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Santee Cooper humble beginnings

Mallory D. Biering, Staff Reporter

"Dream big, aim high," is what Lonnie N. Carter, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Santee Cooper, South Carolina's state-owned electric utility, and largest public power utility in the nation, said during an exclusive interview detailing his humble beginnings in Bamberg County.

Carter, an Ehrhardt native, and son of Jacob and Mary Carter, grew up on a farm helping provide for the family. He never thought being a country boy from Ehrhardt, he would have the opportunity he has today.

Carter can be found in Monks Corner, helping to provide a reliable and cost efficient power to public power communities throughout the state. But to Carter, it took an unwavering effort to reach the top floor of the building where he now sits.

Carter says, "I like to say I got to grow up a very sheltered life, in a small community, where everybody knew everybody."

Before leaving Bamberg County for The Citadel, where he graduated in 1982, with a degree in Business Administration, he could be found in the fields of his family farm planting crops up until he was 15 years old.

He did not want to a farmer, and was petrified he would one day have to make a living working on a farm, struggling to make ends meet. "My daddy and uncle decided, because I could drive, I had to plant a crop. They had two five acre fields and I was to plant soy beans. I had to use a tractor, we still own today, that was built long before I was born. It was a 50 Series John Deere Tractor, two row." Carter explained this tractor was much different from what his father and uncle were using at that time, because it only planted two rows at a time, rather than four. "It was antiquated equipment."

While planting one of these fields, he met a "Gentleman Farmer," and an auctioneer, by the name of Ray Rentz. One day while he was planting a crop, Rentz waved for him to come to the road. Covered in sweat and dirt Carter made his way to the truck, and Rentz asked, "Look, you interested in working for me this summer?"

Carter wasn't sure how he would get the job, being that he worked for his father, but he knew he wanted it, because, "I wanted to see the fruit of my labor -- a paycheck." After speaking with his father and his uncle he was soon working for Rentz five days a week doing farm labor up until he went to college.

It was while he was doing farm labor, at home or with Rentz, he realized the value of a dollar. Carter said, "My parents struggled to raise us. I never had to worry about a roof over my head, clothes on my back, or food on the table. We just didn't have a lot extras." He often helped with the bills while he was growing up. Working with Rentz, "Was a great experience. I got to meet a lot more people. Mr. Rentz liked me. He and I got a long very well together. I worked hard for him, he expected a lot, but in return he was very good to me."

It was while Carter was at The Citadel when he came to the conclusion of how naive he was about life. It was there he realized the world was much bigger than Bamberg County. He made the decision to attend The Citadel on the advice of his chemistry teacher at Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School, Eugenia Hiers, who he feels was good for him. Carter openly admitted he wasn't the most well behaved or best student, but that The Citadel was a "unique college experience," that helped him get focused and make him a much better student. "It taught me a lot about leadership and management."

Carter feels he was, "very well prepared academically to compete in college coming from Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School."

Carter made his way up from the coast each summer to work for Robert Smith at the Edisto Electric Co-Op. "Mr. Smith is another person I owe a lot to. He understood me, and he offered me a summer job at the co-op. He is one of the reasons why I ended up where I'm at today."

Working at the co-op, Carter learned a lot about the manual part of electric companies, but also about the importance of the customer.

"I would get sent out to collect bills. I learned something in doing that. I remember having to cut the power off at a house not a lot different from what I grew up in. An elderly lady was sitting on the porch shelling peas. There were a bunch of kids playing in the yard, who must have been her grandchildren. You knew it was a family that didn't have a lot." Carter was with a co-op employee named Willie Wilson.

Apparently, the woman had given one of her children the money to pay for the power bill, but the payment was never made. He said the woman broke down into tears, because she didn't have the money to make the payment, which was around $30 or $40. Wilson told Carter, "We need to pay this power bill." And they did.

"I don't know how to explain it to you. What it really drove home for me, is that not everybody could afford what most of us would consider a necessity. You really can't live and have any quality of life, in any home, without electricity."

