Representation remains low, but there will soon be eight Black executives in top jobs — and three of them will be running utilities.
Calvin Butler couldn’t help but smile when he got word in January that Chris Womack, an industry colleague, and friend, was named the next CEO of utility giant Southern Co. Butler could relate. Not only are the two men Black, but just a few days earlier Butler became the CEO of Exelon, another large publicly traded utility.
“The day it happened I sent Chris a text and said, ‘I’m proud for you, and I’m happy for us,’” Butler told Forbes, the “us” referring to Black America. “Chris is one of those [people] who’s been around the industry a lot longer than me, and he represents an opportunity that should have existed a long time ago.”
Butler and Womack join Lloyd Yates, who became CEO of utility NiSource last year, as members of two historic clubs. When Womack starts his new gig at Southern Co. in May, he’ll be the eighth Black CEO among S&P 500 companies, a new high watermark. The trio is also Black CEOs at three of the 30 utilities listed on the S&P 500, which is unprecedented — and a surprise considering the business is better known for employees in hard hats working in bad weather to keep the energy grid functioning than for its C-suite diversity efforts. No other S&P 500 sector has more than one Black CEO.
“I actually think it’s coincidental,” Yates told Forbes. “I think it’s just a point in time when there’s been a lot of CEO transition in the industry, and I know the three of us were prepared.”
It’s not often that Black businesspeople get the opportunity to lead America’s biggest corporations. Between 2000 and 2020 there were 16 new Black CEO appointments, according to Richie Zweigenhaft, an emeritus psychology professor at Guilford College in North Carolina who studies executive diversity. Since 2020, however, there have been at least five new Black CEO appointments in the S&P 500, a quickened pace.