10 questions for retiring CEO of Runestone Electric
Rick Banke, the CEO of the Runestone Electric Association for the past 29 years, is retiring.
As he wrapped up his last days on the job, the Echo Press asked him to reflect on his career and answer 10 questions.
1. What prompted you to pursue a career with an electric cooperative? Actually it was by accident. I needed a summer job to help support my education and I was fortunate enough to land that summer job at REA in 1974. That led to a full-time job in 1976 and the more I learned about electric cooperatives, the more I was impressed and decided this was a great industry to work in and develop my career. And I got to work in my hometown!
2. What was the biggest change REA went through while you were CEO? There have been many changes, but in the late 1990s everyone in the industry thought retail electricity deregulation was coming. Those were the Enron years. We thought it was a bad idea but had to prepare and began investing in non-utility businesses as a source of future revenue in case we lost customers. Those investments turned out good for REA but certainly resulted in a huge change to our business model.
3. What will you miss most about the job? The employees who have worked with me over these past 39 years and supported both myself and REA through all the good times but also the difficult times. I have been blessed to have so many great people working toward a common goal to provide reliable and affordable energy to our members. Also, the many friends I have made throughout the cooperative industry.
4. What is the biggest challenge REA faces in the future and how prepared is the cooperative to meet that challenge? First, the cooperative is in very good condition. REA is financially strong. Reliability is good and we have a group of employees ready for most any challenge. Actually, I think there are several big challenges facing REA. Government mandates related to climate change has the potential to be the most costly to our members. Let’s just say you can’t eliminate base-load coal generation overnight. This challenge is one mostly out of our control but very important.
Technology changes will be exciting but challenging. One example is our recent decision to replace all of our meters with state-of-the-art two-way communication. This will have a major impact on the operations and efficiency at REA.
Cyber security is a real potential threat to the industry and REA, along with all utilities will need to stay on top of that and I have confidence we will. Distributed generation and future employee attrition are also challenges I know the cooperative will face and be well prepared for.
5. What is the biggest misconception people have about electric cooperatives? That REA “is just another utility that I send a check to each month!” An electric cooperative is different, it is very special.
It exists to serve its members. The customer is the owner. Members can elect their neighbors to the board of directors. In fact, they can run for the board themselves. Members have a real say in their cooperative and that is a huge difference as compared to other utility business models.
6. What was the hardest part of your job over the years? Probably the hardest part of the job was trying to balance the need to make capital investments in our distribution facilities and maintain them at a high level of reliability while also trying to keep rates affordable. I have been fortunate to have a board of directors who understood that challenge, and employees who did as well.
7. What stands out as your biggest accomplishment in your 39 years with REA? Certainly in recent memory the building our new headquarters building stands out. This was a big project. However, bringing all the employees of REA under one roof was most gratifying and will serve the members of the co-op well for many years.
8. Looking back at your career, knowing what you know now, is there anything that you would do differently? Yes, I would have listened more often to the advice of my wife, Jan, reminding me there is more to life than work! It is important to keep things in balance and I probably could have done better at times.
9. What advice do you have for the new CEO, Kristin Dolan? This one is easy. Set your vision with your employees, then support them and treat them well. As a team, REA can meet most any challenge and likely make it an opportunity in the process.
10. What are your plans for retirement? The balance of this summer will be many household projects when we are not enjoying the lake or golfing. I plan to spend a lot of time hunting this fall and hopefully golfing somewhere it is warm for a portion of next winter.