Barely 17 months after he was appointed to what many believe is the best job in the public sector, BC Hydro boss Dave Cobb is walking away from the high-profile, $550,000-a-year post to return to the private sector.
His departure, effective Nov. 30, comes at a time when the provincial government is setting new goals for the vital Crown corporation, and Mr. Cobb has publicly disagreed with calls for as many as 1,000 layoffs and other changes at Hydro.
Yet the former right-hand man of VANOC chief John Furlong insisted Wednesday that his resignation was prompted solely by what he called "a once-in-a-lifetime offer" to join the senior executive team at the Pattison Group, owned by Vancouver billionaire Jimmy Pattison.
"The more I talked to them, the more I realized it was something I was really interested in, back in the private sector," Mr. Cobb said in an interview. "I just came to the conclusion that it was an opportunity I couldn't turn down."
NDP energy critic John Horgan questioned whether that was the only reason Mr. Cobb made his surprise decision to pull the pin at Hydro.
There was too much government interference, an ever-changing board of directors, and confusion over the buying and selling of power, Mr. Horgan charged. "Then last summer, insult to injury was having to fire 1,000 people for no other reason than [the government]thought 1,000 sounded about right," he said.
"For a guy that comes from the private sector, where you're making decisions for the best of your corporation, that's not how he rolls," said Mr. Horgan, who praised Mr. Cobb's openness during his time at the helm of Hydro. "I think he left because he didn't see the writing on the wall getting any better in the short term. It's all speculation, and I don't doubt the Pattison offer, but the evidence is fairly compelling. There's no better job in the public sector than to be CEO of BC Hydro. It's the jewel of the crowns."
Mr. Cobb, 48, didn't deny there were challenges during his brief tenure. He had previously expressed unhappiness over some findings by a panel of three deputy ministers appointed by the new Christy Clark government to propose ways to reduce projected hydro rate increases.
Among other things, the bureaucrats pointed to overgenerous compensation and a work force that could be cut significantly – conclusions Mr. Cobb disputed.
"Certainly, there were difficult days," he said Wednesday. "Every job has challenges and more rewarding days than others. But there's always juggling [between the government and Hydro] That's part of the job. That's what I signed up for."
He said he was certainly prepared to continue as Hydro's president and CEO, if the Pattison opportunity had not come up several months ago.
Mr. Cobb noted that Hydro has already cut 550 jobs since last year, and is committed to axe another 150 positions over the next two years.
"We've done a lot of the hard work," he said. "We've done the downsizing. We've restructured. We've established our vision and our chief objectives."
However, critics have pointed to potential problems in Hydro's future operations. They refer to an expected large increase in energy demand as several LNG plants and other big projects come on stream up north in the next 10 years, while the government insists on cutting costs, reduced Hydro rates and a smaller work force.
Energy Minister Rich Coleman is also expected to soon announce an easing of the corporation's requirement to meet a rigorous standard of self-sufficiency.
"A lot of those things are conflicting," Mr. Cobb agreed. "That's where the government and Hydro have to work together to find a balance."
Nevertheless, he said, he was confident Hydro will be able to meet the province's future energy needs. "That's our job. This company has always figured out how to do it. That's what they've done for the past 50 years."
Mr. Cobb said he is leaving Hydro at the end of November without a dime in severance payments.
Mr. Horgan, meanwhile, couldn't resist repeating a line from NDP Leader Adrian Dix, referencing former NDP premier Glen Clark's high-placed executive position within the Pattison Group.
"David Cobb finally found a Premier Clark he could work with," Mr. Horgan said.