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Mississippi Power exec named Business Woman of the Year

When Linda Watts was named Mississippi Business Woman of the Year at the awards luncheon on January 19 at the Mississippi Business & Technology EXPO 2006, she was stunned.

“With so many very accomplished ladies among the 50 recognized, I’m truly honored to have been selected,” said Watts, manager of the coast division of the Mississippi Power Company. “Apparently, my entire family and many of my friends at Mississippi Power knew of my selection but unbelievably did an outstanding job of keeping it a secret from me! Even my children! They seemed to be very impressed with their mother receiving this honor so I’m hoping they listen harder to my motherly advice in the future!”

The Mississippi Business Journal caught up with Watts to ask her about her work, family, special projects and rebuilding the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Mississippi Business Journal: Describe a day in the life of Linda Watts.

Linda Watts: My days are packed, just like most other working moms, regardless of the actual job involved. My wonderful husband, Jim, leaves every morning at 5 a.m., about when I get up. Laundry is never ending, so it’s easier to stay current with that and other chores than try to catch up.

Until the storm, Alex continued the longstanding tradition of the Watts children always taking a sack lunch instead of eating cafeteria food. I’ve packed lunches every school day for 14 years. That’s a lot of peanut butter sandwiches! Of course, I think they perfected the art of successful bartering years ago. With no kitchen in my flooded house since Katrina, Alex has finally learned to eat cafeteria food after all these years.

As an operations general manager, my office is in an industrial service center setting with engineers, accountants and linemen coming and going all hours of the day and night. I like this unpretentious locale and mix of staff and get a daily dose of how much alike we all are, regardless of where we are on the food chain. Everyone wants meaningful work where they feel like they make a substantive contribution for which they are respected, they want to grow and develop, and they want to have people around them who care about them. It’s a great place to be. I’m proud to be a part of Mississippi Power.

Evenings bring more community meetings and a nightly sync up with Jim and Alex on when everyone is getting home. For now, that’s to the F.T. (FEMA trailer) and the upstairs of our house. Since the storm, external involvements have been much more demanding since the needs are so great. Everyone is having to recover and rebuild homes and work locations.

Riding down Highway 90 on the beach is heartbreaking. It’s hard to find your way without the beautiful old homes, restaurants, etc. to know when to turn, and losing the places where so many memories were made: churches where weddings were celebrated, schools where your kids graduated, stadiums where you played ball as a child and on and on.

MBJ: You mentioned the staff at the United Way of South Mississippi has done an unbelievable job, working from what was left of their homes with cell phones until they found space to rent after their building flooded. Tell us more about the work they and other community groups are doing on the coast to help in the post-Katrina recovery efforts.

LW: (The United Way staff) was uniquely well positioned to match incoming donations to high priority needs, which they did, and continue to do admirably. With no regard for their own personal trials, they have continued to put the community first and we are better for it.

This same story has played out many, many times with our hospitals, police and firemen, government officials, chambers of commerce, Boys and Girls Clubs, my own comrades here at Mississippi Power. Every day, letters to the editor appear in our local paper, The Sun Herald, from volunteers across America who came to help us and were moved to write back about the “noble resilience” of our Coast people and how they were inspired by the spirit of those they had come to help.

The support from faith-based groups has been, and continues to be, absolutely unbelievable. One group has a sign by their “camp” of travel trailers that aptly describes why they’re here: “love in deed.” We still need your prayers. We have a long way to go. But, we’ll be back! Housing is a critical need. You apartment developers, come on down! We need affordable housing sooner rather than later. Without it, our recovery efforts will be delayed. With it, maybe Lil’ Ray’s can find enough employees to stay open past 3:30 p.m. and the Watts family can have their fantastic shrimp po-boys for supper again.

MBJ: Tell us about your family.

