When the weather is good, Bob Blue likes to kayak or canoe from his South Richmond home through the James River rapids to his office at Dominion Energy Inc.’s headquarters on the city’s riverfront.
Blue, 53, is about to embark on a journey like no other through uncertain waters as the undisputed leader of one of Virginia’s most powerful companies and political institutions.
He will become board chairman of Dominion Energy on Thursday, as Executive Chairman Thomas F. Farrell II quietly retires from the company he has led in a highly public way for more than 15 years.
Farrell, who turned 66 in December, is leaving the Richmond-based company six months after a transition that made Blue the company’s chief executive officer, but reporting to him in a new role as executive chairman. Now, Blue will report to the board alone, while still relying on Farrell as a special adviser until May 1.
“He has been an extraordinary leader for our company,” Blue said of Farrell, whom he called a “mentor and friend.”
“I hope I can be half the leader he has been,” Blue said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’m thankful he’s still someone I can call on and ask for advice.”
Blue ascends to the summit of a company he joined 16 years ago, less than a year before Farrell became chairman and CEO, at a pivotal time for an energy business that is focusing on its more than 2.6 million monopoly utility customers in Virginia and North Carolina and a rising demand for clean sources of electricity to serve them.
He becomes Dominion chairman the day after the company filed its application at the State Corporation Commission for “triennial review” of the company’s performance, the rates it charges customers for electricity, and its plans for restructuring the way it does business and generates power under a pair of state laws that it played a leading role in enacting.
Blue credits Farrell for setting the course that he will follow.
“Tom positioned us for the transformation to clean energy sources,” he said. “It’s what our customers want us to do and we’re going to deliver.”
Farrrell’s retirement is remarkably low key for a man who has built Dominion into a political powerhouse. When he announced last summer that he would step down as CEO to become executive chairman, he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “I’m not going anywhere.”
His retirement as the non-executive board chairman at Altria Group Inc., the Henrico County-based owner of Philip Morris USA, drew public attention more than a week ago, but less notice was paid about the same time to a paragraph in a regulatory filing that detailed his plans to resign from his positions at Dominion, effective Thursday.
The Dominion board on March 22 elected Blue as its chairman to succeed Farrell, whom it said would remain as special adviser to Blue “until Mr. Farrell’s retirement as an employee of the company effective May 1, 2021.”
Farrell was not available for comment.
The leadership transition comes almost a year after Dominion gave up its six-year effort to build the $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline through the heart of Virginia to serve natural gas customers in eastern North Carolina and Hampton Roads, including the company’s own power plants.
But Blue rejects the notion that the company pivoted last year from fossil fuels to renewable energy with the decision to end its politically contentious quest to build the pipeline.
He noted that Dominion secured a lease eight years ago for more than 113,000 acres of federally controlled waters in the Atlantic Ocean for what could become the biggest offshore wind farm along the East Coast.
The company filed an application with federal regulators last year for the project — 188 wind turbines 27 miles off Virginia’s Atlantic coast to generate more than 2,600 megawatts of electricity. Blue expects the company to file an application next year at the SCC.
“We’d been in the offshore wind business for years,” Blue said.
Dominion said in its triennial review application at the SCC that it expects to spend $28 billion over the next five years to support off-shore wind, solar power, electricity storage, renewal of licenses for the company’s four nuclear units and investments in the grid for delivering electricity to customers.
The company wants to raise its authorized rate of return on equity from 9.2% to 10.8%. The proposal is sure to reignite debate over the cost of its ambitions to customers, but Dominion contends it has earned just $26 million more in revenues than costs, after accounting for more than $200 million in customer debts forgiven because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Blue, a native of Albemarle County and graduate of the University of Virginia, came to Dominion with a law degree from Yale University and a strong political pedigree after working as legal counsel and policy director for then-Gov. Mark Warner, as well as youthful stints in Warner’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate race in 1996 and the election of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in 1989.
Former Dominion Executive Vice President Eva S. Hardy hired Blue as managing director of state affairs and corporate public policy in 2005. “Bob is a really good listener who never forgets what he hears,” Hardy said. “He files it away and then uses what he has heard to make his decisions.”
He’s risen rapidly through the ranks since then, serving as chief operating officer and president of Dominion Energy Virginia, the utility company, until becoming CEO under the transition last fall.
Blue said he is clear about his focus as Dominion’s new leader — customers, who want reliable electricity from clean energy sources at a good value for the money they pay.
“We’re all in the customer service business,” he said.