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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Government

McGowen’s Next Mission: Ex-Navy ‘Top Gun’ charts new course for MLGW

Doug McGowen, the Pennsylvania native and former Navy fighter pilot, became president and CEO of Memphis Light, Gas and Water in late 2022. “We’re going to have to do many things differently than what we’ve done in the past,” he says of the nation’s largest three-service utility and its 7,900 miles of electric lines, 4,700 miles of gas lines, 3,900 miles of water lines, 30 properties, and 2,600 employees. (Karen Pulfer Focht)

Memphis Light, Gas and Water is a giant — an aging, lumbering, limping giant.

The city-owned utility’s electric grid suffers twice as many outages as a decade ago, and those outages last twice as long — up to five times longer than peer utilities. Only hurricane-challenged New Orleans has a less reliable grid.

More than half of MLGW’s water wells and pumping stations are more than half a century old. A quarter of the system is more than 85 years old. When temperatures plummet and water mains and lines bust, water pressure drops to hazardous levels. MLGW issued its first-ever boil-water advisory in 2021. It has issued four more since.

“We’re going to have to do many things differently than we’ve done in the past,” said Doug McGowen, MLGW’s president and CEO while talking to a handful of customers at the first of several “future-focused community workshops” MLGW hosted earlier this year. The public meetings were held — as McGowen put it — to “level-set” the plan and give everyone “a common understanding” of key facts and goals.

“The organization simply had to kick the can down the road on routine maintenance,” says McGowen. The retired Navy captain was wearing his civilian uniform — white, button-down, open-collar shirt, blue blazer with gold buttons, and worn brown cowboy boots. MLGW staff members outnumbered customers in attendance, but McGowen was undeterred.

“Effectively, the organization devolved over time to a run-to-fail operation, fixing things only after they broke,” he says. “We have to do more than fix what’s broken. We have to prepare for change and disruption, the challenges we face now and ahead.”

McGowen listed the challenges: climate change; growth and development; changing technologies, laws, and regulations; thousands of daily cyber-attacks; finding the right balance between human and automated customer service; modernizing and funding a city-owned utility system that is reliable and resilient, agile and affordable.

MLGW is a bargain, but it has become a Faustian bargain.

Customers enjoy some of the lowest combined utility rates in the nation, in large part due to incredibly low gas and water rates. Among 17 comparable cities in the South and Midwest, only residents of St. Louis, Nashville, and Huntsville have lower “utility burdens” (utility costs as a percent of household income).

Those low rates are the product of decades of decisions by mayors and councils not to raise rates. When the current city council approved a 12 percent (over three years) rate hike last December, it was only the second increase in electric rates in nearly 40 years. The first was erased by two subsequent rate decreases. Meanwhile, inflation has increased costs 240 percent since 1985.

Low rates keep customers (and voters and elected officials) happy until the power goes out or water pressure drops. Only Entergy of New Orleans has a lower overall customer satisfaction rating, according to J.D. Power.

“Where we are today is a result of 40 years and thousands of decisions that everybody firmly believed were the right ones at the time,” McGowen says. “But at the end of the day everybody just wants things to work. I can’t look back and say, ‘I just got here, this isn’t my fault.’ People don’t care. They just want it to work. And that’s my job: to make it work.

McGowen, who has been known to pick up trash on Overton Park trails and abandoned tires along Memphis roads, joined MLGW employees to help clean up Downtown earlier this spring. “Doug feels such a strong sense of responsibility for Memphis,” says his wife, Candace. “He just has this want and need to help people. That’s really what motivates him to keep working.” (Karen Pulfer Focht)

A small but heavy hunk of metal sits on a glass-top table inside McGowen’s spacious fifth-floor office at MLGW’s downtown headquarters.

It’s a hook point, the claw-like end of a Navy fighter jet’s tail hook that grabs a cable on an aircraft carrier’s landing deck.

It reminds McGowen of his 26 years in the Navy, especially his service as Commander Doug “Ogre” McGowen piloting an F-14 Tomcat and later an FA-18F Super Hornet.

It reminds him of the preparation and training, the precision and teamwork it takes to land a 30-ton, supersonic jet on a moving, floating runway the length of two football fields in the middle of a war.

It also reminds him that parts, systems, and people will fail, while preparation, training, and teamwork can prevail.

