Winter 2021 – Roadmap For Change
Acknowledge, Act and Lead
Roanoke Electric Cooperative CEO Curtis Wynn on responding to a rapidly changing industry
By Curtis Wynn
When Curtis Wynn assumed his role as president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)’s Board of Directors, he set out to focus on how co-ops should navigate a rapidly changing industry. But, as Americans reckoned with racial inequality in 2020, that platform took on new meaning, and Wynn used his influence to lift up the value and business imperative of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Under his tenure, NRECA established a Diversity Champion Award, and took steps to create a DEI framework that co-ops can customize to establish their own DEI programs.
As Wynn comes to the end of his two-year term as board president, he sat down with NCBA CLUSA president and CEO Doug O’Brien for a virtual interview. Transcribed below, their conversation spans Wynn’s 40-year cooperative career. They discuss how co-ops can address urgent priorities around inequality, systemic racism and climate change; reflect on how electric cooperatives are responding to competition and new technology with creativity and innovation; and discuss opportunities for impact within the Biden Administration. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Doug O’Brien: We’re going to touch on a number of topics today important to co-ops and the broader community, but I wanted to start today with a little bit about your cooperative journey. How did you find co-ops?
Curtis Wynn: First, Doug, thanks for having me. It’s always a pleasure to sit down and have a good conversation with you—something you and I have enjoyed doing for the last several years. Happy to be with you. It’s been a pretty long journey! I started in cooperative business way back in 1981, as a senior in high school, down where I was born and raised in the panhandle of Florida. Specifically at the West Florida Electric Cooperative, which is where I cut my teeth. As a senior in high school, I got the opportunity to work as a truck washer and a warehouse assistant, cleaning the warehouse. I finished high school and I went in and spoke with the CEO, Mr. Charles Thibos at the time, and let him know I was ready for the next opening in the right of-way department, if he would consider me to start my journey to become a line technician. He pushed back a little bit saying, “Look, I’ve got another option for you. We’re about to start a 24-hour dispatch operation. Well, actually a 3-11 p.m. dispatch operation. I’ll let you have that job if you make me a promise [that] you’ll go to [college].” I quickly took him up on that offer and worked full-time as a 3-11 p.m. nighttime dispatcher, went to school for four years, and got a four-year degree at Troy University.
After that, there were openings in the professional realms—systems analyst, member services, economic development. I went through two or three different promotions at West Florida Electric Cooperative. In 1997, the opening came up at Roanoke Electric Cooperative, so I raised my hand with the search firm, and was successful to become their CEO, and that’s where I’ve been. As CEO, we get opportunities to serve on Boards [of Directors], specifically our [North Carolina] statewide Board and our Generation and Transmission Board. There was enough confidence in me from my fellow Board members at the statewide association to elect me to become the representative for North Carolina on the NRECA Board. The Board members at NRECA were confident enough in me to elect me as an officer a few years ago. I started out as Secretary, then Treasurer for two-year terms, and the last two years I’ve served as NRECA’s Board President. So, that’s been my journey–from 1981 to present! It’s been a great career.
O’Brien: That’s really a great story! And it makes me think of the cooperative principle around education and training. You were fortunate to be at cooperatives that took that principle seriously, in terms of providing staff tools and continued education. And also as part of the co-op community, you took them up on that! That’s a really important piece of your work over time.
I’d like to take a couple minutes to talk about your term as the NRECA Board President. You’ve been there for almost two years. It’s been a very active two years—both internal to your work on the Board and there’s been a lot going on external to the Board. Can you take a moment to talk about the things you’re proud that you’ve accomplished and that NRECA has accomplished in that time?
Wynn: It’s been a good two years. It’s had its challenges, of course. As president, I really set up a platform that would encourage all of us as leaders in the electric cooperative space to really just do three things: to acknowledge, act upon and lead through this whole change that’s rapidly happening in the industry. You know, in the first year, in the generic sense, that really related to the technological advances and the disruptive forces that are coming in the industry. The advantage that we have as cooperatives is a network of partners in place who are ready and able to turn what could be threats into major opportunities. That’s the foundation for my platform.
