The former Energy wonk brings new blood to Columbia Gas

Other energy executives may be able to brag about gold cups won at golf tournaments, but Catherine Good Abbott can point to a really special trophy. A few years ago, she haggled for days with a New Mexico gas producer when her employer, Enron Corp.'s big Transwestern Pipeline Co., wanted to renegotiate a contract because of sliding prices. ``I got to be the bad guy,'' she recalls. The producer decided to memorialize her by christening a new well with the nickname he had taken to calling her. Abbott still speaks proudly of ``Hard-as-Nails No.1'' in Chaves County, N.M.

While the well failed, few things Abbott has undertaken in 18 years in the industry have been washouts. Now Abbott is tackling her biggest job yet. As the new chief executive of two key subsidiaries of Columbia Gas System Inc., she is taking charge of a $1-billion-a-year natural gas pipeline network even as the once highly regulated industry grapples with unfettered competition. What's more, Columbia is rebuilding after four years in Chapter 11.

Abbott started out in Washington, as an Environmental Protection Agency numbers-cruncher whose analyses for the Carter White House helped launch deregulation. Then, she jumped to a trade group, the Interstate natural Gas Assn., as a policy analyst. Eleven years ago, she moved to Houston as a vice-president of Enron, where she marketed gas nationwide. Last spring, she left to consult for companies including Columbia. But when Oliver G. Richard III, who took the helm of Columbia Gas System last April, offered her the $300,000-a-year post late last year, she jumped at it.

The job--CEO of two units that account for one-third of Columbia's sales and more than half its profits--makes Abbott one of a handful of top female executives in the natural gas industry. Her rise, insiders say, is a sign of how the industry's old utility-like, engineer-dominated culture is giving way to one where marketing, dealmaking, and financial innovation reign. Says Richard, who knew Abbott when he was a Democratic senator's aide and later a Federal Energy Regulatory commissioner: ``It's a time for change in our business. It's a time to make a difference, and it's a time to have new leadership. She represents all those things.'' Notes James V. Walzel, a friend who chairs Houston's HNG Storage Co.: ``Deregulation has moved out a lot of old-timers, who were all men.'' And while traces of the good-ol'-boy network linger, says Rebecca A. McDonald, president of Amoco Corp.'s natural gas group, ``the good ol' boys respect performance.''

NO IDEOLOGUE. Abbott has always been a high performer. The brainy daughter of a biochemist and a math professor, she entered Swarthmore College as a math and science major in 1968. Interested in becoming a minister, she switched her major to religion and spent two years working for a program that developed Sunday school curriculums. Idealistic about government, she headed to Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School for a master's in public policy. From there she joined the EPA.

In Washington, she impressed foes and friends with her passionate but nonideological advocacy. ``Any discomfort I cause has more to do with my personality and style than the fact that I am a woman,'' she says. Colleagues recall her getting fired up over such arcane concepts as incremental pricing. ``Meek and Cathy Abbott don't go together in the same sentence,'' says Benjamin Schlesinger, a Bethesda (Md.)-based consultant and ex-Energy Dept. official. ``She was a brilliant analyst who could explain a problem and get her point across.''

Not that she was always right: She once argued that after deregulation, natural gas prices would soar to meet oil prices. Instead, prices for both collapsed in a mid-1980s glut. It was rock-bottom prices, along with long-term, high-price contracts with producers, that landed Columbia in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1991. It emerged last November.

Now, Abbott will guide a $400 million pipeline expansion to get Columbia caught up with rival pipelines that grew during those four years. She'll also lobby Washington for more reform in areas where regulation lingers. Among her 3,600 employees, she'll have to deal with jitters about potential downsizing and relocation of the head office.

HANGING OUT. Despite such responsibilities, Abbott says family is her No.1 priority. She married Ernest B. Abbott 22 years ago, and they've followed intertwined career paths, first at Harvard, then in Washington, and finally to the natural gas industry. A condition of her joining Enron in Houston was that Ernest, an attorney, find a good job. He now directs industry affairs at Tenneco Inc.'s energy division. Ernest says the two keep each other's business private, adding: ``It's important, if you're the spouse of someone in a competing company, that you don't become an expert on that competing company.''

Abbott insists she'll provide for plenty of ``hanging-out time'' with her two sons, Chris, 13, and Tim, 10. For years, family vacations have centered around hiking--in 1995, along part of the Appalachian trail. In a January fun run with the family, Abbott diplomatically crossed the finish line just behind Tim. But in the months ahead, Abbott will be spending weeknights in an apartment in Charleston, W.Va., where Columbia Gas Transmission is based. Eventually, its headquarters and Columbia's corporate headquarters in Wilmington, Del., may move, taking the Abbotts north. ``We will all be in one place after the summer,'' she says, declining to say where.

A Democrat who moves easily among Republicans, a woman in a once macho industry, and a Marylander who warmed to Houston, Abbott says she has found flexibility essential. When she brought her direct, businesslike style to Texas, she jokes, she had to take ``Southern lessons'' from a friend. Now that she's a CEO, Hard-as-Nails Abbott may find those lessons in diplomacy invaluable.



Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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