The Utilities District of Western Indiana named a new CEO this week. Doug Childs will take over the electric cooperative near the end of November and will have the big job of re-building trust with ratepayers.
The co-op has been plagued by controversy this year. The board of directors fired CEO Brian Sparks in June amid allegations of money mismanagement and an active FBI investigation. See the timeline below for more details.
Childs is currently the Energy Management Administrator for the City of Hamilton, Ohio and has worked in public utilities for more than two decades.
In a conversation with Sara Wittmeyer, Childs says he thinks he can make a real difference.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Do you have any experience working with a rural electric cooperative?
I haven’t worked for a rural co-op. I have worked 20 years in the municipal utility sector. There we have a large electric utility in Hamilton. So I have a lot of electric utility experience, but not directly in a rural co-op.
How do you think it will be different working for a co-op where the ratepayers are members and part owners as compared to a public utility?
I plan to communicate a lot with them. Go out and talk to them, hear what they’re thinking. Hear what their concerns are, their needs are going forward. I’m kind of used to that a little bit from the municipal side. Our members also own the system, but they are different since they don’t vote. But I am very much accustomed to the one-on-one, direct contact model. I think that is a fantastic model and the way utilities ought to be run.
Given the number of issues plaguing the co-op why is this a position you would want?
I think that I can make a real difference moving things forward and frankly I like the challenge. UDWI has a great history. They’ve been in business over 80 years. When I interviewed with the board I felt great support and very much felt in unison with the direction they want to move the company going forward.
I’ve never been one to shy away from challenges and I’m sure that the UDWI team, the board, that cooperation going forward, we will be able to move the cooperative forward.
How do you envision your relationship with the board working moving forward?
It was a very thorough process when they screened the candidates but I’ve had the opportunity to talk to them on two different occasions. They made it very clear, which I greatly appreciated, that they’re very much going to be dealing with any issues of the past, and I’m being hired to move the utility forward. And that is very much their mantle that they are passing on to me and that is what I am going to concentrate on.
But what I want to do is be very, very honest and I want to over-communicate with the board, with members, with the media to let people know what is going on – good, bad and indifferent – and what challenges we’ve got and how we’re going to meet them in the future.
A chief complaint early on was ‘why are our rates so high?’ Have you had a chance to look at the rates or think about anything that might be done to lower it?
Anything I could say now I wouldn’t be comfortable with, but I can tell you how we’re going to go about looking at the rates, looking at what we do. There’s no magic bullet there, but you go line item by line item on expenditures. And the other thing I’d like to do is look at what some of the other REMCs in our area are doing. Are there things they are doing better than us, like bench-marking?
Obviously I’m already reviewing the organizational chart, and I’m already thinking about changes to some of our internal policies, but yeah if you’d give me a little time to get my head up on that I’d be happy to talk to you in more detail.
How are you going to communicate with ratepayers to earn their trust when there’s a lot you can’t tell them?
That’s a tough one and to be fair it’s going to have to be something we figure out as we go forward. The issues that have happened in the past which are absolutely factual – I am going to tell them, “Look, I’m hired to move the utility forward and I’m going to try to keep on that theme because frankly that is why I was hired.”
I don’t know the details of what went on or why it went on, I’m not being hired to do that. So I’m going to be, “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we’re going forward, here’s how we’re looking at improving our reliability. Here’s what we’re looking at our rates. Here’s what we’re going to do to help customers use less energy.” And try to keep to those points because in my opinion, that is how you build the credibility and the trust moving forward is try to keep the members’ best interest at heart.
I certainly look forward to getting out into the community, talking to folks. Meeting different civic groups, business groups, whoever wants to talk. I’m certainly not afraid to do it. I’m happy to meet the members, talk and hear their concerns.
You don’t build that credibility or trust overnight, but we are going to build it going forward by just telling people what we’re going to do and putting that into practice everyday.