Bridging the Gap
Co-ops empower a younger generation of leaders
From left to right: Kooney Duncan, Choctaw Electric Cooperative; Jennifer Meason, Cotton Electric Cooperative; Patrick Grace, Oklahoma Electric Cooperative. Photos by James Pratt
Strong and capable leaders are vital to the prosperity of any industry. Since its inception more than 80 years ago, the electric cooperative industry has flourished as it has benefitted rural communities across the nation with electrification. Through decades, electric cooperatives have blossomed from electric utilities to invested community partners guided by co-op leaders who have come and gone. Today, the cooperative industry faces an unprecedented wave of retirements. In 2018 alone, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the trade association that represents the 900-plus electric cooperatives in the nation, projects 2,378 retirements for co-ops. As of 2017, 51 percent of co-op CEOs in the nation are eligible for retirement in the next five years. This trend is visible in Oklahoma as electric cooperatives continue to hire new talent and develop leaders to fill the shoes of a retiring workforce. In honor of National Cooperative Month, Oklahoma Living highlights three young CEOs who are leading electric cooperatives in the Sooner State. These three leaders—all 40 years of age and under—have different backgrounds and distinctive stories of how they became a CEO; however, they each share the same passion: to serve their co-op membership by seeking the best interest of every member at the end of the line. They are a part of the electric cooperative story, and theirs is a story worthy of being told.
From Engineer to CEO
“Show up early. Don’t avoid the hard stuff; embrace the challenges. Don’t put off for tomorrow what can be done today.” – Patrick Grace | Photo by James Pratt
Patrick Grace was born in Oklahoma City, but his family moved to Norman when he was 12. He graduated from Norman High School where he played basketball. During his childhood and teenage years, it became clear that Grace had a giftedness in science and math. This interest led him to pursue a degree in engineering. He attended one of the top engineering schools in the country, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, where he also continued to play basketball. His high school sweetheart and now wife, Kelley, stayed back home attending the University of Oklahoma while Grace pursued a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. During his senior year of college, Grace came to Norman to visit Kelley and saw a billboard with an advertisement for Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC). On a cold call, Grace reached out to OEC and sent his resume for consideration. Unbeknown to him, OEC’s engineer at the time was about to retire. In 2000, Grace was called for an interview and began full-time employment at OEC, one week after graduating from Rose-Hulman. Grace later completed dual masters’ from the University of Oklahoma: an MBA and a master’s of engineering.
“The goal for me was to get enough experience to eventually lead the engineering department,” Grace says.
It took nearly seven years and much preparation for him to achieve this goal but he succeeded and became the co-op’s director of engineering. At that time, Grace did not have plans to pursue a CEO position; however, his eyes were opened to the role in 2009 when he realized OEC’s then-CEO Max Meek would not stay at the co-op for many more years.
“Max was a fantastic leader. He was the best boss you could ever imagine. The idea of working for someone else was not super great, and I thought I had the potential to take his place,” Grace says.
Grace expressed his intentions to Meek who began developing Grace to become CEO.
“I had a good handle on the technical side of the business, but I needed to improve my management skills,” Grace says. “I made a conscious effort to equip myself for this position. I pursued professional development opportunities, tried to get more involved in the community and networking, and worked on public speaking skills.”
In 2013, Grace was named assistant manager. This was a positive transition for Grace, the co-op board of directors and employees.
In January 2016, at age 38, Grace took over as CEO of OEC, Oklahoma’s largest electric cooperative. He hit the ground running as co-op crews were working 16- to 18-hour days, restoring power in the aftermath of Ice Storm Goliath.
During his career thus far, Grace says the greatest lesson he has learned is to be himself.
“I had always thought I had to act a certain way and had to prove myself by being serious and professional,” Grace says. “It took me years to open up and be more vulnerable, to show to others I’m not perfect. I needed to show my personality. I needed people to follow me because they knew me and believed in me.”
Now, with a talented and trusted team of employees, Grace says he is constantly learning how to be a better co-op leader.
He is charging ahead by leading a co-op with more than 55,800 active meters. When looking into the future of electric cooperatives, Grace sees some challenges including the management of renewable energy sources, the restructuring of electrical rates, cybersecurity efforts, and a continued commitment to safety in the industry.
“The cooperative model is strong. We manage the industry for the best interest of our members. Technology will continue to advance and we need to be in a position to provide services to members who don’t have them—such as broadband services and an electric vehicle infrastructure. At the core, co-ops will always be the same, investing in a higher quality of life for the members,” he says.
From Part-time Help to CEO
“Find something you believe in and enjoy and give everything you have to it. Find your calling. Be dependable; your drive, determination and commitment will pay off.” – Jennifer Meason | Photo by James Pratt
Jennifer Meason was born and raised in Lawton, Oklahoma. She graduated from MacArthur High School where she played tennis and was active in band and flag corps. She received academic scholarships to attend college at Cameron University, where she earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree with an emphasis in marketing and a minor in public relations. During her senior year at Cameron, Meason learned about a part-time job at Cotton Electric Cooperative based in Walters, Oklahoma. The job entailed working on classifieds and display advertisements for the co-op’s monthly newspaper, The Current. Meason started working at the co-op part time in October 1999. As she approached graduation in May of 2000, she had already had a few job interviews, but Cotton Electric offered her a full-time position as marketing representative. She graduated on a Saturday and on Monday went to work for Cotton Electric. In 2001, Meason went back to school to pursue a Master of Arts degree in communications from the University of Oklahoma. She married her college sweetheart, Clint, in 2003.