That’s what happened in March 2002 when the tail hook on McGowen’s F-14 fighter snagged a carrier’s cable, then broke apart. McGowen and his fellow crew member ejected just before the jet crashed into the Arabian Gulf. Sailors rescued them from the sea. An investigation blamed the tail hook’s failure on human error in manufacturing and maintenance.

“It’s not one of those things you like to relive, but it happened,” McGowen, 60, says recently, lifting the heavy metal off the table. “You have to get over the shock of the moment. You have to rely on your training and your team. You have to assess what went wrong and why, and then you have to fix it or change it and get right back in there and go again.”

McGowen learned those lessons over and over in nine overseas deployments as he rose through the Navy ranks from sailor to aviator, from first lieutenant to squadron commander, base commander, and captain.

He has carried those lessons with him over the past 12 years in his three civilian deployments: as executive director of Mayor A C Wharton’s Innovation Team, as chief operating officer in Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration, and since December 2022 as MLGW’s president and CEO.

Along the way, McGowen has become the community’s most influential non-elected public official, playing a key role in confronting fast-rising floodwaters and fast-moving viruses, tree-snapping windstorms and pipe-bursting cold snaps, bureaucratic inaction and political malfunction.

“After working with Doug, I’m more convinced than ever of the value of military training in public life,” says Wharton, who gave McGowen his first civilian assignment in 2011. “Doug has a mental infrastructure that allows him to quickly assess a complex problem, consider every possible factor, and organize a thoughtful and thorough response. He gets things done.“

McGowen talking to Tamara Nolen, MLGW’s director of corporate communications, after a city council committee meeting in March. McGowen was there to answer questions about his decision to name Ursula Madden (left) to be the utility’s vice president of corporate communications at an annual salary of $200,000, which the full council approved two weeks later.

In 2011, Wharton was looking for someone to lead the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, an ambitious project funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies to address some of the city’s most critical issues. Kerry Hayes, instrumental in securing the $4.8 million grant, led the search. A friend mentioned that McGowen, commanding officer at the Navy base in Millington, was retiring.

“He’d only ever worked in local government, but he had the attributes we were looking for,” says Hayes. “He was serious, disciplined, and profoundly mission-oriented, capable of building organizations from scratch and motivating people to address tasks that ranged from the abstract to the seemingly impossible.”

McGowen had impressed local officials the year before when two days of rain dumped 14 inches of water and breached two levees in Millington, flooding the base and surrounding community. Hundreds were forced to evacuate their homes. Hundreds more were trapped and needed to be rescued. “We had five feet of water on the installation, and no boats,” McGowen says.

The commander mobilized emergency personnel from the base and nearby cities and counties. Within an hour, he had 25 boats that were used to rescue 250 people. The base also provided temporary shelter to hundreds of displaced citizens.

“The job that I want is one where the problem seems intractable, the resources are scarce, the way ahead is uncertain; one where you don’t have sufficient authority to get everything done that you want done, but where you’re 100 percent accountable for the results,” McGowen says. “To me, that’s the definition of leadership.”

Intractable problems. Inadequate resources. Insufficient authority. Uncertainty about the way ahead. The need to get things done. Memphis and McGowen were made for each other.

The Innovation Delivery Team became Innovate Memphis, an urban think tank that yielded such civic improvement programs as Memphis Gun Down, 901 B.L.O.C. Squad, MEMFix, MEMShops, and MEMMobile.

McGowen, his team, and their analysis influenced major policy decisions by the Wharton and Strickland administrations such as greater investments in pre-K and public transit, de-annexation, and adoption of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first comprehensive plan in 30 years, that focused on “building up, not out.”

Their efforts directly or indirectly led to such civic endeavors as Crosstown Concourse, the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, the Broad Avenue Arts District, BLDG Memphis, Accelerate Memphis, and the Memphis Data Hub.

Four members of McGowen’s former team now work for Bloomberg Philanthropies, but their local ties remain strong. In March, Memphis was one of 25 cities chosen to participate in Bloomberg’s three-year, $200 million American Sustainable Cities initiative.

“Doug taught us all how to do big things incrementally,” says Justin Entzminger, former executive director of Innovate Memphis and now a director for the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins. “He knows how to make a case for change while acknowledging it’s going to take time to get there.”

