The Right Man

You may have heard of the “Butterfly Effect.” It refers to a butterfly flapping its wings off the African coast, causing a movement that starts a wave that moves across the Atlantic Ocean and becomes a hurricane. Edward Lorenz, who coined the term, referred to it as, “A very small change in initial conditions that creates a significantly different outcome.”

Charles Lowman was the third of Alabama Electric Cooperative’s (now PowerSouth) five CEOs. He followed the long tenure of Basil Thompson, who helped found the company, and Wesley Jackson’s short term as CEO. As A.G. Palmore, a retired AEC Chief Financial Officer, said of Mr. Lowman, “He was the right man at the right time.”

AEC was founded in 1941, but most of the 1940’s and 1950’s were spent trying to establish AEC as a viable power supply entity for its members. During those decades, AEC principally relied on Alabama Power Company and Gulf Power Company for wholesale power to serve its members. Wholesale supply under those contracts was often unreliable during droughts because of the amount of water available for hydroelectric production, and pricing was volatile. The primary obstacle to AEC’s success was the development of its own reliable power supply resources with predictable and affordable costs.

The answer to that need was the Tombigbee Power Plant, AEC’s second but largest coal-fired generation unit. Charles Lowman was chosen by Mr. Thompson to lead the construction effort of the coal-fired units that are our Lowman Power Plant. Tombigbee Unit #1 was completed in 1969, giving AEC a cost-effective supply of electricity. Mr. Lowman was the right man for the job.

He was raised near Andalusia, had studied Defense Radio and Electronics at the University of Alabama and joined the Navy. He spent most of World War II at sea as part of the 1st Aircraft Repair Unit, a mobile group that followed and repaired combat aircraft around the world.

After the war, Mr. Lowman reentered the University of Alabama and later transferred to Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) where he received an Electrical Engineering degree. After graduation, he returned home to Andalusia and started work at AEC.

Mr. Lowman was an engineer’s engineer. He was quiet, thoughtful and respected by everyone. He was noted for his memory, recalling minute details of documents and conversations. AEC’s technical personnel was thin, and Mr. Lowman was required to know all the technical aspects of AEC’s generation assets and transmission systems. He was calm and collected. He did not make rash decisions and never panicked. Above all else, he was admired and liked by all of his fellow employees.

Mr. Lowman was named General Manager (CEO) of AEC in 1970. Times were turbulent with renewed supply and rate issues with Alabama Power and Gulf Power. Mr. Lowman rallied the AEC members to remain together and to pool their costs into a single pooled billing rate – a step he later referred to as the most important single action taken by AEC’s members. He was the right man for the job.

He led the decision to build the larger two Tombigbee Units that were completed in 1979 and 1980. They were built with the anticipation of large retail electric growth. However, that growth did not materialize as the country entered a devastating recession in the early 1980’s. By 1983, AEC, like most electric utilities, was in dire straits with excess generation and flat or declining electric sales. I have researched that era and found no evidence that the AEC Board ever considered replacing Mr. Lowman as CEO regardless of the troubles. He was trusted by everyone.

After recovering from the recession, the economy boomed and the country thrived. Electric usage soared. AEC was prepared for the growth with the electric generation plan Mr. Lowman orchestrated. Upon his retirement in 1988, the Tombigbee Power Plant was named the Charles R. Lowman Power Plant in his honor.

After retirement, he started a pecan farm north of Andalusia and developed his own strain of pecans. In one of my too rare conversations with Mr. Lowman, he said, “You grow pecan trees for your grandchildren.” As I wrote in a recent article, Mr. Lowman also built power plants for our grandchildren.

Mr. Lowman built power plants and facilities, held people together through tough times, and planned for the future. Like the Butterfly Effect, his actions led to much bigger and much better things for PowerSouth, all of us, and our members. Small things you do result in significant things for your grandchildren.

Charles Lowman passed away January 10, 2018, at the age of 94. He was the right man for the job.

I hope you have a good month.

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