When Gary Connett was 19, he applied for a position at the company that is now Great River Energy. “Human Resources still has my application,” he says. “On it, I said that I wanted a job where I felt like I was making a difference. That’s still true.”
He started in the engineering department, but as he continued his work at the company, he wanted something more and moved from his technical position to demand-side management. Today, he is director of demand-side management and member services.
“My job is to encourage our member users to use energy more wisely. This is strategic for Great River Energy. We can continue to invest in building more lines and plants, or our members can use energy more wisely.” He points out that members’ wise energy use isn’t just good for his company. “If our members are more efficient, they benefit. They will have lower bills, and their choices will be better for the environment. Energy efficiency also is good for the local economy. Business users find that energy savings go straight to their bottom line.” He points out that his company’s new headquarters were a way for Great River Energy to “walk the talk.” “We were able to show that we can build an efficient building without compromising comfort.”
Initially, it wasn’t profitable for utilities to deliver electricity to rural areas. As a result, rural communities worked to obtain low-interest government loans that allowed them to get electricity from nearby towns. “I’ve gone to annual meetings that have been attended by some of the farmers who first got electricity due to that cooperative effort,” Connett says. “They’re in their 80s and 90s now. It’s fascinating to hear their stories.” As people used more and more electricity, they outgrew the nearby towns’ power plants and had to come together to create a bigger organization. Great River Energy is the result, serving 65 percent of Minnesota’s geographical area.
Connett decided to pursue an M.B.A. at St. Thomas, because he wanted to learn more about business. “A number of my colleagues had gone, and it had a good reputation,” he said. He found the experience rich, as he was exposed to people outside of his industry. But what he values the most are the tools it gave him for his career. As a hobbyist woodworker, he notes, “I have a variety of tools that allow me to tackle any situation. St. Thomas is similar. They gave me a broad variety of tools for any situation I encounter – finance, statistics, ethics, strategy, marketing. St. Thomas has given me some confidence that I didn’t have before.”
Connett also says that his business education has made him more comfortable with change. “Utilities are traditionally considered to be slow,” he says. “That’s not true here. We have to be quick to see changes.” He compares the changes that have taken place in the telephone industry to what is coming for power utilities. “Our employees have to be quick to change and have a passion for learning.” One change that his industry is facing is “Smart Grid” – the application of new technologies to the existing electricity grid, which allows consumers to save money as they use electricity at off-peak times. In order to stay on top of changes like this, Connett spends lots of time reading about his industry. “I have tubs of books about energy,” he says.
Although many people would say that Connett is making a difference in the world through his work, he doesn’t believe that he has attained the goal he set when he was 19. “I would like to be involved in a larger way with energy efficiency,” he says. “There’s so much I could do at a higher level. There’s more to be done. It goes back to this: I want to use the tools I have to the utmost.”
About Great River EnergyGreat River Energy is a cooperative, providing electricity to its 28 distributive member cooperatives, who in turn distribute the energy to their member consumers – households and businesses through much of Minnesota outside the immediate Twin Cities metro area. “We’re here to serve members,” Connett says. “We have a great culture. We’re a fairly flat organization, and we really want employee engagement.” As a demonstration of the company’s commitment to environmental stewardship – part of its “triple bottom line” along with affordable rates and reliable energy – Great River Energy opened a Platinum LEED certified headquarters building in Maple Grove, Minn., in 2008.
Read more from B. Magazine