In 2023, McGowen proposed moving 400 employees from MLGW’s aging headquarters on South Main to a newer, larger, more energy-efficient building in Cordova. The city council balked and he dropped the idea. “It was an unforced error,” says Tom Jones, principal at Smart City Consulting. “There was little awareness of the negative impact of such a move on Downtown, or the perception that leadership isn’t focused on the real problems with MLGW.” (Karen Pulfer Focht)

In 2013, the Memphis Police Department acknowledged that it had more than 12,000 untested rape kits in storage dating back to the 1980s. Wharton organized a multi-agency Sexual Assault Kits Task Force to address the backlog. McGowen volunteered to lead it.

A Navy commander knows how to run a task force: The Navy invented the “task force” during World War II, when it began grouping warships for specific missions or tasks. “My job was to get the police, community advocates, the labs and legal folks, and everybody to work together to solve this problem,” McGowen says.

Within three years, 8,500 evidence kits had been analyzed, 866 new investigations launched, and 142 indictments requested. A decade later, all stored kits have been tested, some more than once. The task force raised more than $15 million to pay for DNA analysis of old kits, plus new equipment and personnel for police, prosecutors, and victim advocates.

“Doug’s energy and commitment to the task, his clear, nonjudgmental, data-focused leadership style kept us all in the room week after week, working together to secure funding and to share progress with a distrusting community toward convincing rape victims that they would be helped from now on,” says Deborah M. Clubb, executive director of the Memphis Area Women’s Council and a member of the task force.

Problems remain. Court testimony found that thousands of rape kits were thrown away decades ago. An unknown number of cases remain unsolved. A class-action suit against the city is pending. But even the city’s harshest critics say things are better. MPD has a new $1 million evidence and property storage room. New procedures require that all sexual assault kits be sent for testing within 96 hours.

“Chief McGowen has never said he’s going to do something and not delivered,” Chase Carlisle told his fellow city council members in November 2022. The council was discussing whether to approve Strickland’s decision to appoint McGowen to lead the nation’s largest three-service public utility.

Nearly everyone calls McGowen “Chief,” even those who question whether a career Navy man is the most qualified person to run a highly technical and regulated $2.3 billion public utility that has struggled mightily in recent years to keep the lights on, the water running, customers satisfied, and critics at bay.

“Every single council member says Chief McGowen can deliver, every single council member says he has done a good job for the city,” council member J.B. Smiley said during the meeting. “But does he have the relevant experience to run a utility?”

McGowen addressed the question with the matter-of-fact confidence of a man with decades of experience in command and control. He noted that his role as Memphis COO included overseeing the city’s sewer and storm water systems, and that he has a degree in civil engineering.

“You don’t need me fixing power lines with the tools in my utility belt,” he told the council. “You need me to set the direction for this city’s utility. I believe I am the one person uniquely qualified in America to do that.”

The council voted 12-1 vote to approve McGowen’s appointment. Council member Martavious Jones voted for a national search, but even he had good things to say about McGowen. So did Smiley, who voted yes. “The Chief reminds me of my father,” Smiley said. “When you ask him, he’ll give you a direct answer. I’ve been hard on him, but he’s a person who stands by his word and gets things done.”

McGowen’s competent confidence makes a quick impression. “Doug is the quintessential jet pilot,” says Tom Jones, principal at Smart City Consulting. “He brings a certitude to the job. He knows he’s right and he goes right ahead, but that certainty can make him tone deaf.”

One example, according to Jones: Last fall, at the same time MLGW requested a 12 percent rate hike, McGowen proposed moving 400 employees from MLGW’s aging downtown headquarters to a newer, larger, more energy-efficient building in Cordova. McGowen said the move would consolidate operations and save millions in maintenance costs. The city council pushed back. McGowen dropped the idea.

“It was an unforced error,” Jones says. “There was little awareness of the negative impact of such a move on Downtown, or the perception that leadership isn’t focused on the real problems with MLGW. You can have all the grand plans in the world, but if you don’t have the public behind you, it won’t matter.”

McGowen would like a do-over on that decision. “It was a little too soon to talk about moving,” he says. “But the point is still valid today. I still need a new system operations facility. So do I buy one or build one?”

McGowen is working on MLGW 2045, a 20-year strategic plan he hopes to launch in 2025. The plan includes overhauling old pumping stations, digging new wells, fixing or replacing failing gas and water “smart meters,” identifying and replacing lead pipes, and safeguarding the aquifer.

