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A program lovely as a tree.

Every utility -- and every other kind of business--is confronted from time to time by the necessity of telling a consumer, "No." Every business must likewise enforce certain rules and regulations and sometimes those strictures hit at the heart of "Mom and apple pie" issues. Such situations call for us to maintain a particularly delicate balance in an era when we are working so hard to recognize and maintain the notion that the member really does own the cooperative.

Joan Gilbert's article this quarter is specifically about tree trimming and how Bob Alderson and his employees at Boone Electric Cooperative in Missouri have created a proactive program to help their members accept the inevitable chain saws. For those of you who like to read between the lines, however, there is much here about how to creatively and positively do business in today's environment! The principles used at Boone can be transferred to any number of situations we face, particularly those having to do with serving "new-era" members.

"Your guys are out here butchering my trees! I want them stopped!"

"I understand limbs can cause outages, but why do you cut such huge swaths under lines? They look awful."

"You can't cut on this tree; it's probably 100 years old. My great-grandfather planted it."

"No spraying here...no poison all over everything."

Familiar words to every co-op manager, operations supervisor and board member, almost as familiar as:

"My power is off! How long until it's back on?"

"Isn't there something you can do about the flickering lights? They keep my clocks and answering machine messed up."

Here are some thoughts from a co-op that invests a lot of thought and money in eliminating both kinds of dialogue:

"We're one of those whose members are unusually environmentally sensitive," says Robert Alderson, manager of Boone Electric Cooperative in Columbia, Missouri. He explains that the state university in Columbia and two other colleges put on Boone's 2200+ miles of line a remarkable number of three to ten acre plots cherished by professional people--educators and others--and by young couples. Their attitudes usually are quite different from those of traditional cooperative members.

"Sometimes it seems that everyone either wants nothing touched at all, or they expect the countryside to be maintained like a city park," says Al Sprouse, right-of-way coordinator. Boone crews have had more than their share of being looked on as saw-crazed tree assassins, and have, a few times, been ordered off property. Sprouse feels this can only get worse, because "...it's the younger people, mainly, who object to trimming and do it most strongly."

"We have to convince members that we understand their feelings about trees." Alderson says. "We remind them that we all love our own trees. Besides that, it costs a lot of money to take care of lines and rights-of-way: we don't want to cut anything we don't have to cut."

B. E. (Rusty) Gamet, Jr., manager of operations, developed a program which has eased things and may be useful to other co-ops that share these problems or see them on the horizon. Some of its principles may, in fact, be applied to member complaints of all kinds.

"After a lot of research," he says, "I came up with several things I thought would help." The key items are: development of well trained crews, led by better than average foremen and good communication with members on these issues.

WELL TRAINED CREWS

The first step in improving crew quality was hiring a foreman who not only was totally knowledgeable about the work that needed to be done, but could also deal tactfully with members and could inspire his men to do the same, while taking pride in their work.

Gamet points out, "We all know that line crews are notorious for being made up of entry level individuals, poorly trained and motivated. Contract crews may be recruited from the street or job services. Often their homes are elsewhere; they don't care a lot about the co-op or its members' feelings. Turnover is usually fast, so they need a lot of supervision."

Gamet chose Sprouse from 250 applicants, he says, because Sprouse had farmed and had previously worked for the co-op. His time on other jobs included doing work for Williams Pipeline similar to what Gamet wanted for Boone Electric.

Gamet actually created a new position and wrote a new job description for what he needed Sprouse to do. Their goal was to systematically contact members ahead of time for permission to cut, thus giving them a chance to ask questions and have their objections addressed. Also, by "selling" free bulldozing and spraying, they sought to help members see the benefits of preventive work which saves the co-op a lot of money and protects the beauty and integrity of the environment. It can also be of personal advantage to members, enhancing their property's value.

The right-of-way coordinator also has a great deal of leeway to develop his own means of accomplishing Boone's goals. Sprouse makes extensive use of scale maps to show crews exactly where to go and what to do. In his office hang huge maps showing every member's property, with phone numbers and any data especially relevant to that person. A cellular phone in his truck makes Sprouse always available to clarify things for his men or to receive bulletins from the main-office about members who need feather-smoothing visits.

Sprouse impresses the importance of their jobs on each line crew. One tactic: "I constantly remind them that we are first and last. Without us, the power can't get started to members; without us it can't continue to reach them dependably. For this purpose, the co-op, which is the members, entrusts us with a quarter of a million dollars worth of equipment."

One rule he's established: "We never say, |We've got to cut your trees.' We speak of the obligation we have to protect equipment that actually belongs to the members, and our obligation to assure members of quality service. We mention the rural electrification rules we have to follow."

Sprouse's tactic for "pet" trees that threaten lines?

"Usually after we go for a few times and trim just what has to be taken off for that season, members are willing to let the tree go. Something else that often works is to point out to them a spot on their property where another beautiful type of tree, a fast-growing one, would prosper. As that one flourishes and they get attached to it, they are more amenable to the fact that their original pet may cause power interruptions for neighbors as well as for themselves."

Sprouse also has taken a series of before and after pictures to show members that clearings which look terrible to them at first will soon be rebeautified by nature. For further public relations, the co-op makes wood chips available for mulch at no cost to members. Loads are put out at designated points where a number of people can share.

