Economic Development and Leadership Q&A Series: Tony Cannon

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There are many partners and organizations involved in successful economic development programs and initiatives. In this Q&A Series, the Greenville ENC Alliance is interviewing key stakeholders in the local, regional, and state level that play a role in business attraction, retention, and expansion, workforce development, talent attraction and retention, and community engagement.

In this interview, Josh Lewis, the Greenville ENC Alliance’s president and CEO, sat down with Tony Cannon, General Manager and CEO of Greenville Utilities Commission (GUC). The two discussed the role GUC plays in the community it serves as well as how it supports economic development through capacity and service to industry. In addition, they talked about planning for growth, importance of leadership, and the formation of the Greenville ENC Alliance. Tony also shared the pride that GUC and its employees have for the community and explained his goals for growth in Greenville-Pitt County.

(Portions of this interview, as published here, have been edited and condensed for clarity.)


Q: Tell us a little bit about your role as General Manager for GUC and all that encompasses the CEO position here at the utility company.

A: I work as the General Manager and CEO for Greenville Utilities, and my job is one that is prescribed by state law. We are one of two state-chartered utilities in North Carolina. Our charter, which is a law that's adopted by the General Assembly, actually spells out the duties of the General Manager, and what I'm supposed to do. I'm the only employee of the Board of Commissioners, so everyone else who works here works for the General Manager. It's been that way since 1905. We're responsible for keeping the utilities and the investments made by the citizens in working order, charging proper rates, making sure that people who want service are able to get service, and making sure that we are in compliance with all regulatory requirements that are passed down through the state and the federal governments.

Q: What advantages do we have with GUC as a state-chartered utility?

A: More than half of the utilities the size of Greenville Utilities throughout the country are independently chartered utilities. It's just not as common in North Carolina. So, I think one of the advantages there is that you're one step removed from politics, so we're able to focus on the business of the utility and not have to worry about all of the other stuff that the city government takes care of. It gives us the opportunity to plan on a longer horizon. Our planning periods are typically 5,10,15, and 20 years. And that helps us with rate planning, it helps us make sure that we're competitive, and that we're focusing our resources that we get from this community back into the community and reinvesting.

Q: How is the GUC board structured? Have there been changes to the board makeup over the years through the charter?

A: Yes, the board structure has changed quite a bit over the years. I think when we first started in 1905 we had three board members. Today, we have eight. The latest revision to the charter, which was in 1994, added two members that are nominated to the City Council by the County Commissioners so that we have representation from outside the corporate limits. All of the members, with the exception of the City Manager who sits as a voting member of our board, are appointed by the City Council. However, two of those come from the County Commissioners. They can serve two three-year terms and they are rotating, so we don't have a clean slate at any time.

Q: What have you found unique about operating utilities here compared to past experiences in other positions?

A: One of the things that I particularly like about working here is the relationship that we have with the university, the community college, and the health care system. I think that gives us an upper hand when it comes to economic development and working with prospective clients. And I think that it really helps complement the assets that we have in the community to have the utility set up the way that we're set up.

Q: You're a big believer in the concept of the Alliance. GUC drove that to a large degree and understood that the formation of a larger partnership could do big things for economic development in the community. Why were you sure that this concept would work?

A: This model was successful in the community that I came from, Greer, South Carolina, which is located between Greenville and Spartanburg. We had the traditional economic development units when I went to work in Greer a long time ago. We decided in the early 90s that that system was not working as well as we'd hoped it would. We looked around and found the public-private partnership seemed to be the most effective. So, we established that in the early 90s, when I was in Greer, and so I saw the benefits of that.

One of the first big clients that we got there was BMW. We were very involved in that because it is located in Spartanburg County; Greer sits on the line between Greenville and Spartanburg County. The address for the BMW plant is Greer, SC. So, we got to work on those utility projects. It was a great time to be there in that business. To look back now and see the economic impact that it had, not just for the automotive industry, but across the board in the upstate of South Carolina is just tremendous.

When I came to Greenville Utilities, the city manager was Wayne Bowers. Wayne happened to be the County Administrator in Spartanburg when all that was going down. So, our paths had crossed again here. Wayne and I had several conversations after I first got here in 2006 about whether we could ever move the needle to get that type of public-private partnership here because we have such tremendous asset base in Greenville-Pitt County; way more of an asset base than what we had at the time in the upstate of South Carolina. Clemson University and the University of South Carolina were both pretty far away. So, we didn't have that university setting in our backyard that could provide us with a solid workforce for prospective clients.

