Women at the helm of the Northwest’s powerhouse companies
By Lisa Baker
A veritable tide of female leaders has taken the lead in Oregon’s utility and communications boardrooms, wielding power once entrusted solely to the
hands of men.
Women now head Portland General Electric, PacifiCorp and
Qwest Communications, three influential utility companies all once helmed by
men. Bonneville Power Administration’s chief operating officer and one of its
senior vice presidents are both women. In communications, Carolyn Chambers sits
atop a Eugene-based media empire she created. Comcast’s Western Division Vice
President of Government Affairs is Debbie Luppold.
Clearly, it is a good time to be a career woman in Oregon.
BrainstormNW interviewed four of these Oregon executives about leadership in times of change, balancing home and work, and bearing
the mantle of power with grace.
President and CEO, Portland General Electric
Talk about practical.
At 12, when other girls were practicing the art of tossing
their hair, Peggy Fowler was thinking she might be a chemist.
True, there were a few minutes there when she flirted with
the idea of pursuing music—she played the flute at the time. “But then I
figured out I’d be poor if I did.”
As it happens, she figured out a lot of things that put her
on the path to lead Portland General Electric through its most tumultuous
years, through the collapse of PGE’s parent company, Enron, to the current
tug-of-war over its future ownership.
At the center of it all is Fowler’s practicality and
cool-headedness in the face of what others might consider crisis times. The
kind of times that prompt her to advise young executive hopefuls not to
overreact, not to panic. “Sleep on it,” she says, as if the panic-prone could
conceive of such a thing.
She comes by it naturally, having been raised by Quaker
parents who didn’t tolerate nonsense but instilled both discipline and high
expectations in their five children. Fowler is their youngest, having spent
more time in books than dances and more weekends in church than at the local
mall. She didn’t participate in any sports until she was 30, she says.
Despite her deliberate ways, Fowler says she didn’t envision
herself at the head of a major corporation, but instead arrived there having
wrung out all the learning in her previous jobs and having been simply ready
for the next challenging thing.
And Oregon—its acceptance of women in leadership—is one
reason there has always been a next thing, she says. “The Northwest is a great
place for women. I thought about moving someplace else in the U.S. and looking at other electric utility companies, but this would have been harder to do
in the south or the east.”
Because her husband is now retired and the children grown and
on their own, Fowler says the corporate life is easier than it once was. “I
sometimes wonder how I did it,” she says, looking back at the time when both
she and her husband were full-timers and she was learning to be regional
manager of PGE’s Gresham division while at the same time learning to be a mom.
Although Fowler had been married before, she was new to
motherhood, having married a man with two sons. But she was up to it. Up to the
challenge of learning the new thing.
“When the boys were in school in Beaverton and I was driving
to Gresham every day, we had to do it all one day at a time, deal with
situations at work and situations at home in an organized, practical way.”
But she found that parenthood at times defied practicality.
That some things just would not be controlled. “There were some things I could
do something about and others I couldn’t. I learned to let the other things go.
And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more tolerant toward chaos.”
When work and home collided, home won. Hands down. Family,
Fowler says, is first.
And she feels a similar pull on the job, where she says it
is the people, the team, that keep her motivated. “If you’re going to be in an
executive position, you have to like people.”
You might also have to like long hours. Fowler spends up to
60 hours a week on the job, three or four days out of each month on a plane to
somewhere else and takes work home as well. In her off hours, she dedicates
time to the Oregon Business Council, Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon, SOLV Founders’ Circle, Oregon Independent College Foundation and, with her husband
Bob, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland.
It sounds like too much, but Fowler says she has found a
balance between work and home that ensures she’s enjoying her life rather than
becoming enslaved to it. “There isn’t any one thing that should drive you.”
As for the future, Fowler’s dreams are not the stuff of
tropical islands and utopia. “I would love to see PGE back to being publicly
traded,” she says wistfully. And on the day, if it happens, that the company
returns to Wall Street: “I want to ring the bell.”
Chairwoman and CEO, Chambers Communications Corp.
Other women bend over backwards to keep family life from
seeping into their business sphere. Or vice versa. The fear: that they will
seem somehow less serious about work. Too emotional. Too…girly. Or that their
business life would somehow undercut their family relationships.
