Tom Chewning worked at the highest levels of the energy industry.
Now he’s working down in the trenches on some of Virginia’s most difficult issues:
• With one out of every seven children unprepared to enter kindergarten, Chewning has become a leader in the push for early-childhood education, serving as chairman of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation.
• He’s rector of Norfolk State University, the state’s largest historically black institution of higher education but one that has had problems with its finances and student achievement. Before taking on that position, he’d served on the Virginia Union University board.
• In the midst of a state economy struggling out of recession, he’s a member of Virginia’s Treasury Board, helping oversee the state’s bond issuances and investments.
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“I’d rather do something that isn’t easy, something that’s not popular, rather than things that people gravitate to,” Chewning said. “I’d rather do something that resulted in real change, rather than recognition for self.”
Thomas N. Chewning makes a point of emphasizing that his own life has been extraordinarily blessed.
He was born to a loving, well-educated and prosperous family in Richmond. He played tennis competitively in high school and through college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He attended the prestigious Wharton School in Pennsylvania for his master’s of business administration, and was never without a job, going from strength to strength in the business world, including working for 22 years at Dominion Resources Inc., where he retired as its chief financial officer in 2009.
His wife, Nancy, is a charismatic community leader in her own right, and their two children have made worthy lives for themselves.
But self has been an issue for Tom Chewning.
“A good deal of my life, I woke up asking, ‘What’s good for Tom Chewning?’ ”
For long periods of his life, while the outside world would see a man successful in sport, thriving in business, honored in the community, he said, those achievements “didn’t create any real joy in me, or any meaning.”
Though he was raised in the Baptist faith, “I kept searching for the next thing,” Chewning said, though “there was an emptiness there that just can’t be filled with money or awards or other things.”
“Anything you put first becomes god, and then all the relationships change,” he said. “What I was always trying to get over was self.”
The 67-year-old “gave the impression of a Christian,” he said, attending church and teaching Sunday school. But “in reality, outside those two hours on Sunday, I had no spiritual content in my life.”
After decades of searching, he found the answer was God.
“God is God,” Chewning said. “We’re not.”
He moved from an intellectual understanding of his faith to one of putting God first and coming to a relationship with Christ, to faith as “an actual way of life.”
“The way I see it, when faith becomes the center of your life, other than a part of your life, then everything changes,” Chewning said.
“You still remain human, and you still fall short of what you’d like to be and what God would like you to be,” he said, but “that’s when it really means something, when it’s something other than something on your résumé.”
About six years ago, he went to the National Prayer Breakfast and, by chance, met Rick Warren, a pastor in California and author of the best-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life.”
Chewning told Warren, “I’m really having doubts about the fact that I’m an officer in a large public company.”
But Warren saw the spiritual opportunity in Chewning’s life: “What your job has enabled you to do is create affluence and influence,” Warren told him. “If you use those things to help other people, it will be a blessing to you and them.”
The only way he can demonstrate his gratitude for those gifts “is to use it for somebody else’s benefit,” Chewning said. “It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be public, but when you transfer your mind to helping others, it’s a joy.”
He’s been a generous supporter of the long list of causes he’s espoused.
In 2001, he gave $1 million to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to create endowments not for UNC’s high-profile teams, but for men’s and women’s tennis, women’s swimming, and women’s golf and field hockey.
“It’s always been more important for me to touch the people that nobody paid attention to or the subjects that are ignored,” Chewning said.
Chewning long has been a volunteer tennis teacher and coach. He noticed that “the kids who did have a spiritual dimension ... could handle the stress of competition and defeat better.”
He learned about the work that U-Turn Sports Performance Academy, a nonprofit Christian-based sports training organization, was doing to help children with their life skills and spiritual development. He was immediately drawn to the organization.
“Tom would come out and feed tennis balls and give instruction,” said Paul Manning, U-Turn’s founder and now Richmond’s chief service officer. “He’s been a mentor, coach, supporter, a friend.”
Chewning served as U-Turn’s chairman for a decade, and he and his wife — she’s on the board now — became major sponsors of the program.
“It combines my interest in young people, and sports and in faith. That’s a good combination for me,” Chewning said. “That’s my sweet spot.”
Chewning’s generosity to the nonprofit Virginia Early Childhood Foundation is “many-splendored,” said Kathy Glazer, the foundation’s president. “Not only is he generous in terms of dollars, but his generosity with time and guiding wisdom is even more valuable. His legacy with this organization is immeasurable.”
“His enthusiasm for giving back is matched only by that of his wife, Nancy,” said Thomas F. Farrell II, chairman, president and CEO of Dominion Resources. “Because their generosity and service are widely respected, they have become role models for many people.”
“If he believes in something,” Nancy Chewning said, “he’s all in.”
Chewning knows the amount of money he has donated to worthy causes over the years, and his accountant knows, but “no one else does.”
“I don’t ever want to get to the point where it’s an important fact to me or anyone else,” he said. “The only question you ask is, ‘Could you do more?’ “
Tom and Nancy Chewning have been married for 44 years. “Do you think it’s a take?” Nancy Chewning said with a wry look.
