differences," predicted William S. Shaffran, deputy city attorney of San Diego, where public and private agencies from the mayor to the Chamber of Commerce strongly oppose the proposed merger.
Bryson raised eyebrows recently when he got the NRDC to endorse an Edison plan for offsetting air pollution increases expected to result from a merger with SDG&E.;
Many believe the NRDC position helped persuade AQMD to go along with the pollution reduction plan.
"John asked me to take a look at this issue," NRDC's Ralph Cavanagh said. "There's no question, given John's connections in the environmental community, that he had the ability to get an issue on the (NRDC) agenda."
Was it the "old-boy network" at work?
"I wouldn't describe it as the old-boy network," Bryson said. "It meant that I had the acquaintance of many of the NRDC (staff) and I hoped, based on my work in the past, I had the respect of those people."
Bryson also opposes one of the favorite projects of environmental activists in California--passage of Proposition 128, the environmental initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot known as "Big Green" by its supporters.
Bryson praises the measure's "worthy objectives," but said he is concerned that, for the utility company, it may be too "inflexible."
Many environmentalists have no illusions about where Bryson's main allegiances are now.
"I think (Bryson's) loyal to his company," said Mary Nichols, a senior attorney in NRDC's Los Angeles office. "He's not going to do anything as CEO of Edison to compromise the interest of shareholders."
But, she added, "I think his view of his responsibilities and philosophy of how he carries them out will clearly have a broader environmental component than any previous CEO of Southern California Edison--or any other head of a utility in the country."
Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce President Ray Remy, who occasionally plays tennis with Bryson, said the Edison executive called recently to ask whether his NRDC history posed a problem for the chamber. Remy told him it did not.
Bryson, who lives in South Pasadena with his wife, Louise, and four children, said many people might consider his environmental career "the most intriguing part of my background. But, in terms of what I have learned and bring to the job . . . I don't know that I would say that NRDC contributed more."
Although Bryson is expected to generally follow the course at Edison set by the departing Allen, the new chairman will have a decidedly different management style. Allen was known for his sometimes gruff, no-nonsense demeanor, in contrast to Bryson's conciliatory approach.
Bryson's style and background in the environmental movement can be expected to not only reap public relations dividends, but prove to be an advantage in working with environmental groups and making life easier for Edison down the road.
In contrast to Bryson's unorthodox corporate career path, Allen worked at Edison since 1954 and gradually rose through the ranks. Before retiring, he served as president as well as chairman and chief executive officer. Bryson, however, will not hold all three positions. Executive Vice President Michael R. Peevey will serve under Bryson as president.
Peevey may counterbalance Bryson's image as an environmentalist. Peevey's career includes a 10-year stint as president of the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance, an industry-labor coalition that most often opposed environmental agendas.
Bryson, who grew up in Portland, Ore., graduated from Stanford University and Yale Law School. In 1970, he was among a group that used a Ford Foundation grant to found the NRDC.
"The idea was an organization that would base itself on good science and careful advocacy," he said.
Today, NRDC is one of the country's leading environmental organizations. It has sued the federal government so often that some have called NRDC the "shadow EPA." More recently, NRDC sparked a nationwide controversy when it released a report warning that apples sprayed with the pesticide Alar were unsafe.
In 1974, Bryson married and left the environmental group to work for a private law firm in Portland.
By 1976, he was back in California, as chairman of the State Water Resources Control Board during the administration of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. There he became a valuable intermediary for bureaucrats vying for the governor's ear.
"John was an unfailing co-conspirator," said Michael Fischer, now executive director of the Sierra Club, who then was deputy director of the governor's Office of Planning and Research.
Fischer recalled that Bryson would argue before Brown the merits of a proposal on behalf of Fischer and others. Then, Bryson would call them at night to report, "I think I've got Jerry softened up. Now's the time to come in."
From 1979 through 1982, Bryson served as PUC president, generally receiving good marks. At one point, he joined commission members in slapping Edison with an $8-million fine for defying a PUC order.
"I thought he was a good regulator because he was fair," said Edward J. Tirello Jr., managing director and senior utility analyst at Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. in New York. "I always felt he gave every side a chance."
Bryson has also gained a reputation as a deft negotiator.
Daniel Yergin, now president of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and a seasoned consultant to government and business, first met Bryson during the early 1980s. Yergin recalled a conference on energy issues Bryson organized at the Stanford campus.
"John put together this extraordinary conference that brought all sorts of people together from all different points of view in what were then very fierce energy debates. He shaped it into a reasoned and creative discussion. . . . It showed a real capacity to bring different people together and to focus on common concerns rather than knee-jerk antagonisms," Yergin said.
"I was at that conference," said energy researcher Lovins. "I think if John hadn't taken up this line of work I think he would have been a fine diplomat. He's the kind of lawyer who tries to solve problems, not win fights."
Bryson is a proponent of several ideas that have long been discussed by environmentalists, but only lately welcomed in utility company planning meetings. These often include the use of financial incentives to encourage energy conservation. The idea is to use government regulation to set conservation goals, but allow business to develop the technologies and methods to meet those goals. Energy savings, so the theory goes, will come more efficiently this way than if government dictates every move.
Bryson notes that Edison recently proposed to the state that alternative and renewable energy sources--such as co-generation and geothermal--be given greater weight in planning for energy needs because they involve less potential environmental impact.
"This is sound from an environmental point of view," Bryson said, "but also just as plain sound business. It would be a mistake in judgment, I believe, to approve a coal plant today that had some level of carbon dioxide emission that would add to its cost about 15 years down the way--while the geothermal facility might have less."
Bryson's supporters see his appointment as an opportunity for a harmonious--and unusual--confluence of environmental and business interests.
"This is a great opportunity to see whether or not that confluence works," said PUC President G. Mitchell Wilk. "I've got a lot of optimism that says it does."