Secondly, with the onslaught of social disruption that happened in conjunction with the pandemic we are still experiencing, midway through the term, it put this idea of change into action, and amplifying the need for cooperatives to look at the change that is happening in society today. So, we started really focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion by setting up a campaign around that. As the leader of the Board, I felt it was incumbent upon me to lead that charge and start that conversation. Hopefully, doing that will lead to some sort of permanent mark that we can make on the association that is actually coming into fruition by way of a member resolution. It’s really encouraging the trade association to become intentional about establishing and promoting a case study, if you will, that can speak to the value and business imperative around these concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion.
We also wanted to follow that up by establishing some type of framework—to have that definition and case study is important, but the next question, I imagine, for co-ops is going to be “What do we do with this?” The next part of this work is to establish a framework that interested cooperatives can use to put their own, customized DEI program in place at their respective system, so they can really start to implement these concepts. We’re seeing really clear signs of early engagement. When the conversation got started, NRECA was contacted by the National G&T Association, and they suggested [establishing] a Diversity Champion Award, which will debut at the 2022 PowerXchange meeting.1 I think, as leaders, success should be measured by how well we are able to put our ideas and vision into motion, and how much traction we think we will gain in order to continue well beyond our tenure. What I’m seeing so far is very encouraging that that will happen.
O’Brien: I appreciate both those things you mentioned. Different cooperative associations and CEOs that I’ve talked to in recent years on this acceleration of change, the environment around generation and distribution is changing and only changing more quickly. I appreciate you pointing out that co-ops have an advantage because of the relationship between different stakeholders—the members—but then in the electric co-op world, that ecosystem of providers that are also co-ops. I think we have to lean into that advantage as a cooperative community.
NCBA CLUSA, as the apex association of cooperatives in the U.S., has been working on DEI these last three years and this year, we’re really focused on co-op identity. The International Cooperative Alliance has chosen “deepening the cooperative identity” as its theme for the 125th World Cooperative Congress this December. We’re using the opportunity to really put forward how diversity, equity and inclusion is part of the co-op identity, principles and shared values, and looking for ways to make sure people understand that and express that. I also want to talk to you a bit about the future of co-ops not only in this fast-changing world, but also in the economy and society. What do you see as co-ops’ changing role? What role do we have to play in this economy with all the challenges we face around inequality, systemic racism and climate change?
Wynn: Doug, that takes me back to something I remember my predecessor as president at NRECA, Phil Carson, using. I can specifically remember a graph he used in a presentation that showed that we, as cooperatives, still remain one of the most trusted entities in our communities. Maybe the characteristics embedded in our co-op principles are really missing in our global community today. This means we have an even greater opportunity as co-ops to make very positive impacts in our communities. And not only our communities—our economies and our societies at large. If you go to any town or any community where there is an electric cooperative or other cooperative that NCBA CLUSA represents, you see those co-ops being looked upon as trusted entities. A little closer to home, at my co-op of Roanoke Electric Cooperative, we see our role as one in which we are responding to the call to serve. It’s actually a tagline that is on our strategy map—responding to the call to serve. So, I don’t think our role changes at all; however, the importance of us remaining true to our principles, and serving in our role as a community catalyst has today become even more impactful and badly needed than at any other time, I believe, in our history.
O’Brien: Curtis, I have to agree with you. As people, whether they are community leaders, policymakers or other folks, are looking for strategies and tactics to deal with the divisions, societal and economic challenges, co-ops are a proven model. It’s in their genetic makeup to empower people in the center of their business and reflect the values of their community. And of course, that’s the work you do and the work we do here at NCBA CLUSA, trying to make sure people understand that and making sure that the policy ecosystem is there to support people in that work. Talk just a moment about one of your areas of expertise—you have a lot of them—and that’s around energy. It has to have been about 10 or 12 years ago now that we first met when you were an early champion of what became the Rural Energy Savings Program (RESP)—zero interest loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to electric coops to provide energy efficiency improvements on homes and renewable energy projects. This program has really gained traction largely due to your leadership. I’ve always thought of it as one of the most effective and direct ways to impact households—particularly lower income households—in rural areas. When done right, it increases the household’s discretionary income, and that means better food, being able to pay medical bills and more. What would you like to see as expanded opportunities under RESP or in similar programs?
