Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Don Tarry is on the verge of becoming chief executive officer of Public Service Company of New Mexico, one of New Mexico’s biggest companies with about 1,250 employees, 530,000 customers and just over $1 billion in annual revenue.
A certified public accountant who currently serves as PNM’s senior vice president and chief financial officer, Tarry has an accounting degree from New Mexico State University and 25-plus years of experience. But he will tell you that he first learned the relationship between satisfied customers and making a buck the old fashioned way – as a paperboy in his hometown, where his first job was delivering the Silver City Daily Press.
“I had about 150 customers. You delivered the paper daily and collected on Saturday from customers who hadn’t mailed in their payment. You had to pay the Daily Press for the papers no matter what – and anything over the base cost plus tips was yours.”
On the other hand, “if you didn’t put the paper where they wanted it customers called the Daily Press and they called me and I got in trouble.”
“It was my first customer experience,” Tarry said. “It taught me the value of a dollar and the value of meeting your customers’ needs.”
It’s a lesson that has served him well as he prepares to move into one of New Mexico’s highest-profile jobs.
PNM, the largest publicly traded company with headquarters in New Mexico, is in the midst of a proposed merger in which Connecticut-based Avangrid essentially would swallow up the smaller company. Avangrid, in turn, is mostly owned by Spanish energy giant Iberdrola. A hearing officer is expected to issue a recommended decision later this month and the Public Regulation Commission will make a decision later this year.
Executives from Avangrid and Iberdrola have made a point of saying there will be local control and that Tarry, a New Mexico native, will be in charge here. He would succeed Pat Vincent-Collawn, who along with several other top executives would depart when the merger occurs.
Tarry doesn’t shy away from that high-profile role.
“I will be the responsible party making the day-to-day decisions in New Mexico – the person in charge to make sure reliability is where it needs to be and making sure that when the customer flips the switch the lights come on. The same is true for PNM’s traditional role of charitable giving, continued involvement in community programs and in carrying the torch Pat has led us down on the path of being carbon free.”
The company has set a goal of carbon-free electricity generation by 2040 – ambitious given that right now about 30% of the company’s energy portfolio (21% wind and 9% solar) is from renewables.
PNM has had just five CEOs in the last half century. What does it mean to Tarry, 50, that he would be next up on that list?
“PNM is such an integral part of the community, and what a great privilege it is to have the opportunity to serve in that position,” he said. “One of the things that drew me to PNM was that they were so involved in the community and to charitable giving.”
Not only does the company and its foundation make contributions, “We have employees who donate their time and their energy in many ways, from community events to day-of-service projects like weatherization to serving on nonprofit boards.”
“It’s a connection and responsibility that’s important to the community we serve, even more now than it was 25 years ago.”
Tarry hasn’t spent much time with elected officials, lobbyists and the like, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “It’s not my background, but I’m getting a lot more of it now. It’s good because everybody’s passionate and that’s a good thing. Finding that middle ground, whether it’s crime, education or Downtown, is the objective.”
While Tarry lacks experience in New Mexico politics, he knows PNM inside and out, joining the company as an auditor in 1996 and working his way up the corporate ladder. Before becoming senior vice president and chief financial officer in January 2020 he had been director of wholesale power accounting, controller for business operations, executive director of financial planning and business analysis, vice president of customer service and chief information officer and vice president, controller and treasurer.
He is happy to talk about the electricity utility industry, but equally eager to talk about what he calls his three “passions” – education, environment and economic development.
“I grew up with educators. My dad was a professor at Western New Mexico University and my mom was a high school teacher. A big part of why I’m so passionate about education is driven by them. My dad was the first in his family to get a college degree and my mom’s specialty was those kids who struggled to graduate.”
“Let me tell you a story that illustrates that. I was in middle school and I swear my mom’s whole paycheck went back into her classroom to help kids struggling with poverty and who didn’t have the blessings I’d had in my life. I remember asking her, ‘Why are you working? You’re putting everything back.’ I will never forget her answer because it’s impacted me ever since. She said, ‘I’m investing in the future so these kids can see the opportunities that are out there.'”
Tarry interrupted his studies at New Mexico State University to do a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I was in Columbia, South Carolina, where a big part of my time was in the inner city. I saw poverty like I’d never seen growing up in Silver City. I realized sitting in these people’s homes that the only difference between us was they hadn’t had that education and opportunity that I’d had.”
The proposed PNM/Avangrid merger has been contentious, with critics teeing off on golden parachute provisions for departing executives and what they argued were inadequate rate credits and other incentives for ratepayers and New Mexico. Avangrid and PNM have sweetened the deal, and most of the intervenors now either support it or are neutral. (To read more about the merger, go to ABQJournal.com and search for stories by Journal staff writer Kevin Robinson-Avila.)
In Tarry’s view, would the merger make the transition to carbon-free electricity generation on the current timetable feasible here?
