Thomas F. Farrell II, a lawyer who rose to the top of Dominion Energy to dominate Virginia business and politics, has died at age 66, the day after relinquishing his role as executive board chairman of the energy company he had ruled for 15 years.
Mr. Farrell’s death from cancer on Friday afternoon came as suddenly as his retirement, which took effect on Thursday after a quiet announcement in a regulatory filing just more than a week ago, ending a career marked by aggressive leadership in the state and national energy business, civic affairs and higher education, and state legislative policymaking.
“We are just incredibly heartbroken,” said Richard Cullen, his brother-in-law and former chairman of the McGuireWoods law firm, from which Mr. Farrell launched his career at Dominion more than 25 years ago.
“It’s just a tremendous loss, not only to the family, but really to the state of Virginia and beyond,” Cullen said Friday. “He lived to make things better.”
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The day before his death, Mr. Farrell stepped down as executive chairman of the Dominion board, a role he created for himself more than six months ago under a succession plan that made Bob Blue the company’s CEO, but reporting to him.
“Tom was a peerless mentor and an outstanding leader who sought to find innovative solutions to challenges at Dominion Energy, in the utility industry and in the community he called home,” said Blue, who added the title of board chairman on Thursday.
“In his tenure at the company, Tom oversaw an era of prosperity and growth, and a long-term transformation that will have a lasting impact on clean energy development and on the health of the environment,” he said. “Above all else, he loved spending time with his wife, his sons and their spouses, and his grandchildren.”
“We will miss him greatly, and extend our deepest condolences to his loving family.”
Mr. Farrell’s dominance in business and politics made him a prominent target for critics, who faulted his roles in the proposed construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Navy Hill development project in downtown Richmond, both rare failures for a man who helped build Dominion into a $61 billion company that reached far beyond the Virginia electric utility service territory that remains its foundation.
However, he also was a devout Catholic who grew up in Fairfax County and never lost sight of what he saw as his obligation to his community, serving in leadership roles at the University of Virginia, his alma mater, and Virginia Commonwealth University, and helping Richmond overcome a shaky start to host an international cycling championship before a global audience in 2015.
“He was the same guy running Dominion as he was a friend in high school,” said former Gov. Bob McDonnell, who attended Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria with Mr. Farrell.
McDonnell sobbed during a telephone interview as he recounted Mr. Farrell’s good deeds and charity, including his support during the former governor’s trial on corruption charges — a conviction later overturned by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision.
“When I was going through my hell, he was a resolute friend,” the former governor said.
McDonnell also recalled how Mr. Farrell intervened with money and support to help St. Joseph’s School, a parochial school in Petersburg, raise $1 million in 2007 to keep it from closing.
“The first person I called was Tom,” he said. “If Tom had not gotten behind it, the school might have been closed,” he said.
“I don’t think people realize how good and compassionate a servant leader he was,” said McDonnell, who hadn’t known about Mr. Farrell’s illness.
“I just really loved the guy,” he said.
Mr. Farrell was a strong supporter of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts who also helped lead — despite considerable controversy — massive renovations of a performing arts center in downtown Richmond now named for Dominion Energy and what is now known as the Altria Theater. Under his leadership, Dominion donated more than $400 million to philanthropic causes.
“If we can help, we have a responsibility to help,” Mr. Farrell said in a profile published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2017.
Richmond businessman William H. Goodwin Jr. had known Mr. Farrell for years — both had served as rector of the University of Virginia and became known as power brokers who used their business influence for philanthropic goals.
“I just can’t express myself over this loss,” said Goodwin, whose family business holdings include The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond and the three-building James Center complex in downtown Richmond.
“We have lost probably one of the real true leaders of Richmond for the last 10 to 15 or 20 years,” he said, citing Mr. Farrell’s philanthropy, civic and corporate leadership in the region.
“Plus he was a heck of a nice guy and he was a great friend of mine,” Goodwin said. “He was an unusually wise person.”
Mr. Farrell also served as non-executive chairman of Altria Group Inc., the Henrico County-based parent company of Philip Morris USA. Altria announced last week that Mr. Farrell had notified the Fortune 500 company of his decision to retire from the company’s board following the completion of his current term in May.
Mr. Farrell, who had served on Altria’s board since 2008, was named board chairman last April.
“Visionary isn’t a word to be used lightly, but in Tom’s case it’s true,” said William F. “Billy” Gifford Jr., Altria’s CEO.
“His keen intellect and insights helped guide Altria over his 13-year tenure on our board,” Gifford said. “But more importantly, Tom’s leadership in the community, offering his time and talent to so many notable causes, made Richmond and the Commonwealth a better place for all Virginians. Our sincere condolences go to his family and loved ones in this difficult time.”
In the announcement of Mr. Farrell’s death, Dominion’s lead director Robert H. Spilman Jr. said, “Over his years as chairman, Tom shaped the board in his image — strong and able with a keen eye on ethical behavior, diversity and inclusion, public and community service and innovation.”
