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Colorado Springs Utilities sees two of six top managers depart. Is the CEO next? 

Turnover at the top?

click to enlarge Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte may or may not be considering retirement. - COURTESY COLORADO SPRINGS UTILITIES
  • Courtesy Colorado Springs Utilities
  • Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte may or may not be considering retirement.
There is no “business as usual” at Colorado Springs Utilities, which could be said to embody the old axiom “the only constant is change.”

As if tackling an overhaul of its electric generation and transmission system isn’t enough, Utilities faces new leadership in two of six top management jobs and could lose its CEO of a dozen years in 2018.

Jerry Forte, 63, who’s led Utilities since 2005, might be eying retirement, two Utilities Board members say, following two key players out the door. (Chief Planning and Financial Officer Bill Cherrier left in September, and Chief Water Services Officer Dan Higgins retires Jan. 5.) If the recent search for an executive director for the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments is any indication, Utilities might be without a permanent CEO for up to a year should Forte leave.

Such a vacancy can hinder hiring people for other top management posts until the CEO is in place. “I’m sure it’s an issue here — that somebody might not want to toss their hat in [until the CEO is hired],” says City Councilor Andy Pico, who’s also vice chair of the Utilities Board. He notes that toward the end of Steve Bach’s mayoral term in 2015, “people were not anxious to apply,” with the top boss on his way out. Bach didn’t seek re-election.

But that doesn’t seem to be at play this time. Utilities spokesperson Mark Murphy reports the hiring process for both Cherrier and Higgins is well underway. Of course, he also says that, to his knowledge, Forte “has no intention of retiring at this time.” Forte was out of the office and unable respond directly to the question.

Cherrier left Sept. 20 after 12 years to become CEO of Central Iowa Power Cooperative, Iowa’s largest cooperative energy provider, serving 13 member-owned rural electric cooperatives and associations. Serving as interim CFO is General Manager Scott Shewey. Murphy says via email that four candidates for Cherrier’s job have interviewed once and were to be interviewed a second time the week of Dec. 18.

Higgins, who oversaw installation of the Neumann Systems Group scrubber technology at Drake power plant and led the Southern Delivery System pipeline project, tells the Independent his retirement is strictly a personal decision to spend more time with his two children. Water Services General Manager Phil Tunnah has been named interim water officer. Murphy says four candidates have been chosen for a second assessment prior to interviews, which are slated for mid-January.

Other management team members are chief customer and corporate services officer Carl Cruz; chief strategy and external affairs officer Sherri Newell Wilkinson; chief environment, health and safety officer David Padgett, and chief energy services officer Eric Tharp.

The possibility of Forte exiting behind Cherrier and Higgins doesn’t surprise Pico and Council President Richard Skorman.

“He’s mentioned a few times about when he might [retire],” Pico says, referring to Forte. “At one time, he mentioned 2018 but didn’t say when. Tom [Strand, board chair] and I would like to have some clarity of how this is going to go down, because it does affect how things fall into place.”

Skorman, too, says Forte hasn’t disclosed a timeline. He also noted his retirement wouldn’t be forced, which could trigger the payment of six months’ severance pay. Skorman says he hopes Forte is willing to stay on the job for a transition period after a new CEO is hired but didn’t say how long a transition could last.

Forte’s employment contract shows his initial base salary as CEO was $270,000 in 2005. He also was paid two incentive checks. “Annual incentive pay,” which could total up to 17 percent of his base pay, was paid based on measurable outcomes of his job performance. “Long term incentive pay,” up to 18 percent of his base pay, was based on performance of strategic measures and went into a retirement account, which is vested five years after each payment is made. All amounts become vested upon his retirement.

On Jan. 1, 2014, Forte’s salary was boosted to $377,316 after a compensation survey showed that an annual salary of $447,175 represented the 50th percentile for similar public and private entities’ top executive. Incentive pay was discontinued. His pay went up to $412,246 on Jan. 1, 2015, and to $447,175 on Jan. 1, 2016. The contract doesn’t mention 2017 pay.

The contract also contains a “noncompete” clause that forbids Forte from working for any competitor for two years and a confidentiality clause that requires him not to disclose proprietary information after he leaves.

While multiple Utilities spokespeople say they do not believe Forte’s retirement is imminent, Murphy confirms Forte is eligible to retire.

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