ComEd’s dynamic leadership duo of Chairman and CEO Frank Clark and Executive Vice President of Legislative and External Affairs John Hooker are both retiring on February 24, leaving together after nearly 46 years of impressive service to Illinois’ largest utility.
ComEd, which provides electricity to 3.8 million customers over 11,300 square miles, has nearly 6,000 employees and 2010 revenues of $6.2 billion.
N’DIGO recently sat with ComEd’s first Black president and CEO, also one of the city’s civic stalwarts, to discuss a long strong career and get a glimpse inside of his surprisingly candid corporate mentality.
N’DIGO: Congratulations on a sterling and productive career well done. Why leave now?
Frank Clark: February 24 is actually my 46th anniversary. I started in 1966. I’m leaving for a couple of reasons. First, I turn 67 later this year and that frankly seems like a long time to work.
Second, I’ve got a very expert successor, Anne Pramaggiore, who becomes the first woman chief executive of ComEd. And three, when I look back over my career I see all the people I’ve interacted with, and many of them have very strategic positions in this company. It’s time to give them an opportunity to lead.
I was going to retire at 65, but a number of things made that not the optimal time to go. One of the most important things to me was to leave ComEd stronger, more secure, and just a better company than it was when I started and there were some pieces that weren’t in place that I had not quite settled.
There were some legislative issues in Springfield that have only recently come to a conclusion. So it wasn’t the right time when I planned on going at 65. It is very much the right time now.
Where do you go from here?
I’m very fortunate that I have a very full schedule outside of ComEd, both in the philanthropic and for-profit worlds.
I am on a number of boards in Chicago. I chair the board of BMO Financial Corp., which is now the holding company for Harris Bank.
I’m a member of the board of directors for Aetna Insurance Company and Waste Management, so that will continue. I chair or sit on boards that are very engaging in terms of providing grants for the arts, social services, and education in the greater Chicago area.
I’m heavily involved with the DuSable Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, Metropolitan Family Services. Those are important to me and will continue. And there are others –– some I will give a lot of time to, some not as much.
You’ve also got your academy.
The Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy was established five years ago, and I was co-founder. We had our first graduation several months ago and 99 percent of our students went on to college; one young lady chose not to go. The school started with 150 students, it now has just under 600.
Rowe-Clark is part of the Noble Street Charter School network. I think it’s safe to say that they have about the best results in the city in terms of closing the achievement gap and their ACT scores are among the best. I believe Rowe-Clark was in the top 10 of schools closing the achievement gap through the Noble network. I’m very proud of that.
To watch the first graduation class walk across the stage –– most of the kids are from the West Side –– knowing what they’ve done with their ACT scores, knowing that the opportunity they have to be successful in college is much enhanced, and just seeing the growth not only in the number of people attending the school, but the atmosphere, the culture, is amazing.
Mr. Clark, are you from the West Side? One of your protégés, Cheryl Hyman, who’s now Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago after coming from ComEd, is from the West Side and your school is on the West Side.
I’m from the South Side, but I have a particular interest in helping people who otherwise get overlooked no matter where they are. I have a huge interest in helping individuals. I look at the people at ComEd that I’ve helped who are still with the company or who have left and done other things, and there’s a pattern.
I look for people who have talent, but don’t really have the traditional backgrounds for success in the corporate arena. In some cases, they might get in their own way, or their behavior patterns may be just fine in the environment where they came from, but less than just fine in the corporate environment.
So you have to give them some guidance and assistance, but the key is they have to have talent. It’s hard to do it if they don’t. I look at those people I’ve helped and I feel very good about it.
Talk about your partner-in-crime, John Hooker, who’s leaving with you.
My good friend John Hooker, who also happens to be from the West Side, and who is also retiring –– John is like a brother to me.
Early on, John and I were competing in the company for success. Back 40 years ago, there weren’t that many slots an African American was going to get into in the corporate ranks. And if one got there, no one else was; that was it. Still aren’t that many today, and if you’re around long enough, you perceive that reality.
So that causes us to pick each other off and sometimes undermine each other. Because every one wants to succeed. And you know that if you’re going to get to be a director in this area, whoever gets there first, that’s it –– doesn’t matter how much talent other people have –– until that person leaves.
In that case, there’s a tendency to be pretty aggressive towards one another. I bring this up to say that John and I formed a bond a long time ago. We actually talked about it and made a commitment that we would never hurt each other. If one succeeded, so be it, but we would never hurt each other.
Because that’s typically what you would see and the pattern was always the same –– some Black person who’s doing okay, but is maybe a little aggressive and someone else doesn’t like them – someone in the company will come to you and say, what do you think about this person?
If you sort of sign off on the “kiss of death,” then they have confirmation from another African American that this other person should be written off. And it worked quite well –– they feel good because they got confirmation and you feel good because you got the job!
John’s been here almost as long as me –– 46 years –– and in all that time, John Hooker has never, ever undermined me. And vice versa.