When McGowen is not working on big-city problems, he likes to work on smaller projects. He built a garage for his home. He has helped friends and colleagues build or repair sheds, fences, and porches.

“Doug always has a project. He just bought a tractor so he could move dirt,” says Dr. Candace McGowen, Doug’s wife of 30 years, a nurse practitioner, and a professor at the Loewenberg School of Nursing at the University of Memphis. “Doug is a hard worker like his parents. He just has this want and need to help people. That’s really what motivates him to keep working.”

McGowen grew up in Meadville, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar union town halfway between the industrial centers of Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and has been working since he was 13. He worked every summer through high school and college for a local construction company.

He knew he wanted to go to college, but he also knew his parents couldn’t afford it. His father, Dennis McGowen, a nursing home administrator who died in 1998 at age 58, was a Meadville city councilman. His mother, Sidney, now 83, was a registered nurse. She’s retired but still volunteers at a cancer center near her home. His sister, Dawn, four years younger, is a respiratory therapist.

McGowen earned a scholarship to Virginia Military Institute, the oldest state-supported military college in the nation. Its mission is “to produce citizen-soldiers.” The scholarship came with a four-year military commitment. So, the young man from northwestern Pennsylvania joined the Navy — never having seen the ocean. “I didn’t even know the Navy had airplanes, quite frankly,” McGowen says.

The Navy sent McGowen to the Navy Fighter Tactics Instructor program, more popularly known as “Top Gun,” made famous by the 1986 film of the same name starring Tom Cruise as cocky young pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. “Doug flew like Maverick, but that was not his personality,” says Candace. “Doug’s just a very down-to-earth kind of guy. He’s never been full of himself.”

Doug and Candace, who was in the Army, met in 1992 at the officers’ club at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. They were married in 1993. Their daughter, Carrigan, is a local real estate broker. She also coaches girls’ volleyball at Arlington Middle School. Their son, Jackson, is a Memphis firefighter training to be a paramedic. Both graduated from Arlington High.

“Doug has this public image as kind of a bear, someone who takes charge and has this presence,” Candace says. “But when he comes home, he’s just Doug and Dad. He can be kind of goofy. When the kids were younger, he’d listen to rap and hip-hop. He knew all the words. Still does. The kids thought it was funny then. Now, they’re like, ‘What?’”

Both kids were in elementary school when the McGowens moved to Memphis in 2005. Military families rarely stay in one place for long, and in 2011, McGowen got new orders that would have sent him on his 10th overseas deployment. “I was ready to go to Portugal, but the kids begged us to stay,” Candace says. “They liked their schools. They liked having their dad home. Doug didn’t think twice about it. He wanted to do what was best for them. He retired from the Navy, and we stayed.”

Nothing tested McGowen’s military training more than the pandemic, when he ran the Memphis and Shelby County Covid-19 Joint Task Force from March 2020 to March 2022.

Dozens of others were involved in daily, then weekly, meetings and briefings, including all local mayors, the health department, UT’s medical school, local hospitals and testing labs, large employers, elected officials, and so on.

McGowen was their leader.

“I can tell you: This city and community were safer, and many fewer people died, directly because of the way Chief McGowen organized and managed our response to Covid,” says Dr. Jeff Warren, a city council member, a physician, and a task force medical adviser.

In public, McGowen became the voice of assurance, leading many of the daily press conferences that were telecast and live-streamed. Behind the scenes, McGowen was the voice of authority. He ran the task force like a military operation: The coronavirus was the enemy, and safeguarding citizens was the mission. He came to each meeting prepared and expected others to do the same, even assigning “homework.”

McGowen, the son and husband of nurses, relied on intelligence from medical and science experts on the ground. He deployed political troops to provide resources and rally public support. He asked questions, invited discussion and disagreement. He made room for feedback and pushback.

“Doug just has the ability to listen to everyone and to take in the enormity of each situation,” says Dr. Manoj Jain, the infectious disease expert who played a key role as the city’s science adviser. “He would ask questions and listen, then help us figure out a plan of action. Without Doug, we would have been floundering.”

McGowen kept the task force focused on whatever challenges they were facing that day or week: social distancing guidelines or masking mandates; closing or reopening schools and businesses; shortages of PPEs, ICU beds, or hospital workers; viral surges and variants; mass testing and vaxxing.

