Although summers are generally the more difficult time for Oncor to manage, last winter’s “snowpocalypse” also brought the need for rolling blackouts. illustration by Tony Healey

Breakfast With: Robert Shapard of Oncor

The energy distribution company's chairman and CEO calmly deals with a year of trying weather.

I’m on the lookout for a bearded man. Although facial hair has become popular with the hipster set, these days it’s relatively uncommon in the corporate boardroom. But Bob Shapard isn’t one to cave to the demands of the latest fashion trends; his beard’s been around since 1982.

I recognize him instantly, though we’ve never met, when he walks though the doors of the scarcely populated Neuhaus Cafe at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Fittingly enough, our conversation soon moves to discussion of his whiskers, and how they’d once helped him decide it was time to move to another job after Ultramar Diamond Shamrock, the company he’d been working for in San Antonio, merged with Valero.

“The current CEO had a pretty strict facial hair policy, and he asked me, ‘Do you mind shaving your beard?’” Shapard says. “I wasn’t going to stay anyway, but I thought, ‘You know, if that matters to him, I’m not staying.’ It was a good omen that it was time to move on. I wouldn’t know me without a beard. Most of my people in my life wouldn’t know me without a beard.”

Shapard is tall and trim. At 56, he’s a self-professed health nut who exercises daily, competes in triathlons, and usually breakfasts on oatmeal with blueberries and a banana. He thanks me for giving him an excuse to treat himself to an unusual midweek meal at Neuhaus, which is just about a two-minute drive from his North Dallas home. He orders the breakfast panini: eggs, bacon, cheese, and tomato slices packed between two slices of nine-grain bread.

“Make the eggs scrambled, with turkey bacon, light on the cheese, and with salsa. And orange juice,” he tells the waiter. I keep my order an uncomplicated request for two pancakes and a glass of orange juice.

We’re meeting on what would turn out to be the last day of the second-longest streak of triple-digit temperature days ever in Dallas. It’s been a trying few weeks for Oncor, which delivers electricity to about 7 million consumers across Texas. The company has been struggling, in the face of record demand for power during the heat wave, to keep the state’s electrical grid from failing.

“You just don’t design the system with enough capacity to stand 110 degrees every day. And what’s worse is that it doesn’t get below 85 every night, so the equipment can’t cool off at night. The air conditioners are running all night,” he says. “We’ve got transformers and conductors out there that won’t cool off. They’re getting overloaded. We’ve got transformers failing, exploding. We have conductors that are literally melting.”

The year 2011 will undoubtedly be among the most memorable during the decades that Shapard has spent working in the energy industry, a career that began with a job at TXU predecessor Texas Power & Light when he was fresh out of college. Earlier in the year, before this scorcher of a summer, February brought one of the coldest weeks in the region’s history, with frigid temperatures leaving ice and snow on the ground for days—and unfortunately coming in the week leading up to the first Super Bowl ever hosted in North Texas. Although summers are generally the more difficult time for Oncor to manage, last winter’s “snowpocalypse” also brought the need for rolling blackouts.

The fact that Arlington was preparing to host the country’s biggest annual sporting event further complicated Oncor’s procedures and left the company open to criticism.

“The Homeland Security people called us,” Shapard says. “They’d been out at Cowboys Stadium for a month getting ready for the Super Bowl and setting up security systems. And they said, ‘Look, you’ve got to leave us out of [the blackouts]. If you take that stadium dark, you’ll compromise all our security systems.’ So we made the decision not to include them. Some people sitting in the dark in nearby neighborhoods saw [Jerry] Jones’ stadium lit up like a Christmas tree, and they said, OK, we don’t agree with that.”

Shapard takes a knife and fork to his panini, cutting off a small bite and carefully placing a spoonful of salsa on top before transferring the piece to his mouth. The cholesterol in the eggs and bacon must trigger a health alarm in his head, because he decides to launch into talking about his brief tenure at Tenet Healthcare.

It was Tenet that brought the Dallas native back home in 2005, after he’d spent years working for various firms in both operations and financial positions in Australia, San Antonio, New York, and Chicago. He says he learned at Tenet that two-thirds of health care expenses in the United States could be eliminated if everyone would quit smoking, quit eating fast food, and take a vigorous 30-minute daily walk after dinner.

“That amazed me, how controllable health care could be. We’re the least healthy country in the world in terms of our obesity and habits. We don’t exercise. We eat too much. But we could dramatically change the outcomes,” Shapard says. “If we don’t, it’s game over. Productivity in this country will go way down.”

I try not to feel guilty, listening to this, as I slather even more syrup onto my pancakes.