As Chicago’s air conditioners kick into high gear, ComEd President and CEO Anne Pramaggiore is guiding the century-old company to a brighter future.
Anne Pramaggiore photographed at ComEd headquarters.
Anne Pramaggiore isn’t being trite when she says she wants to change the world. She helms Commonwealth Edison, which has been the highway upon which Chicago’s electricity has traveled for more than a century. And to Pramaggiore, 56, it represents something much greater than a series of wires and poles: It’s the space heater warming the cold in winter. It’s the flickering screen entertaining the bored at night. It’s the ventilator sustaining the sick in the hospital. It is the physical and symbolic energy of the City of Broad Shoulders.
“For the longest time, I think most people who worked for a utility company would say that our job was pretty simply defined as keeping the lights on and keeping the rates low,” Pramaggiore told members of the City Club during a luncheon in late 2014. “But we’ve evolved our company motto from ‘Keeping the Lights On,’ a core but minimalist philosophy, to ‘Powering Lives.’”
Each day around 4:30 am, the exec wipes sleep from her eyes, her face illuminated by the glow of her phone. Emails and calendar notifications await. Rising early has become de rigueur for the woman who, in addition to steering ComEd, sits on the board of several civic and community organizations (including the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the Art Institute, and the Lincoln Park Zoo); is involved in charitable outreach; and still finds opportunities for horseback riding in her off time.
The Ohio-born Pramaggiore took an unorthodox path to her position as CEO, studying theater and communications at Miami University and spending several years in retail in Louisville, Kentucky, before earning her law degree at DePaul University in 1989 and joining a firm where she specialized in antitrust law. On a recent panel of female executives, Pramaggiore mused that her circuitous route set her up for success. “The conclusion we came to is that jumping around forced [me] to become a quick study, and that’s a really useful skill set,” she says. “What I look for in employees is the ability to learn.”
Participants in ComEd’s Ice Box Derby, a program to encourage young women to explore careers in the STEM fields, explain their project to Pramaggiore.
Pramaggiore came to ComEd as an attorney in 1998 and spent the next 14 years moving up the chain of command, first tackling regulatory, strategic, and external affairs and eventually becoming president and COO in 2009. “A lawyer’s job is interesting because it’s cerebral: You’re focused on ideas and principles,” she says, explaining that her leap to operations took her from personally interacting with a few hundred colleagues to managing a group of thousands. “It requires you to think about management and leadership very differently and the importance of developing a culture. You have to create a value system and a culture that people buy into because you can’t watch what everyone’s doing all the time.”
In 2012, she was instated as CEO, which made her the first female president and chief executive of the Exelon subsidiary. “On a personal level, I think it’s an advantage,” she muses. “I’m different. When people see somebody different, they expect you to act differently. So it’s easier when you’re asking for change.”
Two things make Pramaggiore tick as a leader: safety and innovation—both of which hinge on her unflagging support of her employees. “If we got [safety] right, it was a barometer that would mean people were working with excellence, quality, and respect.” It also gives employees the freedom to experiment. Since she took over, workers have designed their own app to facilitate meter reading and a hybrid splicing van that produces less carbon while powering work inside manholes.
But Pramaggiore’s biggest challenge is still ahead. As our wired world goes wireless, ComEd has been hindered by a book of ancient policies. “The regulatory compact was 100 years old and starting to wear pretty thin,” she says. Pramaggiore is poised to usher in the dawn of the smart grid: a system that can be monitored and adjusted according to customers’ needs; a system with LED street lights that can direct first responders to emergency events; a system that can generate power around critical infrastructure like hospitals, water pumps, and police stations in blackout scenarios. It is, she hopes, the next step in powering Chicagoans’ lives in the 21st century.