“Absolutely. The financial resources and technology Avangrid and Iberdrola can bring to the table will allow us to move forward in an efficient and effective manner across the board.”
There are significant hurdles to becoming carbon free.
Three of four major solar projects PNM is counting on for replacement power when PNM abandons the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in June won’t be fully operational until well after San Juan’s scheduled closure.
A San Juan shutdown without alternative electricity sources translates into a big potential problem.
Developers contracted to bring the projects online face various problems, primarily because of supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic. And state regulators earlier declined a PNM request to include a natural gas-fired plant in the power mix to replace San Juan.
PNM is seeking agreements with other regional utilities for temporary backup power when homes and businesses ramp up their use next summer. But other utilities are facing the same challenges.
Tom Fallgren, PNM’s vice president for generation, said that while company executives are optimistic, they also are “very concerned.”
Chalk it up as another challenge for the company and its CEO-in-waiting.
Tarry, who graduated from Silver High School in 1989, reluctantly admits he was an “A” student, finishing sixth in his class with a 3.9 GPA. He also played basketball.
Like many, he can single out one teacher who played an outsized role in life. And like fellow Silver City native and Presbyterian Healthcare Services CEO Dale Maxwell, he names Mary Louise VanBuskirk. Fondly known as “Mrs. VanB,” she taught business and accounting at Silver High.
“I’m convinced I was her favorite student – don’t tell Dale – and I credit her with finding and developing strengths and passion,” Tarry said.
What was his toughest class? Auto mechanics. “I took it because the lawn mower kept breaking and I wanted to know how those things worked.”
After coming back from his mission, Tarry married high school sweetheart Jenny Cook.
“We worked our way through school at NMSU. We did odd jobs. I tutored college athletes and my wife ran a preschool to help us get through.”
Tarry’s first job out of college was at the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, where he worked for a year. “PNM was one of my clients and I fell in love with the people and the opportunity. It was a good company and I got to work closely with some great people.”
A certified public accountant, Tarry left Arthur Andersen, at the time one of the “Big Five” accounting firms, years before its meltdown and bankruptcy over its role in the Enron energy accounting scandal.
Tarry says this is an exciting time in the utility industry.
“The last five years have seen a significant acceleration in change in generation portfolios. I do see a crossroads but I also see a bright future. New Mexico is third in potential wind development and third in potential solar development. As more generation facilities are shut down around the country, New Mexico is well positioned to help with that shift – and that also means economic benefits to New Mexico.”
He doesn’t think the state’s landmark Energy Transition Act, which requires public utilities to reach carbon free generation by 2045, (although the company has set a 2040 target), played a significant role in the merger.
“I think Avangrid was already interested in New Mexico because of the potential wind and solar here and in Texas. And they saw we were headed down the path to carbon-free.”
Will the transition lead to higher rates?
“I think that as you transition with more renewables there will be costs associated with them,” he said, but those will be offset to some extent by abandoning coal and other sources.
“The last bids we got in the current San Juan replacement were attractive. We will have to watch and see.”
Going forward toward the carbon-free 2040 goal, Tarry said, is akin to a stool with three legs: environment, reliability and customer experience. “We are all committed to the same goal but it’s important to balance them as we achieve it.”
The industry faces major challenges nationally as it transitions toward renewables to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
“I think when it comes to grid reliability, with the changes in weather, everybody is looking to make sure they have enough capacity and enough reserves. Then there is cybersecurity, where “we spend a significant amount of time, energy and money on an ongoing basis.”
Tarry says teaching is one of the toughest jobs out there. He spent time last week talking to high school and college students in Silver City, speaking about entrepreneurship and answering questions. It’s something he plans to do more of around the state.
“I see education and economic development sync together. When people come here they are surprised at the beauty. But we need to create opportunities for people to stay.”
It’s an issue he has felt first-hand.
Don and Jenny have been married for 28 years and have four children. Three have moved out of state to pursue opportunities and his youngest is getting ready to embark on his LDS mission.
A Rio Rancho resident and diehard Dallas Cowboys fan, Tarry earlier spent time coaching youth basketball and his spare time was “all about my kids. But we’re getting to the phase of my life where my wife and I are empty nesters. We like hiking and outdoors and will have more time to do that. I play a little bit of golf with my youngest son but soon it will be just me and my wife.”
As CEO, he would be responsible for leading the company. But he has set his sights on other goals as well.
“My objective is to make a difference in New Mexico,” he said. For PNM, that means focusing contributions and support on key components for improvements. “Personally, some of my time will be in classrooms in colleges and universities and in figuring how we can partner to increase graduation rates and opportunities for our youth.”
“Let’s figure this out together, business leaders and civic organizations, because it’s going to take a combined effort to solve these issues, whether we’re talking about crime or education. We need to work together and come up with the best and brightest ideas.”