A career born here comes full circle
November 25, 2011By Alison Lee Satake
GE Hitachi CEO Caroline Reda calls the nuclear disaster in Japan following the tsunami and earthquake in this spring a “defining moment” for the business and the nuclear energy industry.
Not only has it delayed the Nuclear Regulatory Commision’s final approval of GE Hitachi’s latest nuclear reactor design, the March 11 event occurred during Reda’s first year leading the company.
Reda, who grew up in Wilmington, returned in July 2010 as the company’s new president and CEO. She moved back from Boston with her husband and two children.
Originally, she moved to Wilmington when she was in junior high school from Kansas City, Mo. She attended New Hanover High School, where she recently celebrated her 30th class reunion. As a teenager, she waited tables at the Saltworks, where she said she quickly learned the importance of good customer service, a key principle for GE Hitachi, which provides a large part of the power industry’s nuclear fuel.
While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other federal agencies are in the process of reviewing regulations, GE Hitachi, which primarily supplies nuclear fuel and services for power companies, has honed in on this customer support.
“For utilities, the onus is really upon them to take those lessons and make sure they are incorporating them. Where we help is with our engineering workforce,” she said.
Reda oversees about 2,500 employees in the U.S., Canada and Japan.
Following the Fukushima plant disaster, GE Hitachi sent representatives to various customers’ sites to answer questions.
“We only have 100 customers, so we have a very limited amount. And, 75 percent of our business will come from our top 15 customers,” she said.
Those top customers include electric company Exelon, which has 10 power plants and 17 reactors in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and Canada, for which GE Hitachi supplies half of the country’s nuclear fuel supply.
After the accident, GE Hitachi pulled together its existing resources to support the utility companies who will shoulder most of the compliance changes.
“One of the things we did for them after Fukushima was a safety enhancement team that was just dedicated to working with the industry and the utilities to make sure they knew as a vendor, we were here to support them in whatever changes that may come necessary,” she said. “It’s the same offerings we’ve always had, but they may be more applicable to answering questions post-Fukushima as the questions come out.”
Designing and building new nuclear plants is a small part of the company’s business. Other than the two nuclear reactors it is currently completing construction on in Taiwan, it does not have any other active orders.
That may change after the first quarter of 2012, when she expects the company will receive approval of its Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Meanwhile, since receiving final design approval from the NRC, the company has submitted about a half-dozen bids to build this reactor around the world, including in India and Poland.
In her first year leading the company, one of her biggest challenges has been connecting with the company’s customer base around the world and listening to their changing needs.
“It was an opportunity for me to be able to get accepted back into this industry. It’s a very closed industry, in that perspective. People tend to move around the industry, but not necessarily out and back in as I did,” she said.
After 27 years with GE, Reda is now back and working in the same corner office she did when she left the Castle Hayne operation about 10 years ago. She began her career here, after studying computer science at UNCW and receiving her master’s degree in software engineering from North Carolina State University.
One of her initial projects in Castle Hayne at the beginning of her career was programming the software that controlled the loading of the nuclear fuel rods in a new design formation. She swiftly moved up the company ranks, holding a variety of roles from plant manager to overseeing the information technology group.
“Before I left I was in charge of the joint venture we had formed with Hitachi and Toshiba on the fuel side and it was for delivering fuel to the Americas and the U.S.,” she said.
She moved on to lead other parts of the business in Atlanta and then Boston. Returning to Wilmington to retire has been in her long-term plan, but when former president and CEO Jack Fuller announced his retirement last year, the opportunity came up sooner than Reda previously had thought.
“It’s about five years earlier than I would have raised my hand,” she said.
Her mother, Pat Lindsey, whom she acknowledges as one of her first mentors, is still a small business owner here. Lindsey owns Keller’s, Inc., a local fire protection and engineering company.
Although glad to be back, she recognizes that she would not have been able to achieve this leadership role had she not left Wilmington.
Her homecoming has posed an interesting challenge. Like returning home after going away for college, she has had to be careful about not falling back into the same dynamics and routine she had here 10 years ago. About 50 percent of her colleagues at the Castle Hayne location, she knew from working here before, she said.
“So, me coming back, I wanted to make sure that my impression was not, ‘She’s the same person,’ because I’m not the same person that left,” Reda said. “It’s letting people see me and see that I was a different person and that what I brought to the table from lessons learned or best practices or things I was able to add to my portfolio over the last 10 years, was an asset here.”