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Water and ice a professional and personal challenge

By now, Susan Story should be moved into her new office at the American Water Works Co. Inc. headquarters in Voorhees.

By now, Susan Story should be moved into her new office at the American Water Works Co. Inc. headquarters in Voorhees.

"My computer is the first thing I have to have," said Story, 54, who became chief executive of the $2.9 billion utility at the company's annual meeting Friday, replacing president and CEO Jeff Sterba.

"I have to have a chair that doesn't make my back hurt, and I have to have a picture of my husband and myself and our two dogs and that's about it," said Story, who joined the company April 1, 2013, as senior vice president and chief financial officer.

Story had been with the company for just over nine months when disaster struck a subsidiary, West Virginia American Water. On Jan. 9, residents of Charleston, a region known as Chemical Valley, noticed a licorice smell coming off the Elk River.

The smell stemmed from a chemical spill from a tank farm run by Freedom Industries Inc. that seeped into the water supply. For four to 10 days, 300,000 people were without tap water. American Water supplied bottled water and later gave residents and businesses credits on their water bills.

Since then, dozens of lawsuits have been filed against West Virginia American Water and Freedom Industries, which declared bankruptcy. No one was seriously injured, but long-term effects are unknown.

Question: How's it going now?

Answer: We're back to normal operations and we're continuing to serve our customers to the best of our ability. I will tell you that I think everything was handled very well.

Q: What about the lawsuits?

A: We're a very litigious society.

Q: What's it like being in that situation?

A: I worked for a large electrical utility doing hurricane restoration in 2004. In 2005, I went over and helped with Katrina. In terms of those recovery efforts, [both companies] have strong emergency planning. We have incredible employees.

Q: You grew up in the South and moved here from Atlanta, where you served as executive vice president of Southern Co., one of America's largest electric utilities. How'd you like your first winter?

A: The first six snowfalls I stood at the window and said, 'Oh, this is so beautiful.' People said, 'This is January; just wait until February.'

Q: How was the driving?

A: The roads were taken care of. I never missed a day of work.

Q: Tell us about your family.

A: I was the first person on either side of my family to graduate from college. My dad was a retired pipe fitter. My mom was a homemaker. My parents are so smart, but they didn't have the opportunity. I'm pretty much the American Dream. My dad's parents were alcoholics and he was on the streets at 14. My mom was ninth of nine kids of a dirt-poor farmer from Alabama. They built a better life for their kids.

Q: You lead an eight-member executive team. Four of them, including you, are women.

A: I'm going to tell you that the women on the board and on the executive team are extremely talented and gifted and they are accomplished. So it wasn't, 'Let's go out and find a woman.' It was, 'Let's go out and find the best person.'

Q: Your replacement [as CFO], Linda G. Sullivan, is a woman.

A: When I hired the CFO, she didn't get chosen because she was a woman. She got chosen because she was absolutely the best person for this job.