Jeffrey Keebler

Jeffrey Keebler, senior vice president - energy supply and planning, will take over as CEO and president of Madison Gas & Electric on March 1, 2017. 

MGE ENERGY

Gary Wolter will step down as president and CEO of Madison Gas & Electric and its parent company, MGE Energy, in early 2017.

Wolter, 62, will retire March 1, 2017, and will be succeeded by Jeffrey Keebler, senior vice president of energy supply and planning. Wolter will stay on as chairman of the boards of both MGE and MGE Energy.

“In a lot of ways, I have very mixed feelings — excitement about the new chapter ahead of me; on the other hand, I put a lot of my heart and soul into Madison Gas & Electric, so it’s not easy,” Wolter said in an interview Wednesday.

Wolter has served as president and CEO of the companies since February 2000, when he took over from David Mebane in those positions, and as chairman since 2002. When he retires, Wolter will be the longest serving chair and CEO in MGE’s history, the utility company said.

A native of Dubuque, Iowa, Wolter has worked at MGE since 1984.

He has overseen several transitions in the sources of MGE’s electricity, including converting its Blount Street power plant Downtown from coal to natural gas, ending part-ownership of the now-closed Kewaunee nuclear power plant and adding solar and wind power.

Wolter also guided the utility through more turbulent times when a 2014 proposal to dramatically raise the monthly fixed fee for electric customers drew a big public outcry. As a result, the company modified its request and held a series of meetings with ratepayers and local officials that concluded in April.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do is we really ramped up the community energy company, the interaction we have with the community,” said Wolter. “We recognize our role to try to make the community better.”

RePower Madison, the citizen group formed in 2014 to fight the proposed rate increase, said it welcomes the prospect of a new leader for the utility company.

“We call on the incoming CEO, Jeff Keebler, to help make Madison a national leader in clean energy with fair and affordable bills. Mr. Keebler can show MGE’s support for this vision by immediately announcing an intention to reduce mandatory fees and accelerate renewable energy deployment,” RePower spokesman Mitch Brey said in a written statement.

Madison environmental group Clean Wisconsin said it has had, during Wolter’s tenure, a “strong professional relationship with MGE as we’ve worked with the company to try to forge a clean energy path forward.”

Clean Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Citizens Utility Board formed a working group with MGE during the stormy period after the utility introduced its controversial rate proposal in 2014.

“We’ve gotten to know Jeff Keebler and have a great respect for his understanding of the issues and his leadership,” Clean Wisconsin president and CEO Mark Redsten said in an email.

“We are encouraged by Jeff’s appointment and expect that relationship to continue,” Redsten said.

The Sierra Club said Keebler will take over at a time of “dramatic changes” in the electric industry.

Sierra Club launched a campaign this summer to make Madison coal-free. “Utilities around the Midwest have seized the opportunity to modernize their energy portfolios with clean energy and it’s past time for MGE to do the same,” said Sierra Club’s Elizabeth Katt Reinders, in Madison.

Keebler, 44, has been with MGE since 1995. He has a bachelor’s degree in finance and economics from UW-La Crosse and a master’s degree in business administration from UW-Whitewater.

“I look forward to building on the foundation laid by my predecessors and addressing the challenges of the future,” Keebler said in a news release.

Established in 1896, MGE has about 700 employees. The utility reported $564 million in revenue in 2015 and earnings of $71.3 million. It provides electricity to 146,000 customers in Dane County and natural gas to 152,000 customers in south central and western Wisconsin.

Its stock (Nasdaq: MGEE) has soared from $12.08 a share on Wolter’s first day as CEO to close at $55.90 on Wednesday, even with a three-for-two stock split in 2014. It hit a peak of $58.99 on Sept. 22, 2016.

Wolter received a total compensation package of just under $1.9 million in 2015, according to MGE’s proxy, filed with federal regulators. That included $938,687 in salary and bonuses; stock valued at $330,000 to be paid in 2020; and a $611,000 increase in the value of his pension account.

Wolter’s pension will cap at $210,000 a year; his total future payments are estimated at $5.25 million.

In his new role as board chairman, he also will receive annual pay of $150,000 and a $45,000 retainer fee; $1,500 per board or committee meeting or director’s education program; and possible long-term incentive pay, according to a filing with the SEC on Wednesday.

Wolter has been active in community organizations, as well, having chaired boards of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Dane County and MadREP (formerly Thrive). He currently serves on the boards of American Transmission Co. (ATC), UW Hospital and Clinics, University Research Park, United Way, Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce MadREP and National Guardian Life Insurance Co.

“Gary has been an effective leader at Madison Gas & Electric Co., as well as within the greater Madison community,” said Patricia Kampling, chairman, president and CEO of Alliant Energy, Madison. “I have enjoyed working with Gary, and he has always been helpful and gracious to me with his time.”

Wolter said he’s “extremely grateful” for the opportunities that have come with his position. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with great people, both internally at MGE and great people throughout the community.”

He said he has no specific plans at this time but he and his wife, Mari, will stay in Madison.

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Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.