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Nick Rowe is back home where he belongs, as head of KyAm Water — and everybody knows his name

By Judy Clabes
KyForward editor

Nick Rowe should just hang a big banner at the Kentucky American Water headquarters on Richmond Road, and it should read “I’m back. Right where I belong.”

That’s how everybody around the place feels about it anyway.

Including Nick.

Yes, make that “Nick” too.

A visitor checking in at the lobby says to the veteran security guard, Ed, “I’m here to see Mr. Rowe.”

He replied: “You mean Nick . . .”

There was both respect and honest regard in the tone of voice.

It turns out that “Nick” occasionally plays golf with Ed. There are no pretenses necessary in the relationship. “Nick” doesn’t hold out a bit of hope that he will best his employee on the golf course, according to Ed — but Nick would tell it differently.

Nick Rowe

Nick Rowe

There are no pretenses about Nick Rowe, period. He’s a genuinely nice guy who genuinely likes people — and who genuinely loves his job, his company and being ‘back home.’

“Employees are like family,” Rowe said, with affection in his voice. “These relationships are special, and I’m excited to be back.”

He really is back where he belongs, back where he still has a home, back where everybody knows his real name (that would be Nick), back in his old office . . .back, where it just feels right.

Rowe has returned to the presidency of Kentucky American Water, replacing Cheryl Norton, who in a round of executive reassignments by the company last fall, also returned closer to home.

Rowe cites this “caring” by the company as just one reason he is proud to be part of it.

In his most recent corporate senior vice president role, Rowe had been based in St. Louis but maintained his home in Lexington. He continues a position as corporate senior vice president of the Central Division of American Water, leading the states of Indiana, Michigan and Tennessee as well as Kentucky.

Back home at Kentucky American Water, from day one, he knew his way around, greeted employees by their first names, chatted folks up and asked about their kids or their dogs or their work. He needed no directions and no introductions. It was a seamless transition.

Having been very active in the Lexington community, he is eager to get back into that saddle. He has held board positions with the Lexington Industrial Foundation, Commerce Lexington (as a past chair), the Central Bank Advisory Board, and United Way of the Bluegrass among others. He is also involved with statewide and industry organizations, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m ready to get back involved,” he says, “though I’ll have to pick and choose, given my time. But our company encourages servant leadership and I want to serve both my company and my community as fully as possible.”

He will aim to “make a difference” and to look to organizations that deal with social-economic gaps and environmental issues. This is the kind of work that makes work not work at all, but “fun,” he says.

* * *

Nick Rowe has deep roots in Kentucky, having grown up in the Bowling Green area. The son of a carpenter (and Korean War vet) and a nurse-assistant is one of six children.

He could say he grew up poor, but he wouldn’t. First, he didn’t feel poor and second, he just doesn’t think that way.

Instead, he says, he grew up “humble.” And against that background, he cites hard-working parents who had high expectations that he worked very hard to live up to. He was valedictorian of his high school class of 406 students. He played sports and worked menial jobs, learning the value of hard work and the maturity that comes from it.

While it might not have been the best of times for a young black man to grow up in western Kentucky, there would be not a sound about that from Nick Rowe. A young man like Nick, who listened to his parents and soaked up those home-grown values, saw only opportunity ahead. Still today, he listens to his parents; his admiration and respect as he speaks of them is palpable. And inspired by the book, “A Purpose-Driven Life,” he understands that it is not about him but about servant leadership.

Nick with co-workers

Nick with co-workers

He started in pre-med then moved to civil engineering at Western Kentucky University, earning his degree in 1981. Later, he got his master’s of business administration at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.

Right out of college he took a job with the railroad, as a senior resident engineer working out in the field — literally — and fighting off dreaded snakes in the underbrush to scout out routing for new tracks. The one thing Nick Rowe has absolutely no regard for is snakes.

* * *
He was glad, in 1987, to join American Water in Huntington, W.Va., as a management assistant. He has been with American Water ever since, working his way steadily up.

After nearly 30 years, it’s obvious that he is definitely a company man.

“I’m proud of the company,” he says. “It has always been “close” with employees.

“The company recognizes that to be a high-performance company we must have high-performing employees — and that to drive for results, we are only as good as our employees,” Rowe says.

It’s incumbent on strong leadership to “treat people right.”

He’s most proud of the company’s emphasis on safety — that often comes at the expense of efficiency or expediency.

“It’s safety first — no matter what,” he said. “That includes those in the field. Nothing trumps getting our people back home safely.

“We take care of employees so we can take care of customers,” he says.

* * *

Rowe takes his positive attitude everywhere, especially home where he strives to be the parent his own were. He and his wife, Tyra, a nurse at Central Baptist Hospital, have two daughters. Oldest daughter Dominique is a UK graduate and has her master’s from Georgia Tech. She is an engineer at Lexmark. Ebony, an All-American basketball player, graduated from Dunbar High School, was a superstar scholarship athlete at Middle Tennessee State University and is now in graduate school at Georgia Tech, studying engineering.

And, yes, he is an avid golfer. But let’s don’t compare handicaps.

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