Our careers were very even at times; one wasn’t ahead of the other. If anything, John would have been ahead of me. He’s got a wonderful personality; he knows everybody. We just became very committed to working together and we never deviated from that course.
John tells a great story about Hertz: If you go there and Hertz is sold out, go around the corner and Avis is sold out, too. His point being, there’s room for more than one to be successful.
He has supported me and I’ve never had to worry about my back, never, because of John Hooker and I’ve always tried to make sure that people knew that.
Back To The Beginning
What’s it been like for you walking around ComEd in your last swan song days?
You can’t help but reminisce on the past. I’ve spent as much time here as I have anyplace in my entire life, including my own family. Consequently, a departure is a difficult psychological endeavor.
Strangely enough, going through a recent problem with my back and being completely laid up and unable to get into the office for two months, in some ways makes the transition a little easier.
You see right away that life goes on –– the sun comes up, decisions get made good, bad, or otherwise, and things go on – without you. That helps you deal with the reality of it. It also helps to have things that you like to do that you can continue doing. And I’m very fortunate in that regard. I’m not retiring to do nothing. I’m not that kind of person.
Going back to the very beginning, how do you even happen to be at ComEd, as opposed to the post office or Peoples Gas?
My wife, Vera. Simple as that. We were married in 1965. I was working at a Catholic bookstore –– I’ve only had two jobs in my life –– ComEd and this bookstore.
I love books and I was so happy that I was there for almost three years. Loved it. You could not have pulled me away from that place I was so happy there.
But when I got married, my wife felt that there was no future at the bookstore. It was a small company, but too me it was great. They made me a supervisor and I had three or four people working for me, so I was in second heaven.
Would there have been a future there?
No! She was right. She insisted I go look for a better job. Reluctantly I did. Turns out I had a friend who worked at ComEd who told me they were hiring at ComEd. But the only job they would hire me for at ComEd, even though I had two years of college, was in the mailroom.
I was at Loop College at the time and went back and told my wife I wasn’t going to take that job; I didn’t want to work in a mailroom because I was supervisor at my other job and thought it was below me.
She only asked one question: How much does it pay? Well, the mailroom paid about $80 more. So that was it! I dug in for a little while, but let me put this in a delicate way –– I was newly married, very young, and women have immense capabilities in getting your attention. I reported to work two weeks later…and was happy to show up!
How many Black people were at ComEd at the time and were they all in the mailroom?
There were two-three other Black guys and myself, but everyone else in the mailroom was White, including all the leadership. In the rest of the company at the time, there may have been two Black guys who had managing positions of any note.
This was 1966; the only other job options for Black folks at the time were the post office, the military, and Chicago Public Schools –– for Black middle-class opportunities, that was it. Utilities weren’t hiring that many at the time.
Success Is Its Own Reward
How did you succeed at ComEd?
My mindset was to become a supervisor again, which I personally liked. In the mailroom back then, there was no technology. You literally pushed a cart to go get the bags of mail. And you started at 6 in the morning; I’ve never been an early person, so that was brutal.
Plus, I was terrified that I’d run into somebody from my alma mater Hirsch High School while I was pushing this wooden mail cart. It just didn’t seem very glamorous.
But my mother’s teaching kicked in and I did my best at it. “Liking” had nothing to do with it, according to my mother’s philosophy. If this was how you earned your living, then do it well. And also do it with sort of a joyous heart, because this is your income.
So, I did. I was a very good mail carrier and got to meet some executives here who saw my attitude and they tended to look favorably on me.
I subsequently was drafted into the military and when I got out, my job at ComEd was protected. I was shipped overseas for the last year of my tour duty, and you get into some really horrible situations and you begin to appreciate things in a different way.
When I came back I really diligently applied myself. Finished college at DePaul University and subsequently went to DePaul Law School. I passed the bar and at the time, it made me the only Black attorney in the company.
I started getting all types of assignments, particularly in the regulatory and ratemaking areas. Utilities thrive off ratemaking and we had an awfully good track record under me. That brought revenues into the company and they liked that, so I got a lot of other opportunities to head up different areas.
Who was looking out for you specifically to make sure you got those opportunities?
John Hooker always had my back. Cordell Reed and Bill Dunbar were the other Black guys here who were all more or less supportive depending on where we were at different stages.
I got help from White people. There was a guy here named Tom Ayers who thought that I had something to really offer and made sure that I got challenging assignments. After Tom Ayers retired, Jim O’Connor did something similar. (Both were CEOs and Chairmen of ComEd.)
But most of management saw me primarily as the guy who could deal with the politicians and deal with the regulators.
Were you fast-tracked? Singled out?
I was never fast tracked. When I finished law school in 1976, I was 31 years old. You have people coming into your company in middle management younger than that.
What happened is that people increasingly couldn’t deny that I had a certain set of skill sets and more than anything else, I got things done that were complicated.
I didn’t become president until I was about 54. I’ve been head of the company for over 10 years, so I’ve stayed a little longer, but I was never fast tracked.
ComEd was always one of the more progressive companies during the decades, and also among the civic leaders.
