July 31, 2007
First Job: Plant Helper, Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Plant
Current Job: Chairman, Entergy New Orleans
When Dan Packer (MBA ’98) got out of the Navy in 1975, his first job was plant helper at the Connecticut Yankee atomic power plant in Haddam Neck, Conn.
“A plant helper kind of does everything,” Packer says. “He’s the gofer. He’s the guy that, if the electrician says, ‘Go get a tool,’ you go get the tool. It was kind of a bottom up thing for me.”
Bottom up things were never a problem for Packer. Born in Mobile, Ala., to a family of modest means, Packer learned the value of hard work early and eventually enrolled at Tuskegee Institute with the goal of becoming an electrical engineer. When his father suffered a heart attack and the family could no longer afford the tuition, Packer enlisted in the Navy, where he earned an assignment in its elite nuclear power program.
With six years of nuclear training in the Navy under his belt, Packer hoped to become a reactor operator, but he soon learned that the path from plant helper to operator was longer than he had anticipated.
“The plant was heavily unionized and seniority meant everything,” Packer says. “If you had a little ambition, that could kill it.”
Packer’s big break came when he was offered a job no one else wanted. The position of training coordinator had opened up and no one in line to become a reactor operator was interested in it. Packer had done some teaching in the Navy and was comfortable in front of a classroom, so he jumped at the opportunity with the understanding that it would offer him a fast track to become a senior reactor operator.
“I started teaching and, lo and behold, Three Mile Island hit,” Packer says. “The training department suddenly became one of the most important departments at a nuclear power plant. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Packer made the most of that opportunity. He eventually earned a prestigious senior reactor operator’s license and not long after became the first African American in the U.S. to manage a nuclear power plant.
After serving as general manager of Entergy’s Waterford III plant for 10 years, Packer moved to the executive side of the business, becoming chairman, president and CEO of Entergy New Orleans in 1997.
While Packer earned admiration for his skills and diplomacy in managing the city-regulated utility, it was his leadership in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that won the most praise. Beginning immediately after the storm, Packer was a fixture on local news and radio broadcasts, calmly reassuring residents that Entergy was doing everything in its power to repair the city’s devastated electric and gas infrastructure. No matter where you live, Packer told residents, Entergy was committed to turning on the lights.
“It was the most difficult period I had to go through as an executive, for a lot of reasons,” Packer says. “We’re not 100 percent there now in terms of great reliability, but our reliability has gotten better every day. We were one of the best and most reliable utilities in the South here in New Orleans, and we’ll be back there again in a short time period.”
In December 2006, Packer announced his retirement as president and CEO of Entergy. While he will continue to serve as chairman for the time being, he expects to be fully retired from Entergy by the end of year.
And what are Packer’s plans for retirement? “I’ve always thought one of the things that would make New Orleans better is the small and disadvantaged business community having a little bit more strength,” Packer says. “I’m going to spend some time working with small businesses and disadvantaged businesses to try to lend whatever expertise I have to them so those businesses can grow. After my time at the Chamber, I’m a firm believer that it’s going to be the small and medium-sized businesses that really make a difference in how New Orleans grows.”