Crimes previously committed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. hung over Bill Johnson for the entire time he was chief executive of the parent company PG&E Corp.
Effective Tuesday, Johnson will retire, handing control of California’s largest utility to a successor who also faces a new set of problems. The task of the next top executive, Bill Smith, is to keep the company stable while beginning to steer it away from its catastrophic past.
It won’t be easy. Not only does PG&E owe billions of dollars to the victims of previous wildfires sparked by its power lines, but the company also faces a profound challenge in what may be an acutely dangerous fire season this year. PG&E is under pressure from all sides to avoid causing more calamities while also reducing the use of its most extreme fire-prevention measure: power shut-offs like those that left millions of Californians without electricity last year.
The coronavirus pandemic adds another complication, both for PG&E’s more than 20,000-member workforce and the 16 million Californians it serves.
Shepherding the company through those headwinds in the near term will be Smith, a former AT&T executive who has been on PG&E’s board since October. As the interim CEO while the company searches for a long-term leader, Smith will be the fifth top executive of PG&E Corp. — including another interim chief — in just five years.
He assumes control of PG&E shortly after Johnson traveled to Butte County to appear in a courtroom to accept the company’s guilt over the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Smith also attended part of the Butte County proceedings, and both executives expressed regret over the fires.
The turnover at the top also comes just as the company resolves its bankruptcy that began last January because of PG&E-caused wildfires that killed more than 100 people and incinerated more than 20,000 buildings across Northern California in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
PG&E declined to make Smith or Johnson available for an interview. Company spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said in an email that “Mr. Smith’s top priority is to continue efforts to reduce wildfire risk through system inspections, system upgrades, enhanced vegetation management and other operational improvements.”
“He credits retiring CEO Bill Johnson for managing the company’s wildfire-related challenges under very difficult circumstances,” she said. “Smith plans to keep that work on track.”
Smith, who recently moved from Texas to San Francisco as he prepared to start his new role at PG&E, has no prior experience working for an electric and gas utility. But he spent nearly 40 years with AT&T and its predecessor companies, where he held a variety of operational roles, Paulo said.