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Interim Albany Water, Gas and Light Chief Tom Berry one of most respected in Georgia

Tom Berry has more than 40 years of extensive utility experience

Tom Berry, whose resume includes 19 years with Georgia Power and 20 more with the city of Thomasville, is now an in-demand “hired gun” brought in to help communities through short-term rough patches. He started work as interim WG&L GM on Sept. 1. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Tom Berry, whose resume includes 19 years with Georgia Power and 20 more with the city of Thomasville, is now an in-demand “hired gun” brought in to help communities through short-term rough patches. He started work as interim WG&L GM on Sept. 1. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — If city of Albany officials were looking for a “yes man” to serve as interim general manager of their Water, Gas & Light Commission while they looked for a permanent GM, they hired the wrong guy.

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Water, Gas & Light interim GM Tom Berry, center, flanked by utility attorney Sam Engram, left, and WG&L Commissioner Morris Gurr, is working to improve utility efficiency while city leaders search for a permanent GM. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Tom Berry made a few things clear before he accepted the WG&L job. He didn’t come here to make friends. He’s not going to choose sides in any ongoing argument between utility and city officials. He has no interest in staying on with WG&L long-term. And he’s going to tell city officials what he believes will best serve the people of Albany, no matter what sacred cows he might tarnish.

“What a lot of people around here seem to forget is that the Water, Gas & Light Commission does not ‘belong’ to any group that thinks they should control it,” Berry, who hit the ground running after taking over as interim GM on Sept. 1, said. “WG&L, just like all other government functions, belongs to Mr. Hines over on Don Cutler Drive. It belongs to the citizens and was created to benefit the citizens.

“Because some (former) leaders were not so concerned with looking after the best interests of the citizens who are the customers of the utility, a lot of opportunities came and went in the past. The city should be providing water and sewer for parts of Lee County right now, and Albany should be a regional utilities hub for all of Southwest Georgia. We can’t let such opportunities pass us by.”

Berry replaced City Manager James Taylor as interim general manager of the city-owned utility with clear marching orders: help put WG&L’s house in order while the city searches for a permanent GM. It’s a task Berry is well suited for. He worked with Georgia Power for 19 years before serving Thomasville as utilities superintendent and later city manager/utilities superintendent for 20 more years. He “retired” in 2004 and has since been in demand as a management “hired gun” brought in to help communities like Albany that find themselves in need of short-term help.

“At Georgia Municipal Association and even MEAG (Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia) meetings, I asked a number of people if they knew anyone who could help us transition through the period of losing our general manager (Lemuel Edwards, who retired in February) and hiring a new one,” Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard, who by city charter also serves as chair of the WG&L board, said. “Several people told me, ‘I don’t know why you’re looking anywhere else when you have the perfect person working right in your backyard, in Thomasville.’

“Mr. Taylor and I met with Mr. Berry, and it became apparent quickly that he was just what we were looking for. He’s a perfect fit. He doesn’t want the job permanently, so he has begun to create a road map that our next general manager can follow. He has a vision for the future, and I think everyone who’s worked with him in the city is impressed with his knowledge.”

Born in Macon, Tom Berry attended Southern Tech for two years after graduating Laurens County High School. His planned engineering career was interrupted when he discovered “Uncle Sam needed me.” After six years in the U.S. Navy, three on active duty in the Mediterranean, Berry returned to the job he’d started with Georgia Power before shipping out.

“I was very fortunate,” he said. “I came out of the Navy in the ’70s when the economy was bad and jobs were hard to find. Georgia Power has always been a supporter of our military, and when I came back home I found that not only did I still have my job, my salary had escalated.”

While working as an engineering assistant with Georgia Power in Jonesboro, Berry completed the two years he needed to earn a mechanical engineering technology degree at Southern Tech. Then he started working his way up the ladder.

He served as an associate engineer in McRae, an operating supervisor in Kingsland and an operating superintendent in Bainbridge. Each rung up that ladder, though, meant another move. So when the city of Thomasville was persistent in its overtures to lure him away from Georgia Power, he finally relented.

Berry was hired on as the Rose City’s assistant utilities superintendent, and, utilizing the knowledge he’d picked up in his 19 years with Georgia Power, he soon established himself as a vital player among the city’s hierarchy. When his direct supervisor was fired within the next year, Berry was elevated to utilities superintendent. But he’d make one more move before taking on his biggest role in Thomasville.