Carolyn Chambers has gone where they fear to tread,
carefully blending the two things she is passionate about: family and business.
She’s in her office at the Eugene-based Chambers
Communications, a media empire that comprises a film and production studio, six
television stations including KEZI-TV—the Eugene ABC affiliate—and a cable
television system. A few feet away, her 5-year-old granddaughter watches
television in grandma’s office, one of two grandchildren practically raised on
The business began in 1957 when Chambers, only four years out of college,
invested in a single television station with a loan from her father, owner of a
successful car dealership in Eugene. While most young women don’t up and buy
businesses right out of college, Chambers says, “It didn’t occur to me that I
couldn’t, or shouldn’t.” It seemed, she said, like a good idea at the time,
since the city had only one television station to its name. Her first husband,
Don MacDonald, was one of the original investors.
Five children later, it was still a good idea, Chambers says, because being an
owner allowed her the flexibility to work around the family’s hours. Plenty of
work got done at night when the children, aka “the Thundering Hoard,” were in
bed, she says. “I’m a night person anyway. I like the quiet.”
Chambers’ second husband, Dick Chambers, died in 1986. Now, all five
children are grown and each is invested in the company, three in high-ranking
jobs on staff and two on the company’s board of directors.
Chambers’ accomplishments have meant a bonanza for her favorite causes,
especially her alma mater, the University of Oregon, and the Eugene arts
Despite her success, Chambers says she does not believe the time for women
executives has arrived in Oregon, even though there is a current wave of female
leadership. She says that while women have attained parity in other career
fields, executive suites are still not as open to women as they are to men. Men
continue to dominate those positions and “have a tendency to pick their own”
when an executive opportunity comes up, she says. It is the passage of time
that will balance the field in a permanent way, time during which many women
are training for leadership. “Women are in all sorts of areas right now,
working their way up,” she says.
In the meantime, Chambers says, those climbing the rungs should ensure they
keep some time to themselves rather than devote everything to career. In the
end, it will save their sanity, she says.
At 73, Chambers still spends plenty of time at the office, but she is more
often taking her own advice, tamping down on her hours so she can spend more
time coaxing a second bloom from the orchids in her greenhouse. Gardening, like
her business, started small but has multiplied to the point where the only
answer is philanthropy. “I have to find ways to give plants away,” she says. In
an admission that might fit her professional life as well as her horticultural
talent, Chambers says, “I guess my thumb is fairly green.”
Vice President of Government Affairs, Comcast, Western Division
Three cities in five days, on the plane, off the plane. Issues that swing
from corporate training to lawsuit mediation to politics.
Thirteen thousand employees. Five million cable subscribers in five states.
But hey, no pressure.
And if there is, you’d never know from Debbie Luppold, Vice President of
Government Affairs for Comcast’s western division, who says simply, “You get
into the rhythm of it after awhile.”
Like the company’s heavily marketed cable Internet service, Luppold is both
high-speed and ultra-connected—wired to go. And go. Her constant companions
include a lightweight laptop with long-life battery, cell phone, and
Blackberry, devices that keep her scheduled, connected and working wherever she
is. Luppold is determined to squeeze every drop of productivity out of each
Even when she has time to slow down, maybe get some reading in, she chooses
a mystery novel “to keep me thinking,” a copy of The Economist or Time
magazine. The closest her brain gets to a break is when the only reading
material available is People. On an airplane, Luppold’s portable CD
player is not cranking out music but instead “white noise.” She concedes that
she has trouble stopping her mind.
The eighth of nine children, Luppold’s family is driven to hard work.
Several of Luppold’s siblings are entrepreneurs. Others, now retired, remained
loyal to their companies for many years, she says.
She believes the death of her parents 11 months apart in 1980 is what makes
her so cognizant of the passage of time and the need to spend it completely and
well. “It had a real dramatic impact on my life,” she says. “I made a decision
at that point to see every day as a gift. You can’t assume you will have any
And so, she says, she does what she loves to do, not planning the next
career move but instead “looking at opportunities as they present themselves
and deciding whether it’s something I would love to do.”
