Tom Voss may live on the grounds of a golf course, but in the past five years, he’s only played nine holes. That’s because as CEO of Ameren, he’s ultimately the one responsible for keeping the lights on throughout the entire region.
This July, Voss will retire from that role, which should give him more time for playing the game, as well as hanging around with his wife, Carol, along with their three children and four granddaughters. But don’t expect him to disappear from public life completely: As co-chair of the stl250 celebration, Variety’s Man of the Year and several other fundraising events this fall alone, you’re sure to continue seeing him all over town.
Voss began working at Ameren (then Union Electric) straight from earning his degree in electric engineering from the University of Missouri-Rolla. He stayed for his entire career—except for a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force—and has held “virtually every position” in the company, culminating in being named CEO and chairman of the board in 2009 and 2010, respectively.
So what drew him to the industry and kept him at Ameren all these years? “People just think of it as a utility, but actually our work is very dynamic and exciting,” Voss says. “What people don’t realize is that we have to manufacture and deliver electricity at the speed of light. If you turn on the light, at that exact moment, we have to burn a little more coal. I appreciate everyone’s patience with us over the years: When the power is out, it’s a major inconvenience, no question.”
The mass mobilization during major weather events breeds some of the greatest challenges, he says. “The Flood of ’93 was the most challenging—there was a real intensity, with something happening every day,” Voss recalls. He’s also especially proud of the company’s response to Hurricane Sandy “We heard how bad it was and made a push to help our neighbors and our country. It sounds corny, but that’s inbred in our DNA.” He adds that when there’s a weather event, the Ameren team knows help is needed, and they come help. “It’s what we do. The linemen get paid overtime, but they don’t come out when it’s freezing or raining because of the overtime. They’re dedicated to keep the lights on—and when they’re not on, they get them back as soon as possible.”
Voss has a clear vision of the legacy he hopes to leave the company with: safety and diversity. Ameren was ranked fourth among national utilities in 2013 by DiversityInc magazine, among other awards for its diversity efforts. During his tenure, the utility also went from being one of the worst in the industry for safety to near the top: In 2002, the utility experienced more than 200 lost-work-day-away accidents; but after Voss instituted a campaign called Target 0 to systematically reduce accidents, that number had dropped to 24 by 2013, ranking Ameren in the top 25 percent of utilities nationally. “It’s a very dangerous business, and in the past we took it somewhat casually,” he admits. “But I’m convinced someday I’ll read in the Ameren Journal that we had no accidents in the past year. That’s a celebration I’d come back for!”
These achievements, coupled with some of the lowest rates in the country and a good record for reliability, are what Voss hopes to pass to his successor, Warner Baxter. He also leaves an “all of the above” mentality toward finding sources of energy, advocating a mix of coal, natural gas and reliable renewables. The Maryland Heights Renewable Energy Center, for example, came online in 2012 and uses the waste from decomposing trash to supply power for 10,000 homes around the clock, he says.
In the minds of many St. Louisans, though, Voss is even more well-known for his philanthropic achievements than for his day job. Currently, Voss and his wife, Carol, are most heavily invested in their work with stl250. The planning had already been going on for several years when they were asked to become co-chairs of the campaign, he says. “They came to us and said, We know you’ll be up for a year-long party!,” he jokes, adding, “They’re really a dedicated group of people.”
And while part of Voss’ involvement comes from a sense of corporate responsibility, there’s more to it than that. “I love representing our 9,000 employees—they’re terrific employees who are dedicated to keeping the lights on, and so generous with their volunteering and fundraising efforts. Ameren is only as healthy as the communities it serves, and my wife and I try to support the causes our employers are involved with,” he says. “It’s good business for Ameren, but it’s also because our kids and grandkids are here. St. Louis is a great place for them to grow up. We have so many terrific institutions—from the St. Louis Symphony to the Saint Louis Zoo and Opera Theatre—that are world-class, and we don’t want to lose any of them.”
Fortunately, those world-class institutions won’t be losing some of their best supporters any time soon.