LW: Jim is the compliance and safety superintendent for Exxon Mobil’s Mobile Bay Operations in Mobile, Ala. His area of responsibility extends to Exxon Mobil’s Jay Field in Pensacola, as well. (In our entire married life, we’ve never worked in the same state!) He has spent the last 20+ years working for Exxon Mobil in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, as a land man then facilities manager, and transferred to Mobile Bay in May 2004 when his company closed their New Orleans facilities, transferring those who wanted to go to Houston. He is a former Mississippi Delta cotton and soybean farmer where his uncle, Father Larry Watts (Catholic priest and FAA flight instructor), taught Jim, along with four of his 13 siblings, how to fly. Jim’s transfer with Exxon Mobil from a corporate environment to field operations comes with lots of helicopter trips to the natural gas platforms of Mobile Bay, something he has really enjoyed, along with the wardrobe change from suits to jeans and steel-toed boots.

Kate spent her Christmas break painting the inside of our Katrina flooded house, and did a wonderful job. Her schedule this semester as a second semester sophomore (civil engineering major) at MSU is a killer: Calculus IV, Honors Differential Equations, Engineering Mechanics II and Thermodynamics. Her flying lessons have been an amazing experience for her. She described the day she really came into her own with flying, the day she could calmly handle being bombarded with the high stress input of listening to the tower, to her instructor, and trying to fly the plane. She said once she got comfortable with that, she felt like she could handle absolutely anything. She was 16 that summer. I admire my daughter for her independence and spirit of adventure.

Kate and Alex are good buddies. Alex is a junior at Gulfport High and is on GHS’ award-winning robotics team, “Team Fusion.” This team competes annually in an international competition sponsored by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology). Last year, they mentored a rookie team from Israel over the Internet. Alex’s major role is in helping create the animated video that is part of the competition, using state-of-the-art 3D MAX software. He tells me this is what they use to make the Pixar movies like “Toy Story.” It’s over my techno-challenged head, but he is getting fantastic experience, thanks to the unbelievably dedicated teachers, David Fava and Andy Gunkel, who run the program for GHS. He is also a wakeboarding fiend, spending every bit of spare time in the summer on the water. Winter has brought a new sport — mud riding — definitely not my favorite.

MBJ: Ok, so how much sleep do you get?

LW: Not much. Jim gets about five hours a night on a routine basis, but I do a little better than that. We’re planning on lots of naps whenever we retire.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

Bio basics

Linda Watts has one of the toughest jobs in Mississippi’s utility industry. As manager of the largest of Mississippi Power Company’s three divisions, she handles routine business functions and oversees engineering functions including line construction and maintenance for six counties, inventory and warehousing and safety compliance.

Born in Alexandria, La., Watts was valedictorian of her senior class at Gulfport High School, where she was elected Miss Gulfport High. In 1978, she earned a business management degree from Mississippi State University (MSU), where she was a member of Omicron Delta Kappa and Cardinal Key scholastic/leadership honoraries, Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities and the MSU Hall of Fame.

After college, Watts joined Houston Lighting & Power in Texas as a senior buyer. In 1982, she married and moved to New Orleans, where she worked for Hibernia Bank as a purchasing supervisor. A certified purchasing manager (CPM), she joined Mississippi Power Company in July 1983, and served for a decade as supervisor of purchasing. After working as an area manager, assistant to Mississippi Power CEO David Ratcliffe and later Dwight Evans, division marketing manager and manager of large commercial sales, she was promoted to her current position.

Last year, Watt’s division reported the best-ever year for achieving customer service, business and electric reliability goals, and reported the lowest-ever rate in uncollectibles.

Mississippi Power tapped Watts to lead the internal workplace issues project team. The company president appointed her to lead Mississippi Power’s corporate culture value team, and she launched the Coast Chamber’s new community development division in 2004 to focus on the needs of small business members.

In 1988, she was president of Mississippi Power’s Employees Credit Union. In 1999, she presided over the company’s Education Foundation board of trustees. Two years ago, the Lighthouse Business & Professional Women named her Outstanding Career Woman. She is a board member of Leadership Gulf Coast, and has been a member of the Gulfport Business Club since 2002. A board member of the United Way of South Mississippi, she also serves on the non-profit agency’s Community Impact Council and Emergency Assistance Initiative Task Force. She is a board member of the Wolf River Conservation Society, member of the Gulfport High School Robotics Team Booster organization and a member of Chamber Centurions, which supports military installations on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Watts and her husband, Jim, have two children, Kate, a sophomore studying civil engineering at MSU, and Alex, 16, an honor student at Gulfport High School.

– LJ

About Lynne W. Jeter

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