“The Commonwealth of Virginia has lost a kind soul who was abundantly generous to nonprofits supporting the arts and culture, education and critical community needs,” said Spilman, chairman, president and CEO of Bassett Furniture Industries who joined the Dominion board in 2009.
Mr. Farrell served as co-chairman of the UCI Road World Championships bicycle races held in Richmond in 2015. In the years leading up to the international cycling races, he helped to organize the event, asking for donations and making sure the city was prepared, said Wilson H. Flohr Jr., CEO of Richmond 2015, the group charged with producing the cycling event here.
“His business acumen and leadership made the race the success it was,” Flohr said. “He had wisdom and great leadership skills. He was unselfish in his contributions to our whole community. There are only a few people you meet like that in a life time.”
Mr. Farrell was born in Okinawa, the son of a military officer who had attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He later wrote and produced a film, “The Field of Lost Shoes,” about the role of the Virginia Military Institute cadets in the Civil War Battle of New Market.
“I grew up with ‘duty, honor and country,’ which is the West Point motto,” he told The Times-Dispatch in 2017.
Mr. Farrell was similarly devoted to UVA. He attended the university as an undergraduate and received a law degree from the UVA’s School of Law. Later, he would serve as rector and a member of the board who guided both its governance and fund raising.
“Universities depend on loyal alumni,” said Larry Sabato, president of the Center for Politics at UVA. “Tom Farrrell was the most loyal of the loyal. He did so much for this university, much of it quietly, behind the scenes.”
Sabato taught one of Mr. Farrell’s sons, Peter, who later served in the Virginia House of Delegates. His favorite picture of Mr. Farrell showed him with Peter and his brother Stuart when they were young in front of the Rotunda. Both later attended UVA.
“He was so happy that he was there with them,” Sabato said.
Mr. Farrell spent 15 years as a litigator, first at what was known then as Hunton & Williams and then Boothe, Prichard & Dudley, an Alexandria law firm that would merge into what was then called McGuire, Woods and Battle.
The two firms were central players in a bitter, highly public feud between what was known then as Dominion Resources Inc. and its single biggest asset, the Virginia Electric & Power Co., operating then as Virginia Power. Hunton & Williams represented the power company, while Mr. Farrell became a prominent member of the legal team at McGuire, Woods for the holding company.
The battle ended with a series of truces, but Mr. Farrell moved to Dominion in mid-1995 and eventually became its general counsel.
“I soon saw what he was good at other things beside legal work,” former Dominion CEO Thomas E. Capps said in the newspaper profile of Mr. Farrell in 2017.
Mr. Farrell rose in Dominion as the company made an ill-fated push into electric deregulation, which he later reversed — on the company’s terms — through a law enacted by the General Assembly in 2007, the year after he became the company’s CEO.
Since then, the power company has exerted its will in the shaping of state utility policy, constraining the power of the State Corporation Commission to regulate its earnings in Virginia, while enlarging its sources of electricity for a grid that serves more than 2.6 million customers in the state’s largest public utility monopoly.
Dominion’s political victories made the company, and Mr. Farrell, the target of consumer advocates who felt the utility was reaping profits at the expense of captive ratepayers.
He also became a villain for environmentalists by proposing construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Dominion abandoned the $8 billion natural gas project last June, despite winning arguments that Mr. Farrell personally attended at the U.S. Supreme Court last year to allow construction of the pipeline beneath the Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
But Mr. Farrell also guided Dominion to become an industry leader in renewable energy. He sold the company’s natural gas storage and transmission businesses to Berkshire Hathaway for $10 billion at the same time Dominion canceled construction of the pipeline.
Dominion already was planning an initiative to invest big in off-shore wind production of electricity, leasing more than 113,000 acres of federally owned waters in the Atlantic Ocean 27 miles from Virginia Beach for what initially was a small, 12-megawatt pilot project with two wind turbines. The company plans to seek approval next year of a proposed wind farm that would include 188 turbines and generate more than 2,600 megawatts of electricity.
Again, Mr. Farrell turned to the General Assembly and allied with environmental groups to win passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act last year that limits the SCC’s authority to stop the $8 billion project and commits Dominion’s electricity generation to emit no carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases by 2045.
He also was a leader of the GO Virginia initiative that became a template for regional cooperation in economic development, as well as a founding director of the Greater Washington Partnership, a corporate-led policy organization for the region stretching from Richmond through the Washington, D.C., area to Baltimore.
“I am stunned to hear of Tom’s passing,” said former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who served with Farrell on the GO Virginia board of directors. “I have had the honor of knowing him for many years, and my respect for him almost cannot be put into words.”
Cox publicly extended his condolences to Mr. Farrell’s family — his wife, Anne Garland Tullidge Farrell; his two sons and their spouses; and his grandchildren.
“I know that Tom’s faith, and their own, will guide them through this difficult time,” he said.
PHOTOS: Tom Farrell through the years
Business Editor Gregory J. Gilligan contributed to this report.