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Aaron Zahn sees being JEA CEO as a long-term gig

JEA CEO Aaron Zahn is settling into his interim role.

Florida Politics spoke with Zahn in light of recent criticism of the CEO. Navigating a tricky political climate, a neophyte to the world of municipal utilities (he was on the board weeks before he made the CEO bid), Zahn has faced a unique pressure.

We discussed this and more with him in a sit-down interview Wednesday morning at the JEA Tower.

“It would be great 10 years from now to be looking back with the wonderful team we have, with all the great employees, having added jobs, having driven economic development, and show we can run a utility while lowering rates and lowering emissions. I think that’s possible, but we’ve got to start having bold ideas,” Zahn said.

“The question I’m asking: How does JEA continue to be a trusted partner for the next five, 10, 50 years?” Zahn said.

“I would not have made the position to run for the interim office if I weren’t interested in running for the permanent office,” Zahn said, adding that his qualifications would need to match with a “scorecard” crafted by the JEA Board.

Zahn notes that his vision of the future of JEA includes working with Melissa Dykes, whom he has said previously would have a COO role, a more or less equal counterpart.

Zahn addressed the move from new board member to new interim CEO as something that wasn’t quite as anomalous as local reporting made out.

“In private industry,” Zahn said, “going from a board to an interim CEO role is a very common practice, especially for somebody that has executive experience, industry experience, strategic experience.”

“When you look at the situation JEA was in at the time,” Zahn added, “what was needed was really a strong leader who could start to provide a stable environment for our employees.”

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“JEA, the last four or five months, it really became evident that there needed to be a distinction between a conversation with shareholders and shareholder-trustees and as customers/policymakers,” Zahn said. “We all effectively wear those two hats at different times.”

Zahn noted that his ascension to CEO came with “no guarantees,” but he took the risk in the interest of forging a “stable environment.”

“That’s what I’ve done time and time again in my career, so it was just a natural fit,” Zahn asserted.

Zahn addressed the process of his selection by the JEA Board last month, one that seemed opaque and even predetermined to some observers.

His pitch, Zahn asserted, came down to JEA being a “multibillion dollar company that forgot it had shareholders.”

“It was very well run by Paul McElroy,” Zahn noted, especially in terms of providing a financially solid footing.

“Our customer consent levels are at all-time highs,” Zahn added, but the “public uproar” of the privatization discussion starting late last year created challenges.

“When you start to think about strategic shift in a company,” Zahn added, “whether it’s ‘sell versus don’t sell’ or a new business line … you need the consensus of 20 policy makers.”

Flat utility sales, posited Zahn, presented a binary question: “Are we going to watch the future or are we going to be a part of it?”

“We as an organization have the potential to be so much more than we are today. We can drive revenues; there’s a number of different strategies where we can actually start to increase sales,” Zahn said.

Renewables and other technologies, Zahn claimed, are among the “bold ideas” that could allow JEA to be “part of those massive trends that have tailwinds behind them.”

Rate raises are not a consideration, he added, given a “very stable rate environment.”

What is on the table: an array of innovations, and potential restructuring of JEA to “better serve the customer.”

“Business model always precedes capital conversations,” Zahn said, alluding to the privatization debate that burned hot then burned out earlier this year.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades, with bylines in national and local publications alike on subjects ranging from pop music to national and global politics. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014, and has held a column in Jacksonville, Florida's Folio Weekly for two decades. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." Gancarski is a frequent presence on Jacksonville television and radio, including fill-in slots on WJCT-FM's award-winning talk show "First Coast Connect." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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