SIX NEW INDIANA ELECTRIC COOPERATIVE CEOS SHARE THEIR REFLECTIONS
Electric cooperatives are known for stability — not just with rates but with their workforce. Longevity is something for which the cooperative workforce is known: Three-year employees are still considered “rookies and five-year employees finally get to lose the “new” before their title when introduced.
But in the last decade, as the Baby Boomer generation continues moving into retirement, the cooperative workforce is filled with a younger generation whose members are more fluid when it comes to loyalty to an employer, an industry, a career path or even a community to call home. That fluidity is now being seen right atop the pages of the Indiana Electric Cooperatives’ annual directory. Since early 2020, six new faces have appeared in the CEO/manager positions at Indiana cooperatives. These new leaders have emerged from the ranks of the cooperatives they have served, from neighboring cooperatives or from outside Indiana. And additional cooperative CEOs are approaching retirement.
As if assuming a new leadership position answerable to consumer-directors, employees and thousands of consumer-owners wasn’t enough, the six newest cooperative CEOS arrived amid the incredible turmoil and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indiana Electric Cooperatives visited with the six recently to find out how things were going, how they’ve weathered the new challenges and some of the issues they see coming for our changing industry.
THE NEWEST SIX
The cooperative CEOs/general managers interviewed for this reflection include:
- Jane Bahler-Hurt, Daviess-Martin County REMC, started in August 2020; came from Tri-County Electric Cooperative in Missouri
- Kurt Carver, Kosciusko REMC, started March 1, 2020; came from within the REMC
- Neil Draper, Jay County REMC, started Jan. 20, 2020; came from Heartland REMC where he was system engineer
- Dave Lewallen, Marshall County REMC, started Jan. 1, 2021; came from within the REMC
- Courtney Metzger, Bartholomew County REMC, started March 23, 2020; came from National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation and Henderson, Ken.-based Kenergy Corp before that
- Jon Rich, Jasper County REMC, started July 6, 2021; came from within the REMC
TAKING ON A NEW ROLE
Jon Rich is Indiana’s newest electric cooperative CEO. He’s been on the job since early July, but he’s been at Jasper County REMC for 16 years. The transition began before he officially assumed the role. His relatively easy transition into the role, he said, can be attributed to his co-workers.
“We have a really good team,” he said. “I think we worked well together for all the years. That’s why I wanted to put in for the position.”Jon Rich, Jasper County REMC
When Jane Bahler-Hurt assumed the leadership role at Daviess-Martin County REMC last year, she found you can come home again. Her career in the electric cooperative industry began in Indiana, then took her to Texas and Missouri. She said she couldn’t be happier with the full circle.
In coming home to Indiana, she found no big surprises. Cooperatives share a similar ethic among their employees. “I expected I would have a very good employee group,” she said. “This seems to be a unique benefit in the electric cooperative industry,” noted Bahler-Hurt. “Each organization has its challenges, but with good employees, most challenges are, in the end, resolved.”
Each organization has its challenges, but with good employees, most challenges are, in the end, resolved.Jane Bahler-Hurt, Daviess-Martin County REMC
While cooperatives share similar values, Neil Draper has found, while moving just across county lines from Heartland REMC to Jay County REMC, that the old saying that no two cooperatives are alike is true. “Going to Jay County was eye opening compared to Heartland. Not in a bad way or good way, just different.”
He noted one big change has been in the employees around him. Jay County’s workforce averages around 55 years old while Heartland’s was younger. He said he comes from an engineering background and, perhaps because he’s 20 years younger than many of the employees, “I’m looking at things from a different perspective. I asked questions that hadn’t been asked, and I make changes that haven’t been changed.”
He said there was some resistance, but overall he feels the staff is gaining trust and appreciates a fresh, new approach. “I sat back for a long time and just watched and saw where holes were. So, it wasn’t like I was just making changes to make changes. And they’ve bought into a lot of what I’ve brought to the table.”
I sat back for a long time and just watched and saw where holes were. So, it wasn’t like I was just making changes to make changes.”Neil Draper, Jay County REMC
Like Rich, two other new managers rose from the ranks of at their cooperative. Familiarity with some past co-workers isn’t always a good thing when assuming the role as the boss.
“Probably one of my bigger challenges is just relationships with employees now that I’m in a new role,” said Dave Lewallen who’s been in member services at Marshall County REMC for 17 years, starting not long after finishing college. “Obviously, if you’ve got issues with somebody, it’s a little difficult navigating at first trying to re-establish roles and relationships. I have taken a direct approach, just sit down and talk it out, person-to-person. It seems to so far have worked and worked well.”
But he noted transition among the cooperative employees has also smoothed some of the transition. “A lot of senior linemen and the older employees, the ones that I looked up to, have since retired.”
Kurt Carver said for him, the transition from a co-worker to supervisor began farther back with every change of positions over the years. “Every time you shift into a different supervisory position, it pulls you away from being part of the group you were used to. I either hired or had a part in hiring most of the newer employees we have today, and it is really rewarding to see how they have grown within our cooperative. The new generation of employees we have today is not afraid of change. The bring a lot of good ideas and energy to the table.”
