Who was Alvin Vogtle?
Alvin Vogtle always seemed older than his age. When he ran away from home at age 10, his mother found him in downtown Birmingham, looking for a job wearing one of his father's suits, his pants cuffs dragging the sidewalk.
That was about the same time Vogtle achieved the highest IQ score in the history of Birmingham's school system and was promoted from the fourth grade to the seventh.
Vogtle grew up quickly. He was the quarterback of the Ramsay High School football team and entered Auburn University at 15. Two years after graduating from Auburn, he earned a law degree from the University of Alabama.
That was 1941. Within less than a year, he was off to World War II as a fighter pilot, having already learned to fly under a civilian training program. Flying matched his spirit – he was free, by himself and in charge.
Refusing to be fenced in
Vogtle was captured as prisoner of war in January 1943 while on his 35th mission – a trip to carry a message to Bone, Algeria, that could not be transmitted by wire. Out of fuel because of a storm and taking flak behind enemy lines, he crash-landed at 80 mph, his Spitfire hitting a drainage ditch and splitting in half. He got quickly on his feet but was captured within a half-hour by some 40 German soldiers, led by officers on horseback.
After a night in jail and three days of interrogation in Tunis, he began his long train journey under guard to Germany, via Italy. In Rome he made his first getaway. When his guard turned away briefly in a market, he took off running. But wearing his leather flyer's jacket and U.S. Army Air Corps uniform, he was quickly caught.
Later, while spending the night in the Frankfurt train station, Vogtle took from his sleeping guard all the papers seized from his plane and destroyed them. He eventually arrived at an interrogation center where he spent three weeks annoying his captors by providing them with only his name, rank and serial number.
His first POW camp was Offlag XXI-B in Poland, where women spit and threw horse manure on him and other flyers as they were led from the train to the camp, which Vogtle was glad to find was alive with escape planning and tunnel digging. By March, he and a companion had cut a hole in the barbed wire fence and were ready to escape the following night. Their exit was discovered, however, and their attempt foiled.
In April, Vogtle and a large group of American flyers rode three days in boxcars without food and water to the North Compound of Stalag Luft III, a POW camp for British air force officers and the site of "Tom," "Dick" and "Harry" tunnels immortalized by the 1963 movie "The Great Escape."
Vogtle quickly became a hard-working participant in the escape effort, excelling in stealing tunnel-building materials and bribing guards with Red Cross chocolate and homemade booze. He was the designated head of the "procurement committee."
But Vogtle was not waiting for completion of the tunnels. On a July morning he went out the front gate, buried at the bottom of a trash wagon – his escape companion having been discovered because he had not rooted himself far enough into the stinking garbage. Traveling at night, guided by stars, and scaling the Carpathian Mountains, he covered 150 miles in 10 days, all the way to Czechoslovakia. However, civilians there turned him in to the Gestapo.
Once back in camp, Vogtle spent 14 days in solitary confinement, but that never seemed to deter him. Imprisonment was simply intolerable to him; he was so intensely private and independent. It made him feel like a caged animal.
For Vogtle, trying to escape was his responsibility as an American. It was his duty to occupy as many Germans as possible in trying to keep him fenced in. When a guard had been forced to travel with him back from Czechoslovakia, he knew that was one less German on the battlefront fighting the Allies.
When Vogtle and the other Americans were moved to the South Compound of Stalag Luft III, he again began looking for a way out. It was like a game for him. He spent his days watching the routine activities of the camp, searching for an opportunity, a weak spot in its defense. He eventually devised two plans but had to abort both. The first time his companion was caught going out the barbed wire they had cut, leaving Vogtle to slither back to his barracks. The second time, when he planned to slip out with a parcels detail, his companion – another perennial escapee – was being watched too closely.
Not even the execution of 50 British flyers caught after their escape through the North Compound tunnel "Harry" – many of them his friends – deterred Vogtle. At 5-foot-7, he planned to go out in a mailbag in January 1945 but never got the chance. With the Allies advancing, the entire camp was moved one windy night in six inches of snow, marching 34 miles in 27 hours before being packed into unventilated boxcars.
