The employees of Big Country Electric Cooperative proved their mettle in 2020. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent rate change and a decline in electricity sales, the co-op leaned on its dedicated staff and technology to ensure not just that members’ lights stayed on but that members continued to receive the kind of community-focused service they’d come to expect.
“We adapted, everyone pulled together, and it really drew us a lot closer,” said Mark McClain, BCEC general manager and CEO. “You go through hard times together, and everyone really does depend on each other.”
The lessons learned in 2020 were put to the test again in September as coronavirus caseloads surged just as BCEC was planning its first in-person annual meeting since 2019. And once again the co-op’s employees and technology came through, pulling together the first-ever virtual Big Country EC annual meeting, which went live September 28 and included pre-recorded messages from co-op leaders and the results of mail-in voting.
“We knew there were considerable concerns about increasing COVID cases, particularly in the Snyder area, which was where our meeting was scheduled to be held,” board President Steve Moore said. “Given that, we felt that omitting the in-person component of our meeting this year was the responsible and considerate thing to do. We’d much rather gather in person but felt it wise to act out of caution this year to protect our members, guests and employees.”
But while the meeting certainly looked and felt nothing like the atmosphere of camaraderie, community and fellowship among hundreds of friends, neighbors and family members that BCEC’s annual meeting usually delivers in April, the virtual version ensured the co-op’s members retained their voice in co-op governance and remained informed about the challenges and successes of the past year.
“They’re our members, but we do work for them,” said Cary McClintock, Stamford district manager for the cooperative. “We are run by these members, and they own this co-op, and we keep that in mind and try to do all we can to fulfill their needs.”
Democratic Member Control, one of the Seven Cooperative Principles, ensures members are represented in the co-op’s decision-making process, and 696 members exercised that privilege this year by submitting mail-in ballots for the three board members up for election. President Moore, District 5; Vice President Danny Helms, District 6; and Secretary-Treasurer David Beaver, District 7, were all reelected to additional three-year terms on the board.
In 2020, as the co-op was forced to alter its operations due to the pandemic, calls from members were routed to employees working from their homes, and crews in the field maintained their distance from one another to ensure they could safely continue their essential work, McClain said in his annual report.
“2020 was just such a unique year. We had to change so many things that we were used to,” he said. “One of the things that really was a great advantage was the technologies that we already had in place. Thankfully we had made plans for the future of what we might need, technologywise, had great IT people that stepped in and helped us be able to get Zoom up and running for all the employees.”
BCEC sold less electricity in 2020 compared to 2019—a decline of more than 10 million kilowatt-hours—but revenue increased about $1.1 million year over year, which McClain attributed to a rate change that went into effect in November 2019 and kept the co-op on solid financial footing.
“Whenever COVID hit, as far as having a decline in some kWh, we were still able to achieve our operating margins targets,” Latrice Baucom, vice president of finance and accounting, reported to members. “About 50% of our kWh sold is commercially driven, and so we have to make sure that we have that kind of hedge of protection to recover fixed costs, and so even though we did see a dip there, the success of the rate change showed us that it was working.”
Other successes for the co-op over the past many months included the ongoing work of a newly formed nine-employee safety analysis team, which works continually to assess safety across the co-op; plans to add a substation in the Camp Springs area to increase reliability; and other investments in reliability improvements for the future.
“We try to stay up on technology and looking at ways to advance that,” said Robert Gandy, vice president of engineering. “For 2021 my focus will be heavily on our mapping system, our GIS information, our automated metering infrastructure and looking for ways to leverage that technology to best serve our members and to improve service to our members.”
While COVID and the world brought many challenges and changes in 2020, the cooperative made sure some things did not change. BCEC didn’t waver in its support for the community it serves.
“We tried to do a lot of things that we normally do, like our Christmas cookouts,” said Sarah McLen, manager of key accounts and communications. “We host fundraisers annually for local nonprofits and even with our Operation Round Up charity program that we have, we tried the best that we could this year to keep on keeping on.”
Some annual meeting traditions continued, too, despite the meeting’s digital directive. Nine door prizes totaling $3,750 in energy credits—including a grand prize $1,000 credit—and several vendor-donated prizes were awarded to members who participated in the mail voting process. Because after all, it was the members who got the co-op off the ground decades ago and who make it all possible today.
“They started it all. It’s theirs,” said Linda Key, vice president of office services. “So that’s the difference. There’s not an investor that you have to think about. It’s a member-owned company, and that’s what makes it special.”
Some things never change.