For Courtney Metzger, coming in from outside the Indiana cooperative family, she not only had to learn the employees and the workings of Bartholomew County REMC, she had to do so during extraordinary circumstances. A lot of managers over the years have shared stories of “baptism by fire,” starting the day of an ice storm or tornado with large scale outages. But none can say they started the day restrictions to fight a worldwide pandemic began taking effect. But that was Metzger’s first day in March 2020.
We bult cross functional teams managing our COVID-19 risks and pulled everyone in so they didn’t feel like they were on an island. We put the task in front of us, focused and worked together as a team.Courtney Metzger, Bartholomew County REMC
The staff and the new CEO rotated in and out of the office, touched base remotely three times a week with all employees and focused on mitigating risks associated with COVID-19. Metzger said the cooperative came back sooner than many, coming back to full staff at the headquarters after Independence Day, 2020. “We built cross functional teams managing our COVID-19 risks and pulled everyone in,” she said, “so they didn’t feel like they were on an island. We put the task in front of us, focused and worked together as a team.”
CHALLENGES IMPOSED BY COVID
The pandemic of 2020 changed everything. The virus took lives and brought serious illness and brought all economic and social activity involving contact with others to a standstill. While cooperatives kept the electrons flowing to consumers, consumers were given moratoriums on paying for the electricity they used. Front offices and even drive-throughs, for the first time ever in some cases, locked their doors and shuttered the windows during business hours.
At Daviess-Martin County REMC, the front office was closed to membership at one point and in-office staff was at 50% while the other half worked from home. Outside visitors and live training were suspended.
“All-in-all, it wasn’t the major tragedy for our cooperative that it appeared to be for many others,” noted Bahler-Hurt. “My personal work schedule was never interrupted, nor were the schedules of most of my senior staff.”
She said the few employees who developed COVID fully recovered, though some lost family members and friends. “The loss to those employees was the most palpable hardship.”
She said it was a challenge, but not an “insurmountable” one. As for the future changes in office work schedules, she noted, “Most employees in my cooperative still feel that it is much more productive for all of us to work from the office.”
To make Kosciusko REMC run efficiently during COVID office closures, Carver said they bought a lot of equipment for employees. “We weren’t set up to work at home. I gave my IT guy basically an open checkbook saying ‘make it happen, whatever it takes.’”
It was still a challenge, but employees layered their schedules and leadership met regularly. “We have a staff of six, and they really work close together.”
Carver’s biggest eye-opener from COVID was with the annual meeting. Held as a “drive-thru” meeting because of necessity, it ran very smoothly. He said there are some streamlining tweaks to make, “but we just had a board meeting last night, and they said we want to do it again, same type.”
Lewallen has been hearing positive feedback from his consumers, too, after COVID forced a similar meeting at Marshall County REMC last year that was open for several hours for consumers to drive by. He said consumers have noted the open hours format was convenient and they didn’t have to spend hours at a meeting. “People liked ours, too, because they could leave work and swing by on their drive home and basically spend 15 minutes and be on their way. Before it was a several hour event. I think sometimes people feel awkward if they leave during the middle of it.”
Neil Draper said Jay County REMC had twice as many registered voters as they’ve ever had and sees the more convenient free-flowing type of meeting, borne out of COVID but obviously striking a chord, as the wave of the future. “People were stuck in a way that they thought ‘that’s how we’ve always done it.’”
CHANGING ELECTRIC UTILITY LANDSCAPE
Along with changing the course of the traditional annual meeting, COVID also brought to light significant issues in communities when it comes to broadband. Never before had schools, businesses and communities had to rely on high-speed internet for e-learning and virtual meetings as in-person classes and campuses shut down. “COVID really highlighted the deficiencies of our county,” Carver said. “That was a big driver.”
Kosciusko REMC had been looking into broadband before. But now it’s an imperative, and as the new CEO, it’s been occupying his time more than he would have thought. “It’s been huge. It’s been everything you can imagine and more. The amount of legal contracts and things you have to go through is hard to describe.”
It’s been huge. It’s been everything you can imagine and more.Kurt Carver, Kosciusko REMC
He said right now, as with so many other things in the economy, they’re having a hard time getting the supplies they need. They’re having to change out to taller poles to keep the fiber they’re installing a safe distance from the power lines, changing out 50 to 60 poles per week. “The pole count just exploded.”
While the supplier has the poles, he said, they don’t have the drivers. “So that’s putting us behind and making it a little bit of a challenge. But we’re hoping to do our first light up on the fiber in September.”
With fiber comes the opening of a whole new world of technological advancements and changes in the electric utility industry that the new managers see coming. The electronic devices in the field will allow more SCADA operations in restoring service and backing around physical outages in creating sophisticated self-healing systems.
The increased use of technology will also bring changes to the electric distribution structure — from the consumer’s end, they noted.