“In 1993 I was offered the first board manager position with the city of Marietta,” he said. “Not long after I got there, though, I discovered the way their organization was structured created dysfunction. I beat my head against the wall for three months there, trying to get a handle on things, when the folks in Thomasville called me.

“Their city manager had resigned, and they offered me that position. I told them the only way I would leave Marietta was if I was given both the city manager and utilities superintendent positions. They were operating independently of each other, and that was not an effective system. There were issues in Thomasville, but I decided to make the move. I would have stayed on in Marietta and worked through the dysfunction, but I was eager to take on the challenge in Thomasville.”

When Berry returned to South Georgia and dived deeper into Thomasville’s finances, he discovered the city utility was, essentially, surviving month-to-month, often sweating out making payroll. Working with what he called a “good city council and a good team of employees,” he started making changes. The most significant: cutting 100 positions.

“We implemented a lot of cross-function from our employees, but we also gave them bonuses to spur innovation,” Berry said. “What they’d done there was create a great deal of waste by hiring a bunch of folks at minimum wage at positions that weren’t essential. We got better by being more efficient, and now I’d say Thomasville has one of the most well-off municipal-owned utilities in the state.”

Berry gave a one-year’s notice and left Thomasville in 2004. Before he’d even officially left his position, though, he’d already been hired to serve as interim city manager for the city of Monticello.

Since that time, Berry has served in similar management positions in Elberton, Commerce, Camilla, Moultrie, Cairo and Colquitt County.

“I didn’t realize how great a need there was in the state for the interim-type manager,” he said. “I think I’ve had success because of all the people I know and because of my lifestyle. I’m willing to go into a community and live out of my RV over a short period of time. And my primary goals are to help bring about organic change and growth.

“I’ve had more job offers than I’ve been able to fill, and I go into these type jobs looking to stay four or five months. If I get up to six to eight months, I’ve stayed too long. I feel like if I stay long enough to develop relationships (within a community’s governmental hierarchy), it can be a detriment to the person following me.”

Berry said a quick needs assessment of Albany’s WG&L allowed him to start work quickly. Among the areas of concern he says he will address during his time here: Improving the relationship between WG&L and city officials; introducing needed efficiencies to streamline the utility; and implementing more of a “marketing culture” in the utility that will allow it to “make as money for the city as it can.”

“What that means is we need to produce as much income for the city as possible so that the dividends can result in things like tax cuts,” Berry said. “And we need to create efficiencies that help us do that. The cost of gas and electricity are going to go up; there’s nothing we can do about that. But we shouldn’t ask our customers to pay those additional costs. If we improve our efficiency, we shouldn’t have to.”

Berry said job cuts at WG&L will be kept to a minimum, but there could be a shift in some positions to achieve the efficiencies he deems vital.

“We have separate monitoring systems for sewer and water, electric and gas, and we’ll look at streamlining there,” he said. “We need a more efficient fuel monitoring system at our gas pumps, and we have to look at combining support services. Of course, you can’t just combine (WG&L and city) services and expect to save money.

“WG&L has never used SPLOST funding before, and that’s something we need to look at. And, to be honest with you, I think the city’s personnel policies are restrictive. What we did in Thomasville is take away that old governmental mindset and add to employee benefits. We need to be hard on performance and soft on people.”

As for the lingering rift bewteen city and WG&L officials?

“There’s an old joke about hitting a mule between the eyes with a 2-by-4 to get him to do what he’s supposed to do,” Berry said. “I think the city has hit WG&L between the eyes with that 2-by-4. Now that they’ve gotten everyone’s attention, it’s time for everyone to work together. Fortunately for the city, that shouldn’t be difficult. We’re talking about some good people, people who are doing their jobs as well as anyone around. We just have to go the extra mile to make things operate as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

“(By making WG&L a city department through ordinance), the City Commission has opened the door to improve that relationship. Mr. Taylor has carried it out. Mistakes have been made in the past on both sides, but in the time I’m here I’ll work to move past those mistakes. My goal is to leave behind an environment that will allow this utility to be as successful as it can be under the new person they hire to manage it.”