“Talk about a partnership,” said Paul Koonce, CEO of Dominion Virginia Power. “There’s just no daylight between them.”
“It’s always work,” she said. “Any relationship worth having, you have to tend.” The two are competitive. “If I haven’t eaten candy after dinner, I’m better,” she said jokingly.
Although they hold each other’s feet to the fire, “we encourage one another,” Nancy Chewning said.
“We’re a good team,” Tom Chewning said. “We have the same interests in people, and she’s got the same kind of heart for making situations better. … We’ll argue about things, but we’ll never argue about things like that.”
Chewning “doesn’t just sort of sit up here in ‘Strategy Land,’ ” said Sherrie Brach, former CEO of the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg. “He has to see it on the ground. He is a guy who wants to show you what’s happening.”
When Chewning served as chairman of the local United Way campaign in 2005, “we were really trying to advance school readiness for children,” Brach said. “Tom really got connected into that, and he immediately started to take on more leadership responsibility.”
Widening the effort’s scope, he began to work at the state level to make sure early-childhood education received funding, Brach said. “He brought a lot of people to the table. He put skin in the game.”
Chewning was one of a handful of business executives who foresaw the need for a public-private partnership to bring attention to early-childhood development as the first step to a productive workforce, Glazer said.
The foundation provides leadership and funding to the regional Smart Beginnings coalitions working in nearly 100 cities and counties in Virginia to improve children’s care and education from birth to kindergarten.
As the foundation’s “gold-standard” chairman, “Tom sets a high bar,” Glazer said. “Not everyone works by the same rules, but Tom’s response to those situations and individuals is to inch our bar even higher.”
“I’m a social investor in some ways,” Chewning said, but he points out that “you need not only to be good-hearted, you need to be effective.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell cited Chewning’s leadership, finance and management skills — as well as his lifelong passion for education and his “servant’s heart” — as underlying his appointment of Chewning to Norfolk State’s board of visitors in 2011.
His business-oriented influence is evident in the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation’s policy of making “sound investments” on the basis of solid research and evidence to create expectations for positive outcomes for children, families and the programs serving them.
Ultimately, Chewning’s efforts with the Smart Beginnings’ initiative helped the United Way create a model for dealing with other regional issues, Brach said. “He said, ‘It gave good stewardship to good intentions.’ ”
When Chewning retired as Dominion Resources’ executive vice president and chief financial officer in 2009, the energy company was worth $41.7 billion and ranked 157th among Fortune 500 companies.
During the more than two decades Chewning worked at the Richmond-based business, Farrell said, the energy industry’s landscape had changed repeatedly, and the way forward was challenging.
Farrell and Chewning worked together at the company for 14 years, negotiating a wide span of significant business transactions. CEOs and CFOs spend a lot of time together, Farrell noted, because “we’re the ones who have to sign the financial statements.”
Chewning played a critical role in Dominion’s emergence as one of the nation’s largest energy companies, Farrell said when Chewning retired.
In the hurly-burly of the marketplace, “every day was ‘war and rumors of war,’ ” Chewning said. “I’m one who says if I don’t try the best I can, that’s a loss. That’s just the way I’m put together.”
At the same time, Farrell said of Chewning, “his ethics and integrity are so deep seated, they influence everyone around him for the better.”
While some may portray chief financial officers of large corporations “as pretty greedy folks,” said Koonce, “here he is just the opposite of that, a standard bearer for what’s right.”
Though Chewning’s been retired from the company for several years, Koonce pointed out that “his opinion is still valued and sought out.”
In one of his most public community endeavors, Chewning served in the 1990s as co-chair of the fundraising effort for the then-controversial Arthur Ashe monument on Richmond’s historic Monument Avenue.
“We knew each other when segregation was the rule of the day,” Chewning said about Ashe. “We played together secretly.”
“My parents knew that my playing tennis with a black man wouldn’t be a popular thing,” he recounted in a 2005 speech on business ethics.
But, he said, “they knew right from wrong, and they knew that teaching me right from wrong was important. So I went to hit with Arthur, and we became friends.”
“Everyone is equally significant to God, so we shouldn’t feel more or less important than anyone we meet,” Chewning said. “We have far more in common with each other than we often want to recognize.”
His relationship with Ashe held another ethical lesson for Chewning.
From Ashe, Chewning learned that “you could be the best in your profession and still have integrity,” he said. “People who say you need to have a little larceny in your heart to succeed in business are dead wrong. Arthur was a great tennis player who played by the rules.”
“Tom affirms the best in people,” said Don Cowles, former senior vice president of Reynolds Metals Co. and a United Way leader. “I’ve seen him do it as a speaker before hundreds of people on early-childhood development. I’ve seen him do it one on one, meeting in a coffee shop with a young accountant whom he’s mentoring.
“When I see him operate,” Cowles said, “it’s often in a spot where there is some dysfunction, or uncertainty or fear, and he can name it in a way that people can appreciate and act on.”
“I think he feels loved by God, and he can’t help but share it,” Cowles said.
“It’s probably his greatest gift. He stimulates the best in people.”