Photo by Chris Keane
Charlotte leaders long boasted their city was America’s second-largest financial center. But in 2008, Queen City banking was in disarray. Wachovia, teetering on insolvency, was scooped up by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo. Bank of America was rumored to be moving to New York. It wasn’t true, but BofA and other financial institutions were shedding thousands of jobs.
Jim Rogers, then CEO of Duke Energy, had only been in Charlotte for two years, but he saw an opportunity for a fresh approach. “He said, ‘Let’s pitch ourselves more strongly than ever to financial markets in New York and Chicago,’” former Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan says. “More importantly, he said the Charlotte energy sector was poised to grow across the globe, and we [had] an opportunity to become the nation’s emerging energy center.” Within weeks, Rogers assembled a summit that attracted local executives;
Gov. Beverly Perdue; future Gov. Pat McCrory, a Duke Energy executive; and national energy experts. “It was his concept, and he put the muscle behind it.”
By the time Rogers retired in 2013, Charlotte’s energy sector had grown markedly, while Duke had consolidated much of North Carolina’s electric-utility industry through the acquisition of Raleigh-based Progress Energy. He also shepherded his company’s move into a new, 54-story headquarters which the former Wachovia had planned, and he had emerged as one of the energy industry’s first leaders to press for federal action to address climate change.
While only a CEO in North Carolina for seven years, he ranks among the state’s most impactful business leaders over the last few decades, Morgan and others say. In Rogers’ obituary, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria said, “I am hard-pressed to think of anyone in any industry, not just energy, with a similar record.”
Rogers, who died of sepsis at age 71 in Louisville, Ky., in December, had a diverse career. After graduating from the University of Kentucky College of Law, he worked as a state consumer advocate tasked with scrutinizing utility rate hikes. He later moved to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, then a large Washington, D.C., law firm before entering the energy industry with an Enron subsidiary. In 1988, Indiana-based PSI Resources hired him as CEO, giving him a platform to display some extraordinary boardroom skills. At the time, the utility was more than 90% reliant on coal for its power source and struggling to pay for environmental upgrades. “The only way a 40-year-old guy would be a utility CEO in those days was if the company was nearly bankrupt,” Rogers later joked to friends.
After blocking a hostile takeover bid by a larger Indiana utility, Rogers engineered PSI’s 1994 merger with Cincinnati Electric & Gas to create Cinergy. Though the Ohio company was much larger, Rogers was named CEO. In 2006, he pulled off the same trick, selling Cinergy to Duke Energy for about $9 billion while leapfrogging N.C. executives to succeed Paul Anderson.
After moving to Charlotte, Rogers quickly stepped up as a key leader in arts, philanthropy and politics. He co-chaired the campaign to bring the 2012 Democratic National Convention to Charlotte, then directed Duke to cover the event’s operating deficit to the tune of $6 million. “It was in his nature to get in the middle of things and make something happen,” retired banker Hugh McColl Jr. says.
His final, biggest stroke was the $32 billion acquisition of Raleigh-based Progress Energy in July 2012, which created the largest U.S. investor-owned electric utility and entailed an unusually brazen courtroom coup. Weak operating performance at its Florida power plants had left Progress wobbling, making possible the long-rumored merger. As part of the negotiations, Duke promised Progress CEO Bill Johnson that he would land the top job, while Rogers was to become executive chairman. In a last minute switch, Duke’s board ousted Johnson and extended Rogers’ tenure as CEO.
The action enraged former Progress board members and the N.C. Utilities Commission, which ruled that Duke had misled investors. After negotiations with the regulator, Duke agreed to a settlement in which Rogers stepped down in 2013.
Johnson received a severance agreement topping $40 million and later became CEO at the Tennessee Valley Authority. He plans to retire from that post this year.
Rogers traveled globally to press for changes in U.S. and international energy policies and “he wasn’t afraid to tackle hard questions,” says Lynn Good, a former Cinergy executive who succeeded him as CEO. Over the last decade, Duke has closed about 30 coal plants in North Carolina, shifting mainly to natural gas. Still, the utility remains dependent on coal and received international publicity for a coal-ash spill at the Dan River in 2014, a year after Rogers’ departure. The spill prompted Duke’s guilty plea for criminal negligence under the federal Clean Water Act and more than $100 million in fines and restitution.
Rogers, who grew up in Danville, Ky., often spoke of his working-class roots. “He was a people person who was very grateful for the opportunities he’d been given,” Morgan says. “He knew how to turn a good idea into something tangible.