boston globe

NStar's boss has great gig

By Brian McGrory |  GLOBE COLUMNIST    
NOVEMBER 02, 2011

Curiosity can visit at the most random times. This past Sunday night, for instance, I was sitting in my cold, dark living room wondering how much Thomas May makes a year.

The rest of the household had fled for the warmth and room service menu of a highway hotel, leaving me to jockey for space in front of the fireplace with the cats and the dogs. The last time the lights went out was all the way back in August, and then we had power restored in just five fast days.

As I was watching the last of the firewood turn to ash, I couldn’t get Tom May out of my mind.

You probably don’t know Tom May. He’s the chairman, chief executive, and president of NStar, one of the state’s two major power companies and, by sheer coincidence, my electric company. He’s an accountant who quietly slipped into the corner office in the early 1990s and never left.

We think he’s still in there, but no ratepayer has seen him since this latest storm struck.

So I wondered, how much could a chief executive possibly be worth in a regulated industry, where the territories are set by the state, where they sell electricity to customers who have no other choice, and where salaries come out of the pockets of the average, everyday people who pay the rates.

The answer filled the screen of my rapidly draining iPad: $7.9 million.

I will repeat, in 2010, Tom May made $7.9 million to run the monopoly that is NStar. That includes a $1.1 million salary, a cool $2 million bonus, $2.7 million in stock awards, $648,000 in stock options, and $1.5 million in pension and deferred earnings. I’m betting that’s enough to buy a nice little home generator should his power ever go out, though I doubt it ever has.

By the way, four other NStar executives made between $2.3 and $5 million last year.

But lest anyone think ill of Tom May, please consider that he’s also a director of the outstanding company known as Bank of America, for which he gets $260,000 a year to attend half a dozen meetings. In his world, that might count as philanthropy.

When Monday morning arrived, I headed to Framingham, where Deval Patrick met privately with power company executives and then reporters to review the recovery efforts from the weekend storm. Cue the headline: Furious governor lashes out at utilities for another slow effort.

But as he stood before the cameras in a nifty little pullover that made it look as if he had been climbing utility poles, Patrick had a different script. He described the “block by block’’ efforts of the utilities and deemed their progress “terrific’’ and “pretty great.’’ Was he rehearsing to be a utility spokesman? Meantime, Tom May slipped out unnoticed after the closed-door meeting, no easy feat considering it was held in the state’s emergency bunker.

I never thought I’d say these words, but thank the heavens for Scott Brown, the lone voice of official outrage over the utilities’ response to the storm.

Yesterday afternoon, 3:30, my phone rang, and it was Tom May calling back. I hate when that happens. Of NStar’s handling of the storm, he declared, “We’re doing a great job.’’

Of his pay package, he said, “It’s a market-based analysis that’s done, with the caveat that it’s based on performance, and we’ve had a great performance over the last 10 years.’’

Really? Forbes last year ranked Tom May as the fourth highest-paid utility chief executive out of the 25 on its list.

It was the only thing that made NStar exceptional; otherwise, the utility ranked average in every other category, unless you take into account that Massachusetts has some of the most expensive electricity in America.

Tom May might be a swell guy and a terrific numbers cruncher, but somebody needs to inject some sanity here. An $8 Million Utility Man just shouldn’t exist.

McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at