A.W. "Bill" Dahlberg's patience is running thin. The chief executive of the nation's leading electricity generator is tired of investors' disinterest in electric utilities and the waning stock price of the firm he steers, the
. "I'm patient, just not very patient. We just simply have to create value."
Ironically, the hallmark of Dahlberg's career is patience: his tenure at Southern spans four decades, beginning as a meter installer in 1960. In that time he has seen many changes, but none like the transformation facing the industry today. "The pace of change is accelerating," he said in an interview in his office atop the company's headquarters in downtown Atlanta. "Anyone in the industry who has seen the pace of change in the past five or 10 years has a difficult time predicting where we go beyond the next five or 10."
But just as the notion of deregulation and change unnerved old-fashioned utility investors, the lack of "go-go" growth potential has kept utility stocks far from the portfolios of Generation Tech. The average utility stock -- Southern included -- lost nearly 20% in 1999. The slide has continued, with Southern losing another 15% so far this year, and hitting a 52-week low of 20 3/8 on Tuesday. "The whole industry has been awful," Dahlberg says. As for Southern's stock price: "It's the pits."
As a result, he and other utility executives are looking at wide-ranging -- some might say radical -- options to spark investor interest. "We've got to find some other things to do," he says. "That leads to all sorts of ideas: break up the business and sell pieces that don't fit, spin off the unregulated business, do an IPO, or try letter stock
stock that is not registered with the
and therefore can't be sold in the public market. We are evaluating all of those, I suspect, just like a dozen other utilities are doing right now, asking how they can get value to shareholders."
Many of those options are available to Southern, which continues to diversify from a southeastern powerhouse to a multifaceted energy company with a firm foothold in both regulated and unregulated businesses domestically and abroad. Southern, for now, has been able to hold on to its regulated business -- five traditional utilities in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi -- and, at the same time, rapidly expand its unregulated business in other regions of the country and overseas. And, with the regulated business continuing to generate solid profits, keeping one foot in the regulated world seems prudent. "Our view a year or two ago was if the business changed and we didn't have the stability of the regulated business, our stock would become a little more volatile."
While Southern's bifurcated strategy has been profitable, some analysts have been critical of what they call the company's lack of a clear focus. "Some parts of the criticism are valid," Dahlberg says. "Our strategy is multidimensional." He says the company is not willing to give up the regulated business just to create the "focus for ourselves" that analysts are seeking. "Anyone who looks with care at our strategy and execution over the past year will say we did what we set out to do: expand our
power supply business with a strong asset base."
What is Southern's deregulation strategy? Is there a silver bullet for utilities? Click here for the conclusion of this column.
Christopher S. Edmonds is president of Resource Dynamics, a private financial consulting firm based in Atlanta. At time of publication, Edmonds was long Southern Company, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. While Edmonds cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback at