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Three years ago, when the Denver-based natural gas pipeline company KN Energy Inc. bought one of its biggest rivals, Houston’s Kinder Morgan Inc., there was grumbling among the rank-and-file at KN. Leadership was changing. There was talk of consolidation. Layoffs seemed imminent. Stewart Bliss, KN’s then-interim chief executive, wanted to quell the anxiety. He needed a presentation with a delicate mix of tact and grace, toughness and compassion. He thought a PR exec might not get it right. But he knew someone who would: Martha Wyrsch, the company’s head lawyer. Bliss and Wyrsch hit the road. From Chicago to Houston and KN’s other offices in between, the two talked down tense auditoriums packed with employees. They soothed senior managers. They shot straight on tough topics: layoffs and organizational change, benefits and severance. After a few days, Bliss returned to Denver, relieved. “Martha was absolutely brilliant,” recalls Bliss. “At every turn, she delivered the truth about what was going on, but did it in a way that made everyone relax.” The skills that won Wyrsch praise during KN’s merger actually paved the way for her departure. Richard Blackburn, the general counsel at Charlotte, N.C.’s Duke Energy Corp., considered the upheaval a good opportunity to invite Wyrsch to Duke. “Through the years, I’d seen Martha operate at big industry gatherings, and I’d always been impressed by her personal style,” he says. “She’s warm, friendly and approachable on the one hand, and smart and tough as nails on the other.” Blackburn extended an offer, and Wyrsch accepted. For two years, she ran the legal department at Duke Energy Field Services Corp., a Denver-based joint venture created by Duke Energy and Phillips Petroleum Co. Then, in August of last year, she took on the job of general counsel for Duke’s energy transmission and distribution division. As recently as 1997, Duke Energy was a midsize regional electricity outfit. Since then, it has become a Fortune 100 energy behemoth, which means Wyrsch has her plate full. As one of Blackburn’s direct reports, the 44-year-old navigates the overlapping regulatory regimes imposed on Duke’s cross-continental pipeline system, oversees specialized litigations such as antitrust, and heads up Duke’s M&A portfolio. “She does a wonderful job of all of it,” says Blackburn, “and manages it in a way that appears to be effortless.” Sounds like the stuff she’ll need to be a big-time GC. According to one source close to Duke, Wyrsch is being groomed to succeed Blackburn. If that happens, her track record predicts a smooth transition.

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