“There were lots of contentious issues, lots of territorial issues and strong opinions, as you can imagine,” says Jain. “Doug managed them all gently and firmly. Once, after I’d gotten upset about something that was more political than medical, he called me later and said, ‘Manoj, you’re a doc. You’ve got to swim in your lane.’ And he was right.”

Early in the pandemic, local officials were testing a few hundred people a day for Covid. McGowen and other task force members knew the community had enough test kits and lab space to test 5,000 people a day.

On the last Friday in May 2020, McGowen called into his office Tiffany Collins, the city’s deputy director of public works. “I have a project you might be interested in,” McGowen told her. He wanted to start mass Covid testing in a week. “I didn’t know anything about the science,” Collins says. “But Chief McGowen always gives you room to grow, if you can hold that space.” She did. The county was soon testing 3,000 people a day.

Later, when the short-handed health department was having trouble distributing the first round of vaccines, McGowen assigned Collins and Fire Chief Gina Sweat to solve the problem. They did.

“I thought I was special,” says Collins. “In hindsight, that’s what his leadership model does for you. It helps you be the best version of yourself.”

When McGowen was the city’s chief operating officer, he would fill the back of a city pickup with abandoned tires he found around town. In bad weather, he would be out at 3 a.m. checking the streets. He spends some of his free time picking up trash in Overton Park’s Old Forest.

“No job is too big or too small for him,” Strickland says.

On McGowen’s last day as Strickland’s chief operating officer in 2022, the mayor and members of his executive team gathered to express their appreciation and affection, and to share their favorite “Dougisms”:

• An email sent does not mean an action taken.

• The first rule of holes is to stop digging.

• Let me be clear.

“When Doug clears his throat and then says, ‘Let me be clear,’ it’s like Jerry Lawler pulling off his cape,” says Strickland. “It’s time to take care of business.”

• TCB. Taking care of business.

That’s how McGowen signed his City Hall emails.

• When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer.

That’s from a 1960s TV ad jingle. In other words, you can’t use what you don’t have.

• Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.

“I think he might have gotten that one from Colin Powell,” says Kyle Veazey, McGowen’s deputy for two years at City Hall. “He had Powell’s Thirteen Rules of Leadership tacked up on his office wall.”

• Don’t let great be the enemy of good.

Leadership guru Stephen Covey borrowed that from Voltaire.

“I still use that one,” says Memphis Mayor Paul Young, who was Strickland’s director of Housing and Community Development. Young met McGowen in 2011 when Young was working for the city/county Office of Sustainability and Resilience.

“It was years before I knew he was a fighter pilot and led combat squadrons,” Young says. “Doug’s not about the rah-rah. He’s about the mission. MLGW has a lot of challenges, but Doug is the right person to move us through these challenges. He always has a plan.”

McGowen’s latest plan is called MLGW 2045, a 20-year strategic plan he hopes to launch in 2025. He assigned a “S.W.O.T.” team of 90 MLGW employees to assess the system’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

The plan includes overhauling old pumping stations, digging new wells, fixing or replacing failing gas and water “smart meters,” identifying and replacing lead pipes, and safeguarding the aquifer.

Securing the grid by trimming trees from thousands of miles of power lines, a routine process set back years by the pandemic, severe storms, and lagging contractors. Trees account for more than half of MLGW’s power outages.

Modernizing the grid by consolidating operations, replacing substations, circuit breakers, and wooden poles, and installing new technology that can identify outages and restore power remotely.

Conserving the grid by encouraging residential customers to reduce electric use during late afternoon and early evening system peaks, especially in summer.

Bolstering the grid with extra megawatts of solar power and battery storage.

For now, the plan does not include finding another, perhaps less expensive, power supplier. Just before McGowen took office, the MLGW board rejected a 20-year contract with TVA. A five-year rolling contract remains in place.

“My focus now is on the distribution system,” McGowen says. “It doesn’t matter where I get the power from, if I can’t effectively deliver it. We have a distribution crisis, and that has to be my primary focus. There is no silver-bullet solution to making MLGW reliable, resilient, and ready. It is a steady and deliberate march towards investments that gets you there. And let me be clear. We’ll get there. We have a plan.”

This article was originally published by Memphis magazine.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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