At a water stop, the POW chain of command issued orders that anyone who wanted to try to escape could. Vogtle and John Lewis went out the window at a stop in Moosburg. They covered 90 miles in four nights of snow, rain and one of the coldest winters on record in northern Europe, building fires to warm themselves. When they finally took refuge in a hayloft, they were discovered by farm children the next day and recaptured.
At their new camp – Stalag Luft VII-A – they found not only their former campmates but a total of 80,000 POWs of all nationalities, rank and service branch. It was chaos. And Vogtle loved it. He was free again by the end of February.
Dressed like British orderlies, Vogtle and Herb Spire slipped into a large group of POWs being taken to Munich to work and, once there, broke away from their smaller detail when their guard turned to give directions to a woman. They soon connected with Frenchmen who gave them a multi-stop route by train toward Switzerland. Nervous that he would eventually be asked to show identification, Vogtle left Spire within 100 miles of Switzerland and set out on his own. He had a map; that was all he needed.
He hiked through snow drifts, stole a bike and swam or crossed five creeks. When he came to the Rhine River, in the darkness of an early morning, he again started swimming. He made it halfway across the frigid water before the strong current turned him back. As he ran down the river's edge, he discovered a rowboat. He untied it and rowed into Switzerland and freedom. Dawn was breaking. It was March 3, 1945. Mission finally accomplished, focus still in tact.
Vogtle the POW begat Vogtle the CEO
When Vogtle returned to Birmingham, his father made him sit down and write an account of his POW experiences. He did so dutifully, producing a lawyer-like statement of facts, nary an emotion in the 68 typewritten pages.
He returned to his prewar position at Martin, Blakey and McWhorter law firm (now Balch & Bingham). His father, a coal company vice president, was a friend of both Judge Logan Martin and his brother, longtime Alabama Power president Thomas Martin. When Judge Martin had told an inquiring Vogtle he had no openings before the war, Vogtle had replied he would not have to pay him, he just needed the experience. When Judge Martin told him he had no extra chairs, Vogtle said, "I'll just stand."
Judge Martin, a taskmaster with a red pen, eventually became Vogtle's mentor, while Tom Martin would tap Vogtle to be his personal lawyer. "Few people, I suspect, had Mr. Martin's confidence in the way that Alvin did," said the late Joe Farley, one of Vogtle's law firm partners and later president of Alabama Power and then Southern Nuclear. "The way Alvin operated was very impressive to all who worked with him."
Harllee Branch was among those impressed. He was president of Georgia Power when he met Vogtle in the early 1950s. When Branch became Southern Company's CEO in 1957 and had to consider a possible successor, he thought of Vogtle.
Making no promises, he offered Vogtle an opportunity to leave the law firm for Southern Company. He told Vogtle the move would involve some risk but he would have a great shot at becoming the next Southern Company CEO. After thinking about it, Vogtle said "he would be willing to take the risk," recalled the late Branch in 1983.
Vogtle was named executive vice president of Alabama Power in 1962, and three years later Branch brought him to Atlanta as vice president of Southern Company. He was elected president of Southern Company in 1969 and CEO in 1970, picking up the chairman's title as well when Branch retired in 1971.
"Alvin was one of the best disciplined, most self-reliant and efficient executives I ever knew," Branch said. "He was a straight thinker. ... You never saw his desk cluttered with papers, never found his mind cluttered with a lot of things."
Vogtle believed in delegating details rather than getting lost in them, that worrying interfered with "the proper thinking process" and that a piece of paper should be touched only once. Rarely did a visitor see paper in his in-box. He would stop any conversation to move a document – after reading it and responding quickly – from his inbox to his outbox.
"He was quicker than the rest of us," said Tom Nunnelly, one of his vice presidents.
Vogtle's daily New York Times crossword puzzle was done in ink and always finished. His memory was photographic. Before the annual meeting of stockholders, he would retreat to a small room and look over his speech text. Then he would go on stage, deliver the address nearly word for word and afterward answer questions calmly and confidently, using humor spontaneously.
