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Southern Co.’s annual meeting a model for corporate America

Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning appearing in the video of the company's 2022 annual meeting.

By Maria Saporta

The best corporate annual meeting of the year award goes to the Southern Co. — hands down.

While most of Georgia’s Fortune 500 companies have chosen to hold virtual 2022 annual meetings, Southern Co. welcomed shareholders and employees to attend its meeting at the Callaway Gardens Lodge Conference Center on May 25.

“Isn’t it great we are back in person?” Southern Co. CEO Thomas Fanning said as he opened the meeting.

Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning opens up the 2022 annual meeting. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

About 200 people attended the annual meeting,which lasted two hours and forty-five minutes. After the official part of the meeting was over, there was a question-and-answer period, which Fanning said was his favorite part. He engaged with shareholders — 17 of whom asked questions or made comments, several of them critical of various Southern Co.’s practices — be it unlined coal ash ponds across the system, its investment in the Plant Vogtle nuclear plant or a need to be more aggressive in expanding its renewable energy portfolio.

“Tom Fanning is really, really good at his job as you have observed — he’s unflappable and always hospitable,” said John Quarterman of Lowndes County (an environmentalist and shareholder) as he addressed the meeting.

Then Quarterman observed that New Jersey and Massachusetts have more solar power than Georgia.

“Could it be because they are not wasting money on a nuclear boondoggle?” he asked, adding how much better off Southern Co. would be today if it had used Plant Vogtle dollars to invest in solar and wind energy as well as energy storage.

Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning (second from left) visits with environmentalists Brionté McCorkle, Mark Woodall and John Quarterman after the 2022 annual meeting. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

While Quarterman praised Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power for what it has done, “it’s nowhere near enough.” As to Southern Co.’s pledge to be a net-zero carbon company by 2050, Quarterman said “2050 is too late.”

“When are we going to see a real effect on climate change?” he asked — getting applause from many in the room.

Fanning took it in stride.

“I think it’s a false choice to say we can do this or that,” he said. “We can do both.”

Fanning did say the impact of climate change on the environment will get bigger. “We have got to have renewable, carbon-free energy,” he said. “I think we have done both.”

Quarterman wasn’t done. He asked about the development of micro-grid technology — creating a mini power source that generates and stores renewable energy — such as solar.

That concern also was expressed by other shareholders, including Neil Sardana of the Sierra Club, who said micro-grid technology could make major power plants obsolete.

Fanning responded by saying Southern Co. has acquired PowerSecure, which has a 75 percent market share in microgrid technology in the United States.

“We are by far the leader. I think that is a brilliant idea,” said Fanning, adding he is a believer in creative destruction. “We can miniaturize the power structure. We have been wildly successful in microgrid. Right now, it’s a peanut. Just playing defense is not sufficient. We have to play offense.”

Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning responds to a question posed by Neil Sardana of the Sierra Club. (An image taken from the video of the annual meeting.)

He went on to say the next generation of Southern Co. employees will challenge the old thinking that central power stations will rule the day forever. Although he sees the future development of distributed infrastructure, Fanning said he didn’t think it will displace the large power plants.

Brionté McCorkle, a shareholder and environmentalist, asked about the equity of lower-income people not being able to make their homes more energy-efficient or unable to install solar panels where they live.

She also told Fanning there’s a disconnect between what she hears him say and what legislators say in Georgia Power’s position on legislation, including solar.

“I don’t think Georgia Power is slow-walking anything with solar,” Fanning said, adding he doesn’t want lower-income customers subsidizing solar for higher-income people. “One of the blessings of the infrastructure, it provides a boatload of money that can help solve some of these problems. I’m all in on energy efficiency.”

Fanning repeatedly stated his enthusiasm for solar energy.

Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning responds to Brionte McCorkle’s question. (An image taken from the video of the annual meeting.)

“It’s very clear that our future is embedded with renewables. I’m very bullish on the future for solar,” Fanning said adding there’s a great need to be able to store solar power. “In our area, the most efficient thing we can do is solar by far.”

He said he especially loves being able to generate solar power on a building’s roof – generating and using solar at the same place. “You’ve heard me,” Fanning said. “I love solar.”

During the entire annual meeting, it was obvious Fanning was enjoying the exchange with shareholders and even his critics. It was also obvious he had disarmed the opposition with his persona.

“Those of us who have been together here, it’s not normal for a company this large to have such great dialogue like we are having here today,” said Sam Collier, an Atlanta environmentalist and shareholder. “Thank you for letting us be here.”

The room broke out with applause.

Shareholder Sam Collier thanks Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning for the constructive dialogue. (An image taken from the video of the annual meeting.)

Collier added that Fanning has that dialogue on a national level with environmental organizations around the country.

For those of us who remember when the Southern Co. bristled when people brought up climate change, Fanning’s comments were refreshing.

