[Editor’s note: This story will also appear in the spring issue of WAPA’s Customer Circuit]
Like any private business, WAPA exists to serve its customers. Administrator and CEO Mark A. Gabriel has made a special point of meeting customers since he joined WAPA in 2013. In fact, he says it is one of favorite parts of the job. “Powerful partnerships drive our customer service efforts,” Gabriel explained. “When we listen to customers’ needs and concerns, we learn how we can better serve them. As our industry is evolving so quickly, this is one of the most important things we can do.”
As it turns out, the customers like it, too. “Mark is the exception to the rule of the private sector pulling the best and the brightest away,” said Brad Lawrence, utilities director for the city of Madison, South Dakota. Lawrence first met Gabriel at the winter customer meeting for Heartland Consumer Power District. “He clearly understood the rank and file, and he wanted to hear from ground troops,” added Lawrence, who has a military background. “It’s fairly rare that people at the bottom get a chance to explain things to people at the top.”
Making that effort to get to know customers face to face is an important piece of relationship building that often gets overlooked in today’s business environment. “It shows respect and our customers respond to that,” explained Tracy Thorne, a public utilities specialist in WAPA’s Upper Great Plains Huron office. Thorne has helped to coordinate Gabriel’s attendance at several events in the region and frequently accompanies him.
Answering questions, honoring innovation
Many different kinds of events give Gabriel the opportunity to visit “the field.” It may be a member meeting being held by one of our generation and transmission customers like the one at Heartland, or the gathering of an industry group.
Last summer, Gabriel was a guest at the annual picnic of the Northwest Iowa Municipal Electric Cooperative Association where five WAPA customers were in attendance. Members were concerned about impending regulations before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Gabriel wanted to discuss the issues. More importantly, he listened. “He was sympathetic to our concerns,” said Eric Stoll, general manager of Milford Municipal Utilities in Iowa. “Gabriel didn’t dismiss us because we are a small customer. That really means a lot to us. We didn’t feel overlooked at all.”
Stoll recalled buzzing around town in a GEM electric vehicle with Gabriel. “At one point, we pulled up to a curb and someone thought we were the meter maid,” he laughed.
One trip to Nebraska in 2017 was specifically to honor South Sioux City for delivering impressive innovation along with affordable, reliable power. Gabriel presented the municipal utility with WAPA’s Administrator’s Award. “The vision our customers show never fails to impress me and that is especially true of smaller utilities like South Sioux City,” Gabriel said. “It is a pleasure to meet the people who are doing this work and to bring attention to their accomplishments.”
No occasion too big, small for visit
The spring has been an active time for meeting with customers. At the end of April, Gabriel traveled to Nebraska to speak at the Big 10 and Friends Utility Conference in Omaha. The meeting brings together facility and energy managers from Big 10 and other schools and utility professionals to discuss the business of campus utility production, distribution, metering and efficiency. Gabriel gave the keynote address titled “Radical thoughts: Providing value amid a changing energy landscape” to an audience of about 260 individuals.
Thorne noted that the presentation was very well received. “Afterward, I overheard attendees comment about how much they enjoyed Mark’s presentation—and they didn’t know I was from WAPA!” he added. “People had a lot of good questions for Mark and he had the answers. I think if it had been a smaller crowd, the discussion could have gone on for hours.”
While in Nebraska, Gabriel also attended meetings with several municipal utilities in Randolph and Fremont, and met with Nebraska Public Power District in Columbus. Jody Sundsted, senior vice president and UGP regional manager, joined Gabriel for those meetings. Utility staff and consumers in small towns are engaged with the same issues as their counterparts in more urban areas, Sundsted noted. “People had a lot of questions about the Southwest Power Pool, behind-the-meter generation, battery storage,” he said. “They really appreciate getting answers from the administrator himself.”
WAPA’s experience with the Southwest Power Pool was also a topic of interest at Missouri River Energy Services’ annual meeting in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, May 10. Gabriel’s presentation highlighted some of the challenges that WAPA and all utilities will be facing in the future, including societal changes, economic challenges and security challenges. He assured the group of continuing value and business excellence through WAPA’s focus on direction, people and performance.
“The members of MRES look forward to the update that WAPA provides each year at the MRES Annual Meeting,” said Joni Livingston, MRES director of member services and communications. “With 59 of the 61 MRES members having WAPA allocations, they are always anxious to hear about WAPA’s rates for the Pick-Sloan region, particularly since those rates have decreased in 2017 and 2018.”
Sundsted observed that Gabriel meeting with customers benefits WAPA, too. “Customers know our brand, but it helps them to put a face with the logo, to see that WAPA is people in the utility business just like them,” he said.