Jim Rogers’ Closing Act

Duke’s merger with Progress Energy has prompted CEO Jim Rogers to retire at the pinnacle of his career. He has spent a quarter century building a reputation as a forward-thinking, civic-minded coal baron. Now he’s worried about how we’ll remember him


Published:

Peter Taylor

(page 1 of 3)

The most powerful coal baron in the country walks into an environmental science lab at Queens University on a rainy January morning, complimenting the periwinkle table tops (he almost wore a periwinkle tie today) and the enormous white SMART Board (“It’s kind of an interactive stage!”).

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers is slight, jovial, deeply tanned, and silver-haired, intent on charming the small group of strangers touring the college science building with him. Moments before entering the lab, he popped his head into a lecture hall full of students and greeted them in his languid Kentucky drawl. “Hi there, how y’all doin’? You learning anything?”

Reed Perkins, the man leading the tour with unflagging enthusiasm, is an environmental science professor at Queens. He studies, among other things, urban streams and the impact of land use on Charlotte’s watersheds. He’s aware that coal ash ponds from a Duke power plant are leaking toxins into the city’s drinking water supply 16 miles from here. But of course he doesn’t mention it.

Rogers helped pay for this building. He and his wife, M. A., donated $4.1 million for the state-of-the-art red brick landmark in Myers Park that is seeking LEED Platinum certification for its green technology. Rogers Hall opened January 7, and nine days later Rogers is visiting for the first time.

“Hey, Rog, can you just stand there?” M. A. urges her husband. She’s relaxed and almost giddy, in a girlish black-and-white tweed dress, as she snaps a photo in the hallway near the fancy lettering that says “Duke Energy Auditorium.”

This is vintage Rogers: a ham and a charmer, a man who, his wife says, once jokingly posed for a photo in his company’s annual report with one hand crossed provocatively over his chest, mimicking the pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair. Throughout his career he has doled out money for philanthropic causes, devoting substantial time and energy to convincing potential adversaries to like him, and today is no exception.

Rogers runs the nation’s largest power company, an electric utility that produces 70 percent of its energy from coal. Yet he’s the rare utility mogul who has argued that global warming is real and that the industry must address it. He supported pollution regulations to combat acid rain, and lobbied hard for a federal bill aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

In Charlotte, he’s been lauded as a benefactor of the arts and a civic booster. He rallied corporate and government officials around an effort to recast the region as an energy hub, and a year later Siemens brought a major manufacturing plant to Charlotte. Duke investors shelled out $10 million to bring the Democratic National Convention to town, and Rogers cochaired the event’s host committee. He rose to prominence just as the banks were fading, filling a void that prompted nostalgic references to Hugh McColl. “I hope he’s not our last corporate lion,” Mayor Anthony Foxx says of Rogers. “But he seems to be the only one at the moment who is willing to put the community on his back and carry us into the future.”

Now the fallout from Duke’s controversial merger with Progress Energy has forced Rogers to retire at the end of this year. At 65, there’s a real chance he could lose the bully pulpit he spent a quarter century building, and he’s not happy about it. He won’t use the word retirement. He winces at the mention of a successor. The idea of stepping away from power makes him distinctly uncomfortable. After a lifetime of performing, he’s worried about how the audience will remember him.

There’s a story about Rogers that’s become part of his family’s lore. M. A. has heard it so many times that she recites it like a parable.

When he was about 12, Jim was asked to give a speech to his dad’s Sunday school class. The elder Rogers was an intimidating figure—a World War II veteran who served in the 82nd Airborne Division and had a “thunderstorm-type temper.” Rogers learned to read the signs that his dad’s fuse was about to blow. When the old man’s eyes started to squint, he knew to back off.

The night before the speech, his dad asked Rogers what he was going to talk about. Rogers planned to give his interpretation of a Bible passage, but his dad didn’t like it. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he told the boy. “You’re dumber than dirt.” They sat up half the night arguing about it.

The next day at Sunday school, Rogers showed up with a plan. It was risky, maybe even foolish. It was also the kind of compromise that Rogers would keep making for the rest of his life. He began by outlining his father’s version of the Bible story. “Now some might read this passage and this would be their interpretation,” he said. “But there’s also another way to look at it.” Rogers watched his father’s face, searching to see if his eyes were starting to squint. Then he launched into his own version of the Bible tale, weaving the two perspectives together at the end. “He kind of melded the two, which Jim is sort of good at doing—bringing different sides together,” M. A. says.

But it wasn’t easy. Rogers’s knees locked. He forgot to breathe. His whole body tensed as he tried to gauge his dad’s reaction. The stress was enormous. And the minute the boy finished speaking, he passed out.

Growing up in a small Kentucky town of 10,000 people, Rogers would fall asleep at night beside a coal-burning fire. Now he lives at the top of a winding driveway on Eastover Road, in a country castle of a house with sloped Flemish roofs, tennis courts, a pool out back, and three fireplaces on the ground floor.

His golden retriever bounds outside on a February afternoon, exuberant and panting. Rogers is subdued in a gray sweater and slacks, having just flown back from Vienna the night before. He looks tired, and suddenly old. He’s moving slowly, and there are puffy bags under his eyes.

Walking in the front door, he leads his guests into a formal dining room with a glittering chandelier and a floor-to-ceiling Flemish tapestry decorating one wall. Rogers pulls the tapestry back to reveal a door, which opens into a bathroom. Such architectural tricks are scattered throughout the house: a wall that opens onto a hidden stairway, a freestanding wall that obscures the entrance to the master bedroom. “Nothing is really straightforward,” Rogers explains.

He’s proud of this house of illusions. He didn’t build it, but it’s a fitting sanctuary for a man who is careful not to reveal too much of himself. On weekends, he likes to hole up in a small, dark den on the ground floor, where the windows face the side yard instead of the street. It’s a good place to hide.

 

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