Daniel Hilton had his hands full.
The IT specialist at Sam Houston Electric Cooperative was one of the many employees working behind the scenes to help the Co-op pull off another engaging virtual annual meeting of the members. But Hilton also volunteered to perform the national anthem before the business portion of the meeting. Playing a pedal steel guitar, he created a soulful rendition of the anthem with a Southern twist.
“Music is something everyone speaks and feels, and whether you’re at an event or school function … when the anthem comes on, we all sing, come together and become united,” he said. “And I think that is one of the best things of being an American.”
Thus began the virtual annual meeting, the Co-op’s third in a row, as it continues to safely navigate the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While we always enjoy meeting with you in person, we felt at that time it was best to err on the side of caution and meet virtually again this year,” said Keith Stapleton, the Co-op’s chief communications officer and master of ceremonies for the meeting.
More than 100 members viewed the meeting during its live presentation June 14 via samhouston.net. Hundreds more were expected to log in and watch a recording of it at their convenience, Stapleton said.
The meeting included a video collage of some of the Co-op’s 165 employees. With safety as a top priority at Sam Houston EC, employees addressed how the Co-op’s safety culture ensures workers, some of whom face hazardous conditions daily, make it home every day.
“For me, working for a company that has a safety culture also means we have a culture of excellence,” said Communications Specialist Chad Simon.
Much like the in-person meetings, which annually attract upward of 1,000 members, the Co-op conducted important business, including a board election and reports by General Manager and CEO Doug Turk and other leaders.
The Co-op’s 11 directors represent five districts and all 63,000 Co-op members. They serve at-large, so all members could vote for the two seats up for election this year. Democratic Member Control is one of the Seven Cooperative Principles that guide all co-ops, and actively participating in setting policies and making decisions is one of the greatest rights members have.
Co-op members cast 9,546 votes and reelected Don Boyett and Michael Oldner Sr., who both represent District 1 and ran unopposed. Voting was conducted by mail, online and through the mySamHouston mobile app.
Even as temperatures approached 100 degrees, Turk addressed a topic still on the minds of members: the winter storm in February 2021 that nearly crippled the electric grid in Texas.
“We pulled out all the stops and used every available option to keep the lights on and protect Sam Houston members from unbearably high power costs resulting from Winter Storm Uri,” Turk said. He explained that since Sam Houston EC operates mostly within the grid managed by Midcontinent Independent System Operator and only partially within the Electric Reliability Council of Texas grid, the Co-op avoided the exorbitant costs incurred by many ERCOT customers.
In addition, Turk explained that Sam Houston EC benefits from buying its power from East Texas Electric Cooperative. ETEC borrowed funds to pay its high power generation fuel bills caused by the storm, allowing Sam Houston EC to repay its cost of the storm over five years. Still, he noted, the storm has caused a bump of about $6.72 per month to the Co-op’s residential members’ bills.
Shirley McCarty, a member from Colmesneil, marveled at the Co-op’s performance during the storm. “The electricity stayed on all that time,” she said. “I was just so proud of SHECO for that. I mean, gosh. We were very fortunate.”
Chief Financial Officer Joe Connor had good news to share: The Co-op will retire $1.6 million in capital credits this year.
Connor said the Co-op is experiencing relatively rapid growth, adding more than 3,500 members in 2021. To support that growth, the Co-op has invested more than $20 million in power lines, meters and transformers.
Turk explained that Sam Houston EC has not been immune from the rising cost of natural gas, which is used to generate about half of the Co-op’s electricity, and the supply chain problems that have disrupted global markets since 2021.
“The cost that we pay for everything from a bolt to a pole to a transformer to the PVC pipe that underground lines go inside—all of those items have gone up,” he said.
Turk credits employees with keeping the Co-op on solid footing—not only in its financial ledgers but in the opinions of members. He noted that for the second year in a row, Sam Houston EC earned an American Customer Satisfaction Index score above 92 out of 100—among the highest in the nation—based on member ratings.
“Our goal during the pandemic was not to simply get by,” Stapleton said. “Our focus was on providing excellent service and creating new and improved ways for you to interact with your cooperative.”
To that end, Stapleton noted there has been a significant increase in digital transactions via the mySamHouston portal at SamHouston.net, used by more than 40,000 members. The mySamHouston mobile app is used by 27,000 members.=
That unprecedented level of engagement allows the Co-op to nimbly pivot to a virtual annual meeting and keep members connected, even if they are missing out on the camaraderie and snacks, not to mention the keyboard music Walter Plant has provided for more than 30 years.
One treat continues, even online. The meeting concluded with prize drawings, and 25 lucky members learned they won gift cards ranging in value from $100 to $500 or the grand prizes of Co-op bill credits for $2,000 and $1,000. In all, members won $9,000 in prizes.
An amused and ever hopeful McCarty wasn’t one of them. It seems her luck doesn’t vary, whether attending the meeting virtually or in person.
“We have never won a prize, and we keep thinking surely this is our year,” she said. “And it hasn’t happened.”
Maybe next year.