Meason’s career at Cotton Electric has evolved through the years. From marketing representative she was promoted to marketing & member services coordinator, to manager of member services and eventually to executive assistant. In this role, Meason was charged with working on special projects with a co-op business focus. It was then that her eyes were opened to the general manager position at the co-op.
“When I started in the executive assistant position, I decided I wanted to manage a co-op. It became my goal,” Meason says. “Early on, I knew the cooperative family was where I wanted to be. I expressed this leadership interest to two CEOs I worked with—Mark Stubbs and Warren Langford.”
Meason began pursuing professional development opportunities to better equip herself for the CEO role. She was promoted to director of marketing and administration in 2005 and to vice president of marketing & chief operating officer for the cooperative’s subsidiary Cotton Electric Services, Inc., a high voltage test lab, in 2008. Her hard work paid off when in 2015 she was named “CEO in waiting”; she took the reins as co-op general manager in January of 2016 at 38 years of age.
The greatest lesson of her career has been to observe and learn from those around her.
“I tried to set a goal and really be a sponge, sit back and listen, learning from the experiences of those I met along the way,” Meason says. “I learned to look back at our history and apply it to life today. I tried to learn about all aspects of a co-op, ask a lot of questions and learn from my mentors. I believe my generation is a bridge between the past and the future, between those who have been in the co-op for decades and those who are entering.”
Meason believes the future of electric cooperatives will continue to evolve with technology. According to her, co-op leaders will continue to be challenged to make wise decisions with finite resources on behalf of the membership, balancing reliability improvements with affordability. Managing this time of transition is both a challenge and opportunity, as the cooperative works to attract and retain highly qualified individuals who are committed to the cooperative model.
“Our members are at the core of everything we do,” Meason says. “This service philosophy is what makes us different. We’re here to take care of our members with the best possible service, so rural Oklahoma can continue to grow and be a great place to prosper and raise families.”
From Power Plant Operator to CEO
“Do whatever job you currently have to the best of your ability and see what opportunities will open for you.” – Kooney Duncan | Photo by James Pratt
Kooney Duncan was born and raised in southeastern Oklahoma. He graduated from Fort Towson High School where he played baseball, making it to a state tournament in 1999. He attended Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Oklahoma, earning a degree in occupational safety and health. Upon graduating, Duncan learned of an open position at generation and transmission cooperative, Western Farmers Electric Cooperative’s (WFEC) coal-fired plant in Hugo, Oklahoma.
“Jobs at WFEC didn’t come up too often, and it was at home, so I decided to take on the opportunity,” Duncan says.
His career in the electric cooperative industry began at WFEC in 2004 at the lowest power plant operator position. When an opportunity became available to apply for a safety coordinator position at the Anadarko WFEC office, Duncan pursued it and was selected. He later got married to his wife Lendy in 2007.
From the safety coordinator position, he was promoted to become the commercial and industrial marketing manager for WFEC. He developed a knowledge and understanding of WFEC’s cooperative systems; his position entailed meeting on a regular basis with WFEC’s co-ops to assist them with billing, outage response coordination, management of large accounts, substation upgrades and rate questions. He also helped to identify recovery mechanisms and developed efficiency programs to benefit WFEC member-systems; he worked on forecast analysis and impact of wholesale rates on distribution co-ops. While growing in this position, Duncan was made aware of a CEO opening at Choctaw Electric Cooperative based in Hugo, Oklahoma. The prospect of returning home to southeast Oklahoma appealed to him. Duncan applied and became the co-op CEO in April of 2017 at 35 years of age.
“I began understanding the industry better and the operations of a distribution co-op in my former role with WFEC,” Duncan says. “I came to Choctaw Electric Cooperative because I want to be a positive influence. This is home, and I want to make a difference for the better. I’m here to use my knowledge and experience to bring the best service to our members.”
When asked about the greatest lesson in his career, Duncan points to the good leaders he has had in the past.
“My mentors have believed in me and allowed me to achieve great things and pursue my greatest goals. They showed me principles to stand by,” Duncan says. “I attribute any of my success to those I have worked with. I feel privileged that today I have the opportunity to try and be the same kind of leader to an excellent team.”
As a young manager rooted in rural Oklahoma, Duncan believes today’s generation of consumers have the tendency of forgetting why electric cooperatives were formed.
“We have more hurdles because of where we serve. At Choctaw Electric we serve on average 5.4 members per mile of line; that is very different than the 35 members per mile of line that other utilities serve,” Duncan says.
According to him, one of the industry’s greatest challenges is to balance change and regulations to continue delivering safe, reliable and affordable power to members. As Duncan looks to the future of electric cooperatives, he is certain the cooperative-member relationship must be nurtured and strengthened.
“Technology will continue to advance, further changing our industry,” Duncan says. “What should never change, however, is the co-op commitment to serving the membership and members’ appreciation for their electric cooperatives. This relationship is vital. That is why I value an open-door policy and welcome members to express their opinions or concerns any time.”
Duncan added that Choctaw Electric is an engine for economic empowerment in southeastern Oklahoma, serving facilities such Tyson, Huber Engineered Woods, Pan Pacific, Howard McLeod Correctional Center, and many recreational establishments as well as businesses and residences.
“Choctaw Electric’s services allow us to enjoy the beauty of southeastern Oklahoma and make it possible for folks to live and raise their families here,” Duncan says.