So, we looked at the assets that were sitting right here in the Greenville, North Carolina community and it was a head scratcher as to why it wasn't working as well. I think the missing component there was having the private sector involved in our economic development efforts. So, we started pushing pretty hard for this back in the early 2010’s era. I was chair of the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce in 2012 and I set out on a mission to make sure I got this on everybody's radar screen. We did an inter-city visit to Greenville, South Carolina, Greer, and Spartanburg. We got some really good information. But the political environment here was not such that it was accepted. That didn't mean that it was wrong. It just wasn't the right timing. So, we kept pushing and we kept pushing, and finally the players got in place. And we really started moving the needle on this thing. I think that this community will see the benefits of this for a long time, long after I’m gone.  

Q: If you had to name the top three things for economic development to be successful what would they be?

A: One is leadership in the team. I think that's where it starts. If a client or prospective company is not comfortable with the team, that's a risk that they're going to eliminate. You could have the best site, you can have the best price, you could have the best product, but if a consultant or someone working for a company is not comfortable with the team, they can’t be successful there. So that’s number one. Product is important. We've talked a lot about product. If you don't have sites and buildings, you're not going to get on any radar screen whatsoever. Because that's typically where the search starts. It’s hard to name just one thing as the third because it’s workforce, it’s infrastructure, its climate, it’s accessibility, there's just so many things that you have to have to be successful. But without leadership and confidence that a project can be successful, it’s not going to happen. All of those other things are important. We have to have them, and we have to invest in them, but you need to have leadership in order to do it.

Q: Where do you think GUC provides a competitive advantage in terms of economic development and business attraction?

A: I think there's a number of places that we do. One is our capacity that we have built. Some of the clients that you're talking to right now for business attraction projects will tell you that if we did not have available capacity ready to go today, they would not choose us. That's hugely important. A lot of communities don't stay at the right place on the infrastructure curve. You can over-build or you cannot build enough and then you're eliminated. So, I think being able to focus solely on utilities allows us to stay at the right place on that infrastructure curve so that when somebody walks through the door, and they need a million gallons of water a day, or 40 megawatts of electricity on demand that we have that ready.

Q: How do you determine your capacities? You know, 10 years out, how do you plan for these large industrial projects where it can range from 10 megawatts to 100 megawatts? How does the utility view that through a capital improvement plan and how do you determine what you're going to build?

A: You don't. You don't plan on a 40 or 50 megawatt project to come in. What you plan for is redundant capacity throughout the system so that you can serve your system from a number of places. And that's what we've done. But as you're building that redundancy in your system, you're building additional capacity. So that when these opportunities do come along, we’re ready. We’re finishing an upgrade to our water treatment plant that takes 22 and a half million gallons a day to 32 million gallons a day. Well, we didn't just yank those 32 million gallons a day out of the air. We looked at growth trends over the past, we looked at what increments we could build, at what cost to give us additional capacity and it takes time. We had a pretty good drought in 2006 and 2007 in this area, that really made us look at our raw water supply. We looked at the intrusion of salt that we could experience coming up the river. And we knew that we were approaching 80% capacity on the plant on a peak day during that.

Q: How do you manage such a system, when you have all these projects that are on a long horizon? Good examples include large capital projects such as building an operations center. What is the primary challenge?

A: You hire good people. That's the key. You know, I had a boss one time, tell a board that if you want a top performing organization, you pay your people and you hire the top people, period. You worry about the people; you worry about retaining those people and recruiting the right generation and the right mix. Finding somebody with the skill set that can do a job is pretty easy, but finding someone with a skill set that has the focus on the customer, safety, and being a team member, those are the important things that you have to try to drill down and find.

Our employees take great pride in the work that they do. And I think that speaks to the reliability; speaks to the affordability because they're looking for ways for us to become more efficient, so that our customers can afford it. In our locations, people take a lot of pride in what they do and that's part of the culture here. It was here when I got here, and it's going to outlive all of us. That sense of pride, the sense of making a difference.

Q: Five or 10 years from now what would you like to see as part of your and GUC’s legacy? Is creating a partnership organization that brought everybody together part of that legacy?

A: Successful opportunities and jobs for people. At the end of the day, that's what the Alliance is about. It’s making this a better place to do business and live. I think we've seen a lot of headway there; especially once we have some successes and we have some good jobs. I saw it when I was in Greer. We had a downtown that was not living up to its full potential and people wanted to focus everything on downtown. You can build all the stuff you want downtown, but unless people have disposable income and are willing to come spend it downtown, it’s not going to last. But once you start having industry and companies in the community that are providing a good livelihood for their employees, then if you build it, they will come. I think that's what the Alliance will do. It will change and continue to be an agent for change in this community for the better. That's my goal.


Since 1905, Greenville Utilities has been an integral part of Greenville and Pitt County, growing and progressing along with its expanding service area. GUC provides electric, water, sewer and natural gas services to the City of Greenville and 75% of Pitt County. It serves a combined total of nearly 168,000 customer connections. Greenville Utilities is owned by the citizens of Greenville but operates under a separate charter issued by the N.C. General Assembly. Click here to learn more about GUC: