Daniel Packer Biography
Learned Value of Hard Work Early, Rose Through Nuclear Ranks as Single Father
From a humble beginning in segregated Alabama, Daniel Packer rose to become the first African American to manage a nuclear power plant. Packer went on to serve as CEO of Entergy New Orleans and landed on Black Enterprise's 2005 list of most powerful African-American executives. During his ascent up the corporate ladder, Packer developed a reputation as both a compassionate leader and levelheaded negotiator. He also became a role model. "He was making a name for himself outside of athletics or entertainment," an African-American executive told New Orleans City Business. "Given our culture, that becomes increasingly significant as time goes on."
Learned Value of Hard Work Early
Daniel Fredric Packer, Jr. was born December 8, 1947, in Mobile, Alabama. His father, Dan Sr., worked at Brookley Air Force Base while his mother, Algie, worked as a caterer. Along with his younger sister, Debra, Packer was raised in a hard-working household. During the summer, he joined his cousins on a family farm where he did everything from churning butter to grinding corn. "Work was never something we were afraid of," Packer told New Orleans City Business. Along with a strong work ethic, Packer inherited a strong sense of self from his parents. Though Alabama, like most of the South during Packer's childhood, was segregated, his mother's motto was, "Don't let anything defeat you," Packer recalled to Black Collegian. His father also imparted words of wisdom that resonated with Packer. "Some days peanuts, some days shells," Packer recalled to the Times-Picayune. The result was a can-do attitude that helped Packer overcome the inequities of segregation and racism. "The fact that (the South) was a segregated place didn't mean we couldn't find a way to be successful," Packer told New Orleans City Business. "It never dawned on us to use (our race) as an excuse to not be successful."
Packer graduated from Mobile's Central High School in 1965 with high enough grades to land several college scholarships. Unfortunately, Tuskegee Institute—the school Packer had his heart set on—was not among them. Tuskegee, a historically black college, was one of the few in the South that offered an engineering program for African Americans. Packer scraped enough money together for tuition and enrolled in the five-year engineering program. After three years, his father fell ill and the money ran out. In 1969, Packer left Tuskegee and joined the U.S. Navy. His high entrance marks, and engineering training, helped land him a position in the Navy's nuclear power program. During an intense one-year course at a secret base in Idaho, Packer learned to operate nuclear reactors used to power submarines, aircraft carriers, and destroyers. After training, he was posted on the USS Truxton, a missile destroyer based in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War.
During his military training, Packer met his first wife Carlene. After he left the Navy in 1975, the pair moved briefly to Washington state where their first son, Timothy, was born. The family next moved to Connecticut where Packer landed a job as a training coordinator with Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Company. Packer's second child, Vanice, was born soon after. The birth happened quite suddenly, and Packer delivered the baby at home. "It wasn't a problem because I knew how to operate a nuclear reactor," he told New Orleans City Business. "Both are very procedure oriented." Packer juggled his job and fatherhood well enough to also earn an associate's degree in 1978 from Middlesex Community College and a bachelor's degree in business from Charter Oak College in 1980.
Rose Through Nuclear Ranks as Single Father
Tragedy struck Packer's life in 1980 when his wife Carlene died suddenly of a rare liver disease. Left alone to care for his two children, Packer decided it was time to move back home to the South. The closest he got, however, was Columbia, Maryland, where he landed a job as a senior engineer at General Physics Corporation. It was a good job, but with two young children, he really wanted to be closer to family. With his background in nuclear power, including a senior operator's license—a highly specialized license for the nuclear industry—he looked for a power plant near Mobile, Alabama. The closest was Entergy's plant in Taft, Louisiana. He called the plant, and though there were no openings, his credentials made him a great candidate as a consultant. He joined the plant as a consultant in 1982 and helped Entergy build the Waterford III plant. His expertise landed him a position as training manager of the plant.
By 1990 Packer had moved up the ranks at Waterford to become the plant's general manager. His promotion made him the first African American to manage a nuclear power plant. He was responsible for the entire operation of the site, from nuclear safety to profitability. It was a massive job, performed always under the shadow of the immense environmental damage that could happen were an accident to occur. "There's nothing harder than being the plant manager of a nuclear power plant," Packer confessed to the Times-Picayune. Under Packer, the Waterford plant received some of the highest ratings in the country.
Packer balanced his job at Waterford with his role as a single father. "It would have been easy to leave them with their grandparents, but I had a tough time not being with them," he told New Orleans City Business. "I needed them probably as much as they needed me. They helped me get through my grief." The experience also gave Packer a real appreciation for the trials and tribulations that a single parent goes through—something most executives are blissfully unaware of. "I understand if you're having a really bad day, when you get home it doesn't stop," he told New Orleans City Business. "I'm definitely more empathetic than I would have been otherwise." Shortly after arriving at Water-ford, Packer met Catherine August, a plant supervisor. The pair married in 1984 and the Packer household expanded to seven as August was the mother of three teenagers.
Made Tough Decisions as Top Executive
After 27 years in the nuclear industry on the technical side, Packer made the move to the executive offices. In 1996 he became a director of Entergy New Orleans. In that role, his main task was dealing with local government regulators. "He moved into a very political environment when he moved downtown," another Entergy executive told the Times-Picayune. "It was an interesting move. The stereotype of technical people is that they don't mix well in the political area but he did an excellent job of understanding politics." Packer landed in New Orleans, right in the middle of a simmering pot of discontent. Since the early 1980s, trouble had been brewing between New Orleans and Entergy. Rising energy costs, poor customer service, and charges of over-billing plagued the company. In addition, the city of New Orleans and Entergy had engaged in a legal battle that went up to the federal level over the shared costs of the building of a Gulf Coast nuclear facility.
Packer impressed those on both side of the debate by using an approach that has become a hallmark of his leadership—diplomatically building bridges between opposing parties. "At the beginning he was kind of a quiet guy. He had been in nuclear before that but obviously he was a quick learner," a city council member told the Times-Picayune. "I think he learned early on the way to get things done was to develop a relationship with the council and consumers and I think he did a pretty good job of that." Entergy Corporation's CEO Wayne Leonard was also impressed. "[Packer] never came to me once and said: 'This was unfair; I shouldn't have been held accountable,'" Leonard told the Times-Picayune. "The bottom line was that he was an adult. A lot of times you look around and you see a lot of talented people, but you don't see a lot of grown-ups." The result was that Packer was appointed president of Entergy New Orleans in 1997. The CEO title was added in 1998. As CEO, Packer is responsible for all aspects of the company: power distribution, customer service, economic development, financial performance, and regulatory and governmental affairs.
As CEO, Packer continued to impress people both within and outside of the industry. In 2001, gas prices surged, leaving many New Orleanians struggling to meet payments. Packer announced that Entergy would not cut off power for non-payment. "It may sound like it was a natural thing to do but, from a business standpoint, it was an extraordinary move," an Entergy executive told New Orleans City Business. "Dan's decision was, for some people, the difference between waking up in the dark and being able to turn the lights on. That was a defining moment in my professional relationship with him. In business school you learn to make sure you can earn and collect on any amounts. What you don't learn in school are the leadership traits it takes to make a tough decision." Packer's toughest job yet arrived on August 29, 2005, in the form of Hurricane Katrina. The storm flooded half of the utility's substations and two power plants. Nearly 100 percent of its clients were left without power. In September, Entergy New Orleans filed for bankruptcy protection. By the end of the year, nearly 70 percent of Entergy New Orlean's client base was gone and large swaths of the region were still without power. History has been watching to see whether Packer's renowned strategic skills and unflappable attitude will be able to save his company and restore normal services to its clients.
Black Collegian, October 1996.
Black Enterprise, February 2005.
New Orleans City Business, July 29, 2002.
Times-Picayune, September 5, 2001.
"Dan Packer President and CEO, Entergy New Orleans," Entergy, www.entergy-neworleans.com/about_entergy/CEO.aspx (November 26, 2005).
"Entergy New Orleans Dynamo Reassesses Workload after Heart Attack," New Orleans City Business, www.neworleanscitybusiness.com/viewStory.cfm?recID=7705 (November 26, 2005).
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