It’s how she ended up in media, beginning with a job in the 1970s that
placed her at the beginning of the video age, when immediate playback of video
images became possible for the first time. Soon after, she found herself on the
ground floor of multi-media experimentation and innovation. “I just fell in
love with moving pictures and sound,” she says.
Luppold has moved from the edge of one envelope to the next, now finding
herself at the frontier of telecom policy, where government attempts to catch
up with the demands and opportunities of evolving technology.
Off the job, Luppold spends time at home with her partner of 25 years, Carole
Smith, an alternative school administrator. “We go to movies and I like to putz
around in the yard,” Luppold says. Having no children of her own, she dotes on
her nieces and nephews. From time to time, she thinks about slowing down, much
the same way she considers “migrating to decaf” or attempting yoga.
But all in all, she says she feels privileged to be where she is. “I have a
Oregon President, Qwest
There’s nothing like slipping into the pilot’s seat just as
rocket launchers target your engines.
It’s a feeling Judy Peppler knows well, having become Qwest
president for Oregon as an avalanche of customer complaints hits the newspapers
and a franchise dispute with the city of Portland erupts. “We were in the press
regularly when I first came,” she says.
But there couldn’t have been a better time for the
unsinkable Peppler, whose background blended phone company know-how with public
relations savvy and an optimism that couldn’t have been more pronounced had she
actually broken out in song.
And she could have.
Peppler’s past includes a stint with the song-and-dance show
“Up with People,” which toured the U.S. and Europe in the 1980s, spreading a
positive message about the value of people. The show led to her first opportunity
to do promotions work—something that served her well in her career and
afforded her a first glimpse of Oregon.
Like Debbie Luppold and Peggy Fowler, Peppler is the product
of a large family that emphasized education. Her number: Fourth of eight.
She credits a summer job handing out bowling shoes with
reinforcing the family’s belief in the need for a good education. “Let’s just
say it inspired me to continue my education,” she says.
She was recruited to Mountain Bell, a precursor to Qwest,
while still in college and went to work as an installation supervisor in Boise, where her crew was comprised of 13 men with plenty of experience in phone company
operations. Peppler, by contrast, didn’t know the first thing about phone
companies. The crew initially gave her a hard time but in the end, was willing
to teach her what she needed to know. “I learned how you get a dial tone. It
was great experience.”
Her devotion to the job and the company led to a long series
of promotions, and a decision.
On the one hand, Peppler was a rising executive in a major
company. On the other, she was the mother of two young children. Someone had to
be home. Peppler says she and her husband Randy, a former restaurant manager,
“made a conscious decision” to pursue her career path rather than his. He would
stay home with the boys.
It was, for its time, a revolutionary thing to do. “It
wasn’t common back then and it was fairly isolating for him because
(housewives) don’t invite the man over for the neighborhood coffee klatch.”
Now, the boys are 14 and 15 and, “Well, he does everything,” Peppler says. “He
cooks, he cleans, he does laundry. And it’s great because on weekends we’re not
running around trying to get stuff done.”
Having someone at home has allowed Peppler a free hand at her
career, time to work longer hours if necessary, or travel to visit various
corporate customers and government officials. “The hardest time was when we
were just first trying it. Here I was the support of the whole family, and I
was worried: What if I lose my job? I’m sure it’s the same kind of pressure
that men in that position feel. Some days you just want to switch places.”
One of those times was when one of the boys fell and skinned
his knees and promptly “ran to Daddy for a hug” rather than to her. But Peppler
says incidents like that didn’t make her change her mind about the decision.
“I’m not hung up on roles. My husband is very engaged with the boys. I don’t
think, hey, I’m a woman so I should be doing it.”
In a 60-hour week, Peppler relaxes not by putting her feet
up, but by exercising—either at the gym across the street during lunch hour or
in a morning walk with her husband. Free time finds the family boating or
following the boys’ interests, whether football and lacrosse or fencing and
At long last, Peppler says she is “happy and content” at
Qwest’s Oregon helm and isn’t aiming for another promotion. “Well, at least not
for the next five years. But then, I wouldn’t rule out politics later…maybe
running for office.”
BrainstormNW - June 2005