Wynn: What RESP and the concept around the broader term of inclusive financing—whether it is tariff-based or not—does is create tremendous opportunities. As we continue to look at how cooperatives can be more inclusive around the type of benefits they provide to their member-owners, there’s also this opportunity to expand our market share. We see disruptors everyday vying for a seat at our members’ tables. They want to become that wedge between us and our member-owners. So, to me, gaining speed to market and increasing our member engagement—these things become more and more critical every day when people try to take our place in this space.
Having a financing model that can include everyone and get you to the market quicker and have some level of engagement with our member-owners just makes a lot of sense. Upfront investments in energy efficiency and a performance contract with our member-owners that guarantees a payback for the investment along with a positive return on investment easily opens up the model for other things. Demand response and other beneficial electrification investments are wide open when we have this model that we’ve created around energy efficiency. These programs in terms of demand response—the ROI in these and similar programs— are greater. If this model can work elsewhere as we’ve seen it can for energy efficiency—think about electric vehicle charging stations, thermostats and other devices that can work behind the meter—the true value in all of this, is that these investments give us more visualization to a greater degree and level of control with these devices so we can work collaboratively with our member-owners to better run our electrical system. And we can work with our member-owners in a way that can reduce their costs and our cost of operations. It just makes sense and that is the way cooperatives should operate.
O’Brien: I love that. When I got to visit you and your staff in Roanoke two years ago, you were showing us what you were doing. This idea of seeing opportunities—and again, leaning in on that cooperative identity—and the fact that you have a member relationship and increasing engagement with them can accelerate the adoption of these programs. At the same time, you’re meeting your mission as a co-op, which is always serving your members. It’s such a great virtuous cycle. In many ways, it is the co-op managing information in a way that is bringing benefits to the members so that the commodity you’re dealing with on behalf of the members isn’t just watts and volts, its zeroes and ones. It’s taking that and making sure you’re doing the very best thing for them. That has application across a lot of different co-op sectors, too, and that’s something we need to focus on.
So, we’ve got a new Administration and, of course, a new Congress. We’re starting to see some new policy outlines from the policymakers that are there—certainly one of those things is around climate change, including some new and maybe more aggressive actions. What role do electric cooperatives have to play here? Obviously this is a long-term conversation, but what does this next phase look like?
Wynn: I see some consistencies between what I know about President Biden’s plan around addressing climate change and what many of us are already doing as cooperatives. I see a window of opportunity for cooperatives to become a voice—a loud voice and a catalyst—for the type of changes that the new Administration wants to make. Hopefully, we can be proactive and position ourselves as enablers of his climate initiatives in a way that is beneficial to cooperatives, creating win-win situations for the environment and for our operations as utilities.
O’Brien: I think that makes a lot of sense. I’ve had a lot of conversations with [Biden Administration] folks in the last weeks and months about how critically important it is to have those stakeholders who have the assets and the ability to move the needle on some of this stuff at the table. I think it is incumbent upon us as a cooperative community to show up with some solutions, and hopefully they want to hear us. We know that policymakers are inclined to listen to cooperatives—maybe they don’t agree all the time, but they are inclined to listen because they know we are truly grassroots, community-based organizations and businesses. So, we have a lot to look forward to there.
Thanks so much for your time today, and even more so for your service to the cooperative community through your leadership on the NRECA Board of Directors and down at Roanoke Electric Cooperative. I know there is a lot more good work to do, and we look forward to working with you as we move forward. Thanks so much, Curtis.
Wynn: The pleasure is mine, Doug. I do look forward to more of these conversations and getting more exciting work done. There’s a lot of it to be done!
Curtis Wynn is president and CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative. He has served on NRECA’s Board of Directors since 2007, where he is wrapping up his last year as board president. Roanoke Electric Cooperative distributes power to 14,500 member accounts in Northeastern North Carolina. Under Wynn’s 22 years of leadership, the cooperative has advanced operationally and technologically to increase its system’s efficiency and resilience while improving service to its memberowners. In 2000, the cooperative established a nonprofit 501(c)(3) subsidiary, The Roanoke Center, which has worked extensively to support economic development and wealth creation throughout REC’s service region. Because of its demonstrated focus on providing a high level of service and member engagement, Roanoke has twice been named the recipient of NRECA’s prestigious Community Service Network Award and the J.C. Brown Leadership Award.