“It is absolutely true that we are going to have to deal with the carbon atom — either directly through capture or indirectly through the net negative approach. We are spending real money on these solutions,” he said.

Later he added: “There’s room on both sides of the aisle to strike a deal [on climate change], but the physics of striking a deal in this environment is tough [given that it’s an election year]. After 2022 we may be able to do something faster… I’m actually pretty hopeful.”

The Southern annual meeting was unique because everyone who wanted to ask a question or make a comment was able to do so without a timeclock to cut them off. At one point, environmentalist Mark Woodall told Fanning his predecessors would not answer all his questions.

“We’ve got all day,” Fanning responded.

Another rare event happened at the meeting. There was a shareholder proposal to go from a super-majority requirement of shareholder votes to a simple majority. Almost always, companies ask shareholders to vote against stockholder proposals. Fanning said the board recommended a vote in favor of the shareholder proposal, which passed with 98 percent of the vote.

The tone of the annual meeting was set at the beginning when Fanning talked about the divisiveness in the country today.

Georgia Power CEO Chris Womack visits with environmentalist Brionte McCorkle after the 2022 Southern Co. annual meeting. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

 “It’s companies like ours that I think can create a constructive dialogue — can create a forum for the disparate parts of this country to come together and really work for the benefit of all of our citizens,” Fanning said.

At the end of the meeting, Fanning continued that theme.

“We are so divided right now as a nation,” Fanning said. “We’ve got to figure out ways to bring people together. One of the things I’m so proud of this conversation we are having today, even when you say stuff and lecture me, we have a constructive engagement. We act on what you say. That’s what we’ve got to do in Washington.”

Fanning closed by saying he welcomes any and all ideas from shareholders. Then he added: “I love these meetings.”

Note to readers:

I also love annual meetings — especially when they are in person and when executives and board members welcome exchanges with shareholders. Sadly, the COVID pandemic has led most companies to hold virtual, audio-only annual meetings — which Fanning told me they do that “to escape some level of accountability” from shareholders. “We embrace it,” Fanning said.

By the way, one of my favorite companies, Delta Air Lines, will hold its annual meeting at 7:30 a.m. on June 16 in New York at the offices of one of its law firms. What a shame the airline doesn’t hold its annual meeting at its home in Atlanta where it would be able to hear directly from its employees and individual shareholders. Maybe next year.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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25 Comments

  1. Katherine Cummings May 31, 2022 9:06 am

    GA Power is only interested in profits, period. They happily expect customers to pay for a boondoggle nuclear reactor. GA Power leaders tolerate poisoning water resources FOREVER (coal ash waste doesn’t go away or lessen in its toxicity with time) because doing anything more will cost them money. The GA legislature is happy to play along with their “profit above all other things” even though the Public Service Commission staff continues to suggest doing things differently by shifting financial burdens to shareholders. Just ask the people living in Juliette about their wells and outrageous rates of cancer.Report

    Reply
  2. James Stanton May 31, 2022 9:41 am

    Great piece Maria. Thank you!Report

    Reply
  3. Craig Pendergrast May 31, 2022 10:20 am

    Maria, please be aware of and report on the Restore Chattooga Gorge effort that is pending before the Ga. Public Service Commission to get Ga. Power to cooperate in realizing the many benefits that would be associated with removing Tugalo Dam and Lake which have buried the last 4 miles of the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River and the last 2 miles of the Tallulah River. The dam is 100 years old and its concrete is visibly degraded. The lake is heavily silted in to the point that rafters have to walk their rafts across mudflats when the lake level is low. The mudflats generate huge amounts of methane. Removing the dam and lake would set the stage for reforestation of 600 acres of land now covered by the dam and lake, and expansion for the habitat of the endangered Persistent Trillium that once thrived on the land now covered by the lake. NE Georgia tourism would benefit. But, so far, Ga. Power seems to prefer to spend $115 million to change out the turbines in the powerhouse and ignore the rest, when that same $115 million could be spent on solar installations that would produce more than twice as much electricity as the turbines in the powerhouse can produce. American Rivers can raise most or all of the money to remove the dam and restore the river corridor. Mr. Fanning needs to tell his CEO at Ga. Power to get on board.Report

    Reply
  4. Curtis Hart June 1, 2022 4:56 pm

    Great article.

    Fanning is a one-of-a kind CEO, AND The Southern Company is the BEST utility in America. Vogtle 3 & 4 will be service my great grandkids with low cost zero carbon energy. I am grateful.Report

    Reply
  5. fnaf June 29, 2022 12:34 am

    Southern Co.’s annual meeting was a model for corporate America: It demonstrated that large, publicly traded companies can be transparent, responsive pokedle and accountable to the public.Report

    Reply
  6. kalyl July 1, 2022 3:44 am

    For the first time in its 125 year history, Southern Co.’s annual meeting is a model for corporate America. The meeting was held in Birmingham, Alabama and it drew over 6,000 attendees.Report

    Reply

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