In an old-money town devastated by recession and political turnover, the list of corporate power brokers — those behind-the-curtain agenda setters — grows shorter by the quarter. Then there's Dominion's chief executive, Thomas F. Farrell II.
He's already a key cog in the city's most influential power clichAcs — he's been No. 2 on Style Weekly's Power List for two years running. But with his recent appointment to head Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell's transition team and his emergence as a top individual contributor to that campaign, Farrell's political reach hits a turning point.
“This is the first time I've … seen him do something this public,” says Eva Teig Hardy, the interim state director for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who worked under Farrell as executive vice president of public policy and corporate communications at Dominion. “I think he's had opportunities to be very involved with other political people before. I think that this particular friendship [with McDonnell], that they go back so long, is the reason he has put aside his normal reluctance to [stay] out in the middle of things.”
In 2008 and 2009 Farrell — chairman, chief executive and president of Dominion Resources — contributed almost $72,000 to McDonnell, a high-school friend, as well as $19,000 to Lieutenant Gov.-elect Bill Bolling, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit Web site that tracks campaign contributions.
Farrell's no stranger to politics. In 2008 he supported lawyer Robert Grey's unsuccessful bid for Richmond mayor and dabbled in Richmond School Board issues, first as a supporter of the ill-fated “Gang of 26” School Board letter — a statement by 26 business leaders calling for an appointed, not elected, School Board. Farrell later headed Richmond's superintendent search committee and led several committees for former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.
“He's got good relationships on both sides of the political aisle,” says David Hicks, former Richmond commonwealth's attorney and current senior policy analyst for Mayor Dwight C. Jones. Farrell's appointment to the gubernatorial transition, Hicks says, is “going to be a very beneficial situation for all parties involved.”
Farrell's reputation for gentlemanly, behind-the-scenes bipartisanship also is evident in his public face as a business and community leader. A local philanthropist, Farrell is former rector of the University of Virginia and was on the board of directors for Richmond CenterStage, in addition to being a member of Richmond's superexclusive management roundtable and his roles chairing committees as a board member at Altria Group, parent of Philip Morris USA.
“He's very well-organized and runs a very good meeting that's to the point,” says Jim Ukrop, chairman of First Market Bank, who worked alongside Farrell on the Richmond CenterStage project. “He gets things done quickly, but I know he takes the time to do the homework behind the scenes.”
Then there's Farrell's acumen in running Dominion, which has posted a 17-percent increase in net income in the third quarter, despite a 16-percent decrease in revenue, and which is homing in on potential plans to build a nuclear reactor at its North Anna power plant. Farrell's hand in reregulating the state's electric industry and rate increases in 2007 reaped big gains for Dominion, and the company's shares have risen steadily since a drop in March.
Praise for Farrell's professional demeanor seems ubiquitous. “He always listens before he talks, which is a very interesting trait for a powerful person,” Hicks says.
“He's very straightforward, sincere, can be aggressive, and will make decisions based on the information before him very quickly,” concurs Henrico County Manager Virgil Hazelett, who ranked No. 1 on Style's 2009 Power List.
Hardy says she delayed her 2008 retirement from the company “because I loved working for him so much.” She goes on: “I basically would walk through fire for him. That's the kind of loyalty that he brings out in people.”
Will Farrell's friendship with McDonnell lead him to take a more active role during the new administration? “I wouldn't be surprised if McDonnell utilizes him as an adviser both formally and informally,” says political analyst Bob Holsworth, founder and president of Virginia Tomorrow, a political blog and consulting business.
Regardless of any advisory role Farrell takes, says J. Scott Leake, a longtime GOP strategist and former executive director of the Virginia Senate Republican Leadership Trust, “To be a Friend of Bob is certainly a good thing to be for the next four years.”