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Mississippi Power CEO optimistic about economic development

GULFPORT – In January of this year Anthony Topazi became Mississippi Power Company`s 10th president and chief executive officer. He says he`s settling in and happy on the Gulf Coast. While it`s the Birmingham native`s first time to live in a coastal area, he`s no stranger to the Southern Company, Mississippi Power`s parent company.

Topazi began his electric career with Alabama Power, another Southern Company utility, more than 30 years ago as a cooperative student while studying electrical engineering at Auburn University.

“I liked the company and what they did, and I’ve been with them ever since even though I shopped other job offers when I graduated,” he said.

He came to Mississippi after a stint as executive vice president at Southern Company Generation & Energy Marketing. He says that position had three distinct areas of responsibility. Those included all coal and gas purchasing and transportation; generation needs and planning where to build and invest; and energy trading.

“The trading wasn`t speculative but was a way of optimizing our assets,” he said. “After we serve all our customers, then we sell energy.”

Those duties included responsibility for long-term marketing – finding customers who needed power and would sign a 10- to 20-year contract – which Topazi says is fundamental for a regulated utility.

“That`s significantly different from people in unregulated companies whose business model is to build and speculate,” he said. “A lot of those companies are in trouble today because of that and because they have a lot of debt. The Southern Company is not like that. We are viewed as being conservative in our approach, but we see the real market as long term and committed.”

Mississippi Power is regulated by the Mississippi Public Service Commission and has a franchised area to serve and meet electric demands. That area includes 23 counties, serving more than 192,000 customers, and is divided into three districts – Coast, Pine Belt and Meridian. Formed in 1925 as an investor-owned electric utility, the company has approximately 1,250 employees working out of 45 general office, division office, local office, service center and generating plant locations. The company`s headquarters is in Gulfport.

Topazi says his new job has similarities with his previous one in that both require a fundamental understanding of making and distributing electricity. The difference now that he`s at Mississippi Power is the obligation to serve a customer base in the most efficient way possible and give the best cost.

“Our business is really customer satisfaction and we really mean that,” he said. “Price, availability of service and reliability are the important things.”

Mississippi Power`s CEO describes the utility`s future in optimistic terms, saying there are adequate reserves this year and next year. Long range planning is dictated by the growth of the customer base.

“We’ve had a lot of success in keeping rates flat even though fuel and steel prices have risen. That`s helpful to the economy,” Topazi said. “Managing rates is our challenge. We use a combination of coal and gas to generate electricity, which is a good mix and gives us flexibility.”

He says electric power costs is one component of the total operating costs that companies look at in an area when deciding where to locate. There was a decline of industrial customers for Mississippi Power but he says that has come back in the last few years.

“I see it improving. Things are very encouraging,” he said. “We try to grow our business by the state growing. What`s good for the state is good for us and the whole economy is lifted up. That`s why we put a lot of effort in economic development.”

He says he`s fortunate to become immediately involved with Blueprint Mississippi and other economic development organizations because that kick started his understanding of economic development here. In Alabama, he served as chairman of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority and had a primary role in recruiting the first Mercedes Benz automotive assembly plant outside of Germany to Alabama. With Blueprint Mississippi he serves on the steering committee and the business initiative section, which will define a plan for strategic economic growth.

The Mississippi newcomer has visited all of Mississippi Power`s service area and other parts of the state attending regional meetings of Blueprint Mississippi. He says it`s not that different from Alabama.

“There are positive things about Mississippi that are not told enough,” he said. “The quality of life where I live and work is great and I’m really impressed with the community. That starts with the people who are warm, open, friendly and engaged in making things better.”

Topazi says he`s rarely seen that level of involvement. He had equal praise for the employees of Mississippi Power, saying they are dedicated, respectful and have an outstanding attitude. In fact, he includes the general workforce of Mississippi in those positive terms and feels that`s another factor considered by companies looking for locations.

Although presidents of Mississippi Power don`t serve long tenures in that position, Topazi says there is no pattern of rotating presidents.

“It`s a matter of timing and other things,” he said. “The Southern Company grows leaders internally and is blessed with excellent leaders. They go on to serve in outstanding positions.”

He says he`s seen a lot of the Southern Company in his soon-to-be 35 years with them and knows it to be a great company, one that was listed by Fortune magazine as one of the most admired utilities in the U.S.

When not working, Topazi loves to be outside and enjoys golf and hunting. He and his wife, Patsy, are the parents of two grown sons who live in Birmingham. On a recent visit here, the sons took part in their dad`s newest outdoor pleasure, deep sea fishing.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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