For the third time in two years, Cleveland Utilities will lose a longtime administrator to retirement and this time it’s coming in the front office.
Tom Wheeler, 66, president and CEO who has worked at the public utility more than 42 years, will retire effective Nov. 1. Figuring in personal leave and accumulated time, Wheeler’s final day of work will be sometime around Oct. 1.
The veteran utility leader, who joined the local company in 1971 as a distribution engineer, announced his pending retirement Thursday during a formal monthly session of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities.
“My desire was to retire leaving Cleveland Utilities in good shape to continue to serve the needs of our customers for many years to come,” Wheeler told board members in a letter addressed to Aubrey Ector, CU board chairman. “I feel I have accomplished this goal.”
Wheeler, who was named CU general manager in 1989 succeeding M.E. “Joe” Beavers, told board members he believes the CU infrastructure is sound.
“The physical plant in our electric, water and wastewater systems is in good condition,” he said. “There is adequate capacity for all three departments to continue to serve the needs of our community well into the future. We have been able to keep our physical plant updated and well-maintained while at the same time upholding a solid financial position.”
Although the outgoing CEO said CU’s physical plant is in “sound condition,” he stressed the utility’s future is in its workforce.
“... The future strength of Cleveland Utilities lies in its almost 200 employees,” Wheeler said. “Our employees are dedicated to their jobs, [they are] well-trained, and [they are] motivated to do a good job for Cleveland. I believe I am leaving a workforce that will have no problem continuing the high level of service we have tried to develop during my time at Cleveland Utilities.”
Wheeler credited the work of CU employees for the public utility’s ability to meet the Cleveland community’s needs over the years in both electric and water.
“I would especially like to thank the employees of Cleveland Utilities, past and present, who have contributed so much to make Cleveland Utilities successful,” he offered. “It is an awesome task to be responsible for ensuring a safe, dependable electric and water supply for our community. Our employees have always been up to the task.”
Wheeler also thanked utility board members for their ongoing support of the company and for standing behind his administration and staff. He pointed to the significance of the Cleveland City Council and its partnership with, and support of, the public utility in its growth and throughout its years of service in meeting the growing needs of the Cleveland area.
Veering away from his retirement letter, Wheeler spoke to the governing body face to face.
“I’m getting on up there [in age], so it’s about time,” he told the group. “I’ve been here many, many years.”
Wheeler reiterated, “I’m more than willing to do whatever is necessary in working with you and making sure we have a smooth transition in whatever direction we need to go.”
Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, one of five CU board members, asked lightheartedly, “What if we don’t accept it (the retirement letter)?”
Board members took no action on Wheeler’s letter for now although Joe Cate, in keeping with Rowland’s lighter theme, said he may have finally found a utility issue on which to vote “no.”
“The other day somebody said to me I had not voted ‘no’ on anything yet, and they wanted to know why,” the newest board member explained. “[I told them] the reason is [because] everything is running so smooth. But now, I guess I’ve found something to vote ‘no’ on.”
Wheeler, whose early CU career included serving as operations manager and customer service manager, was named head of the Electric Division in 1976, and in 1982 he was promoted to assistant manager serving under Beavers. Seven years later, he took over the CU reins as general manager.
“By the time I get out of here [in October], it’ll be close to 43 years,” Wheeler said with a smile. “That’s a pretty long run ... and I’m pretty tired.”
Ector praised Wheeler’s leadership and described his professional style as always being “classy.”
Board members offered no hint as to their first step in naming Wheeler’s successor. They still have six months before the CEO’s retirement date.
Ken Webb, senior vice president and CFO, currently serves in the utility’s second-in-command slot. Other administrative leaders include Bart Borden, vice president of the Electric Division; Craig T. Mullinax, vice president of the Water Division; Tim Henderson, vice president of Administrative Services; and Walt Vineyard, vice president of Information Technology.
In late 2011, Dennis Daniel, former manager of the Electric Division who had followed Wheeler in that role, retired after a long career. He was succeeded by Borden. About a year later, Ricky Lawson, former vice president of Administrative Services, retired after a 41-year career. He was succeeded by Henderson.