Executive Shows Great Energy in Attempt to Sell Wind-Farm Project
Back when Jim Gordon was a Boston University broadcast and filmmaking student begging for a job in television, a cable executive asked him whether he could sell.
Of course he could, he insisted, although he was untested.
So Gordon spent his nights and Saturdays banging on doors in Chelsea and Everett, introducing this phenomenon called cable TV. He signed so many new subscribers that he broke a national sales record, and company executives came from New York to ask whether he would develop a training program. Could he sell.
Gordon, now president of the company that plans the nation's first offshore wind farm, makes his pitches with almost messianic zeal, certain not only of his conviction but of the virtue of the technology he is touting.
"What I was saying was what I believed in," Gordon recalled of his cable days.
Since then, his passion has become wind energy, and he speaks to anyone who will listen. Including high school science classes.
"How many of you really think about where electricity comes from?" Gordon asks Lexington students in a flat voice one sunny September afternoon. A few hands rise.
Within four minutes, the eyes of sullen teenagers are glazing over, as Gordon intones, "Even in Massachusetts, we have more resources we can tap to create jobs, rather than spending billions of dollars on foreign sources of oil for energy." Within eight minutes, girls in the back of the room whisper to one another. Several students yawn.
And then, a funny thing happens: They start asking questions. They buy in.
Gordon, 51, doesn't have to spend his afternoons this way. He is wealthy, having sold five natural gas plants at the industry's peak, a feat attributed to canny instincts and uncanny luck. His four-story Beacon Hill townhouse is assessed at nearly $2.8 million, and he owns two garaged parking spaces worth nearly $80,000 each.
But he is wholly focused on this project, a $770 million gamble that is not without its arrogance. He plans to build 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound, in the sight lines of some of the most powerful people in the Northeast, and he needs every believer he can muster.
If he loses his bid, this will be the first time the entrepreneur has been denied a right to build a power plant where he wanted.
Raised in a Newton apartment, Gordon spent summers at his parents' modest Yarmouth vacation home, where he fell in love with Cape Cod, a place opponents say they must protect from his wind-farm plan.
His father was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who grew up in the West End; he later owned three convenience stores in Allston-Brighton, where Gordon worked in his youth.
Gordon played at the West End House Boys & Girls Club of Allston-Brighton and spent several weeks each summer at its Maine camp, which drew underprivileged and middle-class children. Later, he donated $1.5 million to help renovate the club's building, now named for his older brother, Michael, who died of a heart attack six years ago, said William Margolin, former club director. He continues to raise money for the club through a foundation in Michael's name.
Gordon has always had an unusual focus, said his mother, Florence, who contrasted her sons' temperaments.
"Michael, he should rest in peace, he would have to have 100 toys to play with. And Jimmy played with one," she said. "That one toy would be his satisfaction. He would do it until he got it right."
Gordon's second wife, Meg, 30, who once handled his company's public relations and is now attending culinary school and caring for their 1-year-old, compared him to the fable of the tortoise and the hare. "He's a turtle, and he always wins."
Gordon has trained his focus on energy since 1975, when he grew frustrated with America's dependence on foreign oil while waiting in a two-block-long line for gasoline and sniffed opportunity in the energy crisis. He had no background in the field, but at 22 the quick study began poring over energy research. Gordon founded Energy Management Inc. with $3,000 in savings and would occasionally take then-girlfriend Jan Saragoni on double-dates with 40-year-old investors.
"We'd both be very buttoned down, and Jimmy, at a very early age, would present a very disciplined, coherent business plan to investors," recalled Saragoni, now president of Saragoni & Co. public relations firm.
After a decade pitching businesses on conservation, energy prices collapsed, dampening enthusiasm for such projects. Watching government policy begin to encourage alternative energy projects, Gordon shifted his focus. His company built a wood-burning power plant in Alexandria, N.H., and cogeneration power plants, using natural gas and steam to power factories in Pepperell and Pawtucket, R.I. At a time when New England relied heavily on oil for energy, the company began building power plants fired by natural gas, and he built what is believed to be the nation's first merchant power plant, one without utility power-purchase agreements, earning him a reputation as a risk-taker.
His strategy was to select ideal sites, close to gas and electric lines, and to win over detractors by being responsive, generous, and by persuading local officials, often in communities searching for revenue, that his plants were in their best interest.
Craig Olmsted, Energy Management's vice president for project development, recalled how Gordon reacted when residents objected to widening a utility corridor through conservation land and private property to service a plant in Rumford, Maine. He took Olmsted to the 250-year-old farmhouse of opponent Bart Hague, who offered the men cookies.
"He was open and he wanted to listen," said Hague, 77, who also visited one of Gordon's existing power plants, but whose East Waterford land was ultimately taken by the utility. "I didn't feel that I got any feedback from having done that. But I certainly liked Jim very much."
East Waterford is a long way from the Cape and islands, where many politically savvy players resist Gordon's blend of principled persuasion and down-to-earth charm. The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which formed to block the project, has accused Gordon of seizing the public waterfront for his own profit.
"His whole mantra has been about how he's just trying to save the planet, but Jim Gordon is really just an opportunistic businessman, very focused on getting what he wants," said Ernie Corrigan, an alliance consultant. "Which is to make even more money than he's already made."
Gordon returns the charge of entitlement.
"Our opponents are fond of saying that Nantucket Sound is not for sale," Gordon said. "And sometimes I think that's because they believe they already own it."
It's the harshest criticism he will offer out loud, though those who know him well say he is frustrated when he cannot persuade others to see things his way.
Last year, he converted Walter Cronkite, the legendary former television news anchor who had lent his opposition to the alliance's ad campaign against the project. Gordon was unsuccessful at persuading historian David McCullough to back off his ads and was recently rebuffed in a Beacon Hill gym by public relations executive Thomas P. O'Neill III.
"The guy comes over to me and says, 'Hey, I'd like to talk to you about the wind farm,' " O'Neill said. "I say, 'Great, but I'm running and watching CNN.' " Gordon tried to engage him three times before O'Neill said, "Listen pal, it's a land grab. And if you want to talk to me, give me a call."
In 1999, as the market became saturated with natural gas, Energy Management got out, selling five plants for a price industry sources put at more than $250 million.
Searching for the next big thing, with national policy encouraging hydroelectric and wind power, Gordon began scouting for offshore locations. He said Nantucket Sound emerged as the most economically viable, wind-rich spot in the region.
But someone had gotten there first, so Gordon teamed up with two other proponents and, when they sold out, he became the face of the project.
"I feel that there is a greater public good with this project," Gordon said. "But I believe that this project can help set an important precedent for the United States."
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News