CL&P's Butler A Lightning Rod For Anger, Frustration

CL&P COO Jeffrey Butler has had to face the heat for the slow restoration of power around the state. (Rick Hartford)

A few months after taking the helm as president of the Connecticut Light & Power Co., Jeffrey D. Butler spoke at a business breakfast in New London County, telling a receptive audience about his vision for a more dependable and respected electric company.

"In the future, you'll see a whole level of difference in reliability and service to our customers," Butler said at the October 2009 gathering. "I want our customers to step back and see us as their advocate."

You can pull the plug on that idea.

A pair of devastating storms has drained whatever customer goodwill CL&P had hoped to develop. And in the process, Butler, a no-nonsense engineer, went from anonymous energy wonk to solitary lightning rod for the fury of nearly a million electric customers who spent all or part of last week shivering in the dark.

Editorial writers skewer him. One police department is threatening to hold him responsible for fires exacerbated by blocked roads. And some prankster has set up a Twitter account under the name "FakeJeffButler" with a constant stream of needling posts.

"The rumors that my gold-plated residential backup generator runs on the refined tears of orphan children are totally unfounded," one Tweet reads.

Twice a day, Butler walks to the podium in the Emergency Operations Center at the State Armory in Hartford and grimly faces skeptical reporters who out-shout each other for the chance to challenge the company's restoration projections.

It is those sessions that have made Butler the face of CL&P's public-relations debacle. And for all his responsibilities as company president, it is that under-the-spotlight role, those who know him say, for which he is least suited.

"I think that he knows he doesn't have a career in local television news ahead of him," said Tom Dalzell, a union official representing workers at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in California, where Butler spent most of his career. "But that's just his gruffness. That's the engineer. Engineers by definition generally aren't going to win personality pageants."

That image of the methodical, serious-minded engineer is the personality trait most frequently described by those who know Butler, and they say it makes him a far better utility company chief than utility company spokesman.

"He's not the kind of guy that would call you up and say 'Let's have a beer,'" said state Sen. John Fonfara D-Hartford, co-chairman of the General Assembly's Energy and Technology Committee. "I would say he's not a gregarious person. He's measured. He's an engineer, as many folks at CL&P are that I interact with. And all engineers have a slightly different approach as to how they see the world, as compared to, say, politicians."

Butler generally appears weary and uncomfortable at the daily news conferences, in stark contrast to the frenetic nature of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who precedes him at the podium. He has made missteps, initially appearing to point the finger at weather forecasters and later showing reluctance to apologize for the slow place of the company's restoration efforts. His daily expressions of empathy are not resonating with the public.

"He's certainly learned the public side of his job later than he learned the engineering side of his job," Fonfara said. "But I think that's something that he's learning is an important part of his job."

But not a part he relishes. He blanches when asked to ponder his own feelings and discuss the toll the outages have had on him personally.

"We're in business to serve our customers. And having almost 80 percent of your customers out of power, it does take a toll," he said. "It's something I take personally."

Butler is the son of a lineman, and has spent his entire career in the energy industry. He graduated from the California State University at Chico in 1979 with a degree in electrical and electronic engineering, and signed on with Pacific Gas and Electric, working a variety of hydroelectric jobs before moving into management.

In the early years, he often shared the hour-long commute from Fresno to San Francisco with Lee McVey, a staff supervisor in a different department, and the two bantered about company politics and other topics.

"Jeff's a sharp guy," said McVey, who has since retired from PG&E. "I was pleased to see him promoted."

Those promotions took Butler through most aspects of the energy business, including transmission, distribution, maintenance and construction. In 2006, he became the senior vice president in charge of energy delivery for the utility's 10 million customers.