A courteous man, Vogtle was appreciative of any kindness or effort by a subordinate and overwhelmingly modest, regularly referring to Plant Vogtle as "the so-called Vogtle nuclear plant." He was so incredibly comfortable with himself that he did not mind letting people know that he did not like meetings, did not like committees and did not like people getting too close to him.
A reporter once asked Vogtle if his POW experiences had shaped him as a CEO. "I don't think it had any effect at all," he replied, although those who worked with him would disagree.
"He was the most private man I ever knew," Branch said. "He never told anyone where he was going or what he was doing, and neither asked for nor tolerated outside advice. He liked people individually but disliked them in crowds."
Like the prisoner who kept trying to escape, Vogtle was a man of action. His appraisal of a situation was rapid-fire, and he was fearless in making decisions he needed to make.
We are going to do whatever we have to do
In September 1974, Vogtle made the decision company engineers could not force themselves to make. He announced Southern Company would cut its construction budget for the next three years by one-third – $1.7 billion – thereby delaying or canceling the planned construction boom of the 1970s. (Among the casualties were Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4, the units now being built as the first new U.S. nuclear construction in 30 years.)
Hammered by both the Arab oil embargo a year earlier and unsettled securities markets, Southern Company was facing the greatest financial crisis in its history. Georgia Power would struggle to meet its payroll that year and Mississippi Power and Alabama Power would totter on bankruptcy by the end of the decade.
Southern Company was staying alive on a half-billion dollars of short-term debt but was also strangling on it. Vogtle knew his company needed cash and the way to get it was to sell stock, using the proceeds to retire the debt that was financing construction.
Vogtle escaped WWII Europe to lead Southern Company through its
most dangerous hour.
But the message Vogtle kept hearing was that issuing new shares would be folly for any electric utility in 1974. The financial experts, both internal and external, kept telling him that you don't sell stock until the conditions are just right, until your earnings are such that people are encouraged enough to invest in your company.
The conditions were horrendous. The industry was in the midst of its most serious crisis since the 1920s, and Southern Company's shares, which had traded at more than $17 in early 1974, were now selling below $10. Because the new shares would have to sell at about half their book value of $18.36, Vogtle's advisors warned that a stock sale would greatly dilute the value of the existing 81 million shares.
Vogtle not only wanted to issue new shares, he wanted to issue 17.5 million of them – potentially the largest equity sale ever by a utility in number of shares. He understood the risk – the shares might not sell, and even if they did, it would be costly, as the underwriters would take 8 percent of the proceeds. But the man who refused to be fenced in had been in a few tight spots before. He understood risk. He said, "Sell the stock."
Six days after announcing the construction budget cut, Vogtle took Southern Company to market Sept. 18, looking for buyers for 17.5 million new shares.
"When he (Vogtle) went forward with the sale of the diluted stock, he had the resolve to say, 'We are going to do whatever we have to do,'" said the late Bob Scherer, Georgia Power president at that time. "Because the holding company had to generate the capital, he made the decision to sell. He didn't have to. He could have let the operating companies flounder about, if he had wanted to run. But he stood up there, cinched up his belt and sold the stock. I think it was the same determination he had as a POW."
It was a sellout. All 17.5 million shares sold the first day, mostly to small investors coaxed into buying a 14.7 percent dividend yield. At $9.50 per share, Southern Company generated $152.9 million.
The Atlanta Constitution called the stock sale "ice-breaking." It was a watershed move, indirectly mobilizing the entire securities industry.
It was as if Vogtle had been crafted for the moment. He had escaped Europe to come home and lead Southern Company during its most dangerous hour with the same persistence, resourcefulness and singleness of purpose he had learned fleeing Germans before he even turned 25.
"He never got rattled, he never got intimidated, he never got diverted," said Branch. "He just stuck to the line until he got a problem solved."
Looking back, Branch said Vogtle won for Southern Company "the respect of investment analysts, bankers, stockholders and regulators." "He did it not only with brains," he said, "but with guts."