He even had the opportunity to climb poles, which according to Smith was off limits. Carter said, "Mr. Smith would say, 'Children don't climb.'" Carter was determined he would climb, and with the help of Candy Bunch he did on a few occasions. Working on the lines was when he found out he would never be a lineman, because he lacked "the technique, which looked a lot easier from the ground than in the air."

During his summers at the co-op he learned from men like Bugs Fanning, Harry Blume, Mike Brown, Buddy Sandifer, Moon, Slim and many others who played a key role in his hands-on knowledge of electricity.

While still in college, Carter continued preparing himself to be a "big shot accountant," at one of the Big 8 Firms. Along with being offered a job with Santee Cooper, he was offered a job with two of those Big 8 Firms in New York. However, due to the distance from home, he turned them down and accepted the job with Santee Cooper. At Santee Cooper he would write computer programs, something he had no idea how to do. "Do you understand I don't know programming. I'm not a programmer," Carter told the woman hiring him, but she assured him it would be okay.

Carter started working in 1982, and in a little over 22 years he moved throughout the company until he was named CEO in 2004. It was at Santee Cooper where he fell into what he was supposed to do, where he found what was natural to him-- planning and analyzing.

"In the planning group I got to do all kinds of stuff. I was a natural for it. I never practiced accounting a day in my life, and thank goodness, because I think I would have been in the wrong profession. I was born to be an analyst," said Carter.

He planned, "founded and served as the first President and CEO of The Energy Authority (TEA). Based in Jacksonville, Florida, TEA is a joint power marketing organization comprised of publicly owned utilities."

For a year, Carter worked away from his family, coming home only on weekends, helping to start TEA, which is now a very successful company with expanding offices.

"To me this has been a very fulfilling industry to work in and that's why I've stayed in it. I feel like I've made a difference for the state and the people that we service, and not just because I sit at this big desk and I'm the CEO of this company. I felt that way back when I was doing all those plans," shared Carter.

"If I had any idea when I was a little dirty foot kid down in Ehrhardt that I would be doing anything like I'm doing today, I would have laughed." With tears in his eyes he said, "I am very proud of my humble beginnings."

His business is not about making a profit, but about making sure the power is reliable, affordable and service is top notch.

[Santee Cooper's] mission is to improve the quality of life for the people in South Carolina, he said.

Carter's quality of life was a great one, and as he looks back now he realizes how he didn't appreciate his life as a younger adult growing up on a farm. Living in Bamberg County, "was great because my parents didn't have to worry about my security, like parents worry today. I got to do a lot of things that people from other parts of the world didn't. I've been swimming in fish ponds, I've waded in creeks and swamps of the Little Salkehatchie. I've caught alligators, gone frog gigging, hunted just about everything you could imagine."

As Carter shared stories of growing up in Ehrhardt fishing in the pond, driving without a license (when it wasn't frowned upon), he looked at a picture of his home hanging in his office. The home is still standing in Ehrhardt, and it is a reminder of his roots and his humble beginnings.

To him the clap board house, is a reminder that everyone, especially those living in Bamberg County should, "Dream big and aim high." He said, "So, what if you miss the top mark, you're going to hit something, and it'll probably be a lot better than what you thought it would be."

He believes in an education no matter what the situation. "Stick to getting an education," shared Carter when referring to the youth of Bamberg County. "Don't ever give up on getting an education. And just because you don't have money to go to college, doesn't mean there aren't ways to help you get further educated."

To those youth in Bamberg County, "Don't ever let anybody tell you, because you're from rural South Carolina, particularly from Bamberg County, that you're inferior to them in any way." He feels Bamberg County produces leaders, and is a great place to grow up.

Carter serves on the board of several corporations and councils as chairman and board member.

He is a recent recipient of the American Public Power Association's highest honor, the Alex Radin Distinguished Service Award, which was presented to him at the association's national conference in Tennessee this year, and is bestowed in recognition of exceptional leadership and dedication to public power.

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