That’s why I mentioned Ayers and O’Connor, because they were progressive. And I was fortunate that leaders in the city happened to be from ComEd, so that disproportionately put me in a stronger position if that person saw himself as a mentor.
And I can say that truly up to and including the guy, John Rowe, who made me a senior vice president, that I continued to have that kind of support from Whites. It was John Rowe (current chairman and CEO of Exelon, the parent of ComEd), who recommended to the board that I be made president.
When I took over, I forget what our earnings were, but they were in the single digits and very low. There were a lot of issues in the utility world then, but I was able to take those earnings and get them up to levels that were at least equal to or superior to most of the industry. Success makes people feel good about you.
Pressure Didn’t Bust This Pipe
Being successful at every level like you were –– there had to have been a tremendous amount of pressure on you. Did you feel it?
It was there, but it didn’t bother me at all because I always have a lot of confidence in myself. It goes back to how you’re raised, which is what I try to instill in my children and grandchildren.
My mother always told me I could achieve. She didn’t tell me I could fly or that anything I believed I could do I could do, because people have limitations. But she always told me I could achieve, that I was just as good as anybody else. Just basic stuff, and she tolerated no whining. None. Zero.
So as a young person growing up with someone who thought like that, it was all about doing what you needed to do. If something didn’t work out, try harder. If someone didn’t like you, forget about them.
Did you ever think about doing something else at any point, like maybe I want to leave and try this?
Only when I got out of the service and didn’t want to come back to the mailroom. But I couldn’t find a job that paid more than being senior clerk in the mailroom, which I was at the time. So once again, I have a very practical wife –– if you got something better, let’s talk about it, but if you don’t, let’s not waste time here!
As long as you’ve been here, you’ve been okay, happy here?
There have been jobs here that bored me to death, and just like anyplace people work, sometimes it’s difficult to work with somebody else. And there are points in a career where you seem to be quite plateaued.
This is a 46-year career and it’s only been the last 10-12 years that I’ve been at the helm. So, other than that, I was like everybody else most of the time, where you hope to distinguish yourself as much as you can.
But looking back over the career, there’s very little I would change and nothing that I regret.
The biggest accomplishments all deal with people who have been put in key positions that I’ve been able to help. The other is the company itself.
ComEd is a like a member of my family, it’s personal. You want to see it healthy, you want to see it thriving, with quality service. You want it to be a good company. And it is. And I think I’m leaving it in good hands.
Another thing I’m really proud of is that I, along with others, have really tried to work on pulling together Black professionals with a focus on what should the Black community be looking for…in terms of business, opportunity, and identifying our young people who should be developed, mentored and supported.
It’s great to be a part of that and when we have these meetings to see the people sitting around the table and understand that you may come with very different perspectives, but you have a common desire to help your community. I feel good about that.
I will try everything I can to help and support African-American leaders and African American businesses because we don’t have enough of them. And we don’t have enough success stories in our community for people to look up to.
Is even possible anymore for somebody to have the kind of corporate career you’ve had?
Not impossible, but unlikely. Companies are very different, people are very different. I’ve got two sons and neither has been in a job for more than 10 years. And that’s stretching it.
If I’m a college graduate right now, how hard or easy is it for me to get into corporate America right now, compared to 10-15 years ago. Can I be a Frank Clark, or is that over?
Being another Frank Clark, therefore being another CEO of a major company, is definitely not over. The challenges to get there are very, very large, however.
The most immediate challenge is the economy itself. It seems to have bottomed out, but you don’t know yet. It may have bottomed, plateaued and shown some signs of picking up, but the recovery will be slow, so the opportunity to enter into major corporations with career paths that lead to very senior positions are somewhat more limited and difficult to navigate than if you didn’t have this absolutely struggling economy.
On the other hand, unless you have already established yourself someplace else, it’s hard to come into a corporation at a level high enough to within a relatively decent period of time –– a decade, let’s say –– to get to the top.
The chances that you’re going to come into a mailroom now and work your way through the ranks over a 40-plus year career to ascend to the top of the company, it’s not zero, but it would be a very difficult thing to do.
So what advice would you give me as a young, aspiring corporate want to be?
I’d encourage them to go into technology, engineering, education –– all jobs that are in demand. Get some type of technical degree. An MBA from a good school because it shows forward academic and leadership skills, would be a path.
But I’d also tell young people, don’t necessarily look for a corporation to get to the top. We need entrepreneurs in the community because that’s where most of the job creation in the world comes from, and that’s also where the best role models come from.
When you run your own business, you have a tremendous opportunity to say, “You’re my successor.” You control that. You’re CEO of a public company, but you don’t own the company. If you’re CEO of Ariel Capitol or Loop Capitol like John Rogers and Jim Reynolds, you have a lot more control.
My destiny was to go through the corporate ranks, but the entrepreneur is the future for our community. That’s where you get the kind of leadership that you leave to your grandchildren. That’s where you get the people who will not only duplicate anything I’ve done, but can vastly succeed it.