PhillyInc: Remark targeting ex-Sunoco chief is a rarity

Former Sunoco CEO Lynn L. Elsenhans
Former Sunoco CEO Lynn L. Elsenhans
Posted: January 24, 2013

Few bosses of big companies win many popularity contests. Even fewer do when they break up the companies and sell off the parts.

Still, it was striking that months after Sunoco Inc.'s Philadelphia refinery was saved from closure, the former CEO of the energy company could inspire such animosity from a panel of insiders who'd gathered to recount how the rescue was accomplished.

The occasion was a Friday symposium organized by the Temple University Center on Regional Politics. At a panel discussion on how political, business, and labor leaders cooperated to help find buyers for two of the three threatened refineries, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, a Philadelphia Democrat, voiced publicly what others had said privately.

He called the former chief executive of Sunoco the "wicked witch."

Brady was referring to Lynn L. Elsenhans, who was CEO when the Philadelphia company initiated plans to get out of the refining business by selling or closing plants in Marcus Hook and Philadelphia.

After 126 years, Sunoco relinquished its independence when it was acquired in October by Energy Transfers Partners L.P. for $4.9 billion. Elsenhans was the architect of the 2011 plan to exit refining, though she did nothing without the full support of Sunoco's board of directors.

Panel moderator Patrick Kerkstra, a freelance journalist who wrote a case study released at the Temple symposium on the public/private rescue effort that saved thousands of jobs, asked members how the direction of negotiations changed once Brian P. MacDonald succeeded Elsenhans on March 1.

Brady, who was key to getting White House staff involved in restarting discussions between Sunoco management and the private-equity firm Carlyle Group Inc., was clearly frustrated with Elsenhans, whom he did not identify by name.

In his remarks, he was dismissive of a CEO who would lay off thousands of people and then collect a big severance package. After leaving Sunoco, Elsenhans received shares and payments totaling $28.6 million, including $6.3 million in severance, according to documents the company filed with the SEC.

It was in that context that Brady used the phrase wicked witch.

Temple organizers did not tape the panel discussion, so there is no way to review exactly how a sitting congressman uttered his Wizard of Oz comment. I was standing in the back of the room, listening to the exchange as I reviewed notes for a panel I would host in the afternoon.

I later found myself asking the few people I recognized in the audience of about 100, mostly politicians and policymakers, what they'd heard. Most remembered the "wicked witch" comment, but strikingly few realized that it referred to Elsenhans.

Brady did not return several requests for comment.

Elsenhans, who stepped down as Sunoco's chairman in May and now lives in Houston, was criticized by labor leaders, who viewed her as disengaged from attempts to find buyers for the refineries. Unionized refinery workers were angry not only with the decision, but with her absence from meetings involving various stakeholders who sought to save or repurpose Sunoco facilities.

In July, Carlyle announced plans to operate the Philadelphia refinery with Sunoco in a joint venture called Philadelphia Energy Solutions L.L.C.

Other members of the panel were U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.); Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley; Philip L. Rinaldi, CEO of Philadelphia Energy Solutions; MacDonald, now president and CEO of ETP Holdco Corp. and still based in Philadelphia; and Patrick B. Gillespie, business manager for the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council.

In an interview afterward, Gillespie viewed Brady's comment as appropriate for any CEO not sensitive to the working people who build businesses.

"I don't hold back," Gillespie said. "She could have been called a lot less flattering term than 'wicked witch.' "


Contact Mike Armstrong

at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.phillyinc.biz.

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