Draper pointed out the price of solar panels and components has come down so much. “The people that wanted it 10 years ago just couldn’t quite make the math work out. It’s close enough now where we’re starting to see that in our area, a lot more home solar.”
“As as a whole, decentralized power production has really changed and continues to change, our industry,” said Metzger. “Our business model has changed and continues to change. That’s all across the cooperative network. We were all formed at a certain time for a certain reason. And there are big enough changes in our industry that the future looks different.”
“Ongoing environmentalist pressures have put a strain on the industry to maintain reliability and cost control, while reinventing our sources of electricity,” said Bahler-Hurt.
She said membership continues to become more tech savvy and, as such, expects more and more sophistication and responsiveness from their electric cooperatives. “The electric distribution cooperatives, as with almost any industry, continues a constant evolution as the wants and needs of the membership changes.”
SUCCESSION PLANNING AND GENERATIONAL CHANGES
The six new electric cooperative leaders mostly all arrived in their positions due to the retirement of someone else. Over the next five to 10 years, a large chunk of the Indiana cooperative workforce is expected to change out.
“It’s a big problem for us,” said Draper. “Mark (Arnold), who I replaced, was there 44 years, and the same day he left, our marketing manager retired after 37 years.”
He added in the next couple of years, two more long-time office personnel will be retiring. “So, we’re going to lose 150 years of experience in four people within two years — which is a lot.”
Draper noted it’s the people in high level positions who are retiring. “I saw the writing on the wall …We’ve got two linemen who are probably getting to that age. So, we’ve already hired two new apprentices. But I can just see it getting worse.”
Metzger noted Bartholomew County REMC’s workforce is young — for an electric cooperative. The average age is around 40. But she said there was little in terms of professional development or succession planning in place. So, in her first year the team worked hard trying to understand what the employees want and where they want to take their careers, and to help them start stepping into new roles. “We are focused on roles that we know will be vacant in the next five years and creating a path through education, training and experience for individuals who are motivated to grow in their career.”
Lewallen noted he’s already realized in some cases it’s not finding a new person to bring in or promoting, but rather, filling a position by transitioning an existing employee from one side of the business to another. He noted in replacing himself in the member services position, they turned to a 40-something lineman.
Lewallen said though he was one of their better, senior linemen, he was getting to the point of nearing physical and emotional burnout with some of the aspects of being a lineman. He started feeling the physical stresses of the job on his body and was frustrated with the requirements of taking about being on call on weekends and holidays. He wanted to spend time and schedule activities with his family and be able to schedule things with them that being on-call interrupted.
We started talking as I knew I was going to be transitioning into this role. And we started doing some training, getting him involved in some member services stuff. He ended up taking our member services position. I think that probably saved his career at the cooperative.Dave Lewallen, Marshall County REMC
Sensing he may be about to lose a long-time employee still in his prime, Lewallen began talking to him. “We started talking as I knew I was going to be transitioning into this role. And we started doing some training, getting him involved in some of the member services stuff. He ended up taking our member services position. I think that probably saved his career at the cooperative. And I’ll tell you, it’s been the most seamless transition you could even hope for because he already had the skills that you need. It was just a matter of development a little bit. And he’s fit right into the role and has done a great job.”
As the generational shift continues, older cooperative employees are noticing a distinct shift in values among the younger workers. Metzger said for younger employees it’s important to have a work life balance. Part of that is recognizing the need for management to be flexible to the needs of employees. “The things we didn’t used to do before, the pandemic showed us that we can do them and be successful. So, those that have been on board understand the mission and really buy into it.” But, she added, building or maintaining a culture in a remote environment is a significant challenge.
Carver said he’s noticed the changing values among the younger generation. When he was in his 20s, “back in my era,” he said, when overtime was offered, most jumped at the extra pay. Today, he noted he just introduced the same package to his group. “I think I had two people that wanted to work overtime. So that has changed because they want to spend more time doing other things, family, whatever it is.”
“Something we’ve experienced along those same lines,” Metzger added, “is you have a younger workforce coming in a different generation, and they’re not the generation that’s there to work in the same position until they’re ready to retire. So, part of that professional development that we’ve been working on is how do you in your cooperative build room to grow for promotions, to engage someone who does not want to hold the same position.”
“It’s mind boggling to me just go back 17 years to when I started,” Lewallen said. “People didn’t leave the cooperative, you didn’t go to other cooperatives. There was none of that. And to me, it’s just to see now how quickly people are moving around and not only co-op to co-op, but going to a totally different industry.”
As the changes continue, the new group of leaders noted the need for IEC’s training programs in leadership and skills to help support that new breed of workers.
“Thinking out of the box” is a requirement for Indiana’s newest CEOs, and for all future co-op leaders, as the once stable electric cooperative industry continues undergoing vast changes brought on by rapidly developing new technologies, new social norms and attitudes of younger generations, and the oldest and greatest instigator of change known to humankind: the passing of time.