Gamet routinely gleans from professional magazines the how-to articles useful for Boone's type of operation, offering ideas he can use for improvement. He files these, photocopies them and distributes them to employees who work in this area. Sometimes something gives spectacular reinforcement to what he and Sprouse are telling linemen. One such article, reviewing work of a utility with 170 line crews, suggested practices Boone has followed for some time. "We feel this is very valuable," Gamet says, "in giving employees pride in what they are doing and making them respect our directions."

Employees are carefully trained in methods of trimming that will not damage trees. "We trim all year |round and I doubt if we lose one tree in a thousand," Gamet says. "We have many complaints about how some look at first, but seldom are accused of killing trees we're trying to save by directional trimming. We have a brochure for members that explains this and one which shows, applicable to their own use, general principles of trimming and pruning without hurting trees."

COMMUNICATION

While Gamet, Sprouse and other co-op employees use member complaints and questions about cutting as an opportunity for unruffled explanation, they systematically do some other things.

Once a year, the monthly newsletter's main story has to do with line maintenance. One such story in 1987 introduced Sprouse, described the work he would be doing, and explained how this would benefit all members by saving co-op money and improving service.

This gave an opportunity to mention again the area the cooperative has set as minimum clearance for lines and to explain directional tree trimming.

A story in December 1991 introduced the line crew. It pictured all of the five crews, which consisted of three employee crews and two contract crews. Boone's men wear uniforms provided by the co-op for instant identification by members, and the others are asked to wear their company colors. The newsletter tells members what to look for.

The December story described the crew's work, including the special dangers that winter can bring to linemen. It reminded readers that controlling vegetation minimizes these hazards and prolonged bad-weather outages as well. It also mentioned the spraying program, told when it would be done, and reassured members about its harmlessness to people, livestock and pets.

In March of 1990, the manager's column reviewed a recent ice storm that affected power to approximately 5000 of Boone's 19,000 members. A diagram showed member interconnections, and that trees on lines delayed restoration of service for clusters of families. Alderson ended with an appeal to members to have trees near lines trimmed or cut before another storm hit. He offered them the Service Department's prompt and free help.

In September of 1990 Alderson's column focused on the co-op's goal of providing high quality, dependable service. It also explained flickering lights and how tree limbs, among other things, contributed to this. "It is a constant battle to keep our overhead lines clear," he said, and he asked for member help in locating threatening trees.

Gamet makes sure seasonal stories include (along with several useful planting tips) reminders that trees should not be set directly under power lines and that Boone will, at no cost to members, clear fence rows under power lines. At the annual meeting this past summer, linemen demonstrated on-pole rescue practices, drama which brought home to members the dangers that high work entails.

Getting board and staff support for all this was no problem, because board members say their most frequent contacts from members are about trees, as are some of the most unpleasant complaints office employees must field. All welcomed orientation to what Gamet, Sprouse and the right-of-way crews are trying to do and gladly passed it on to the membership.

The employees are emersed in the philosophy that the co-op belongs to its members, and all go frequently to statewide and other seminars and to workshops that keep them abreast of developments beyond their own organization. Gamet and Alderson firmly agree on the value of continuing education for employees.

Success of the program may, perhaps, best be measured by a nightmare experience Gamet had last year.

One day a local television station called and asked for an interview on their hot topic at the time, chemical spraying. Gamet gratefully talked with them for more than half an hour, explaining that Boone's herbicide poses no threat to the environment and is used sparingly. The reporter's response seemed sympathetic, understanding and positive.

The night's newscast featured an interview with a co-op member who declared Boone was using agent orange. The man, who claimed to be a Viet Nam veteran, said he had been around it constantly and knew the odor well. He accused the co-op of endangering his family's health by spraying under a power line close to his vegetable garden, near where some of his animals grazed.

The camera shifted to a shot of Bonne's headquarters, then to Gamet's face. "Why do you spray?" the reporter asked. "Because it's more economical," Gamet said, and the camera left him. Not another word of the explanation he'd given in the interview was used!

In a panic Gamet phoned Alderson, and they agreed that their spraying program probably was destroyed. They went to work the next morning feeling apprehensive, expecting non-stop calls from alarmed members. It had never occurred to anyone that members should be informed of the lingering citrus smell that had been added to the odorless spray to indicate exactly where the herbicide had been applied. This avoids mistakenly hitting the same area twice.

No calls came! Gamet still is amazed.

"Maybe it was the appearance of the complainer--what most people still term |hippie'--or the extremeness of his charge. I like to think it's because our members are convinced that they can trust us."

Members are often surprised and interested to learn that a live tree touching power lines can, when the ground is wet, shock a person or animal who touches it. It can do even worse damage if contact is prolonged. In the past people have so often been told to use a wooden tool or chair to get someone off a live wire, and that they should think of wood in any form as a non-conductor. Learning the facts often changes their perspective on tree trimming.

Hearing that power can be lost through line contact with trees is another eye-opener to most members. "From all causes, we lose only 5% of the power we buy," Gamet says. "That's among the best records in the state, with losses of 9 or 10% common. We spend about $13,000,000 a year for wholesale power. Even 1% of that lost through contact would pay for a lot of trimming!"

Gamet's final summary: "We should be aggressive, but fair and informational in pursuing safe operating clearances between our power lines and consumers' trees. We have a duty to educate and inform our members and the public of the necessity to maintain our rights-of-way in a safe, effective and economical manner."

Joan Gilbert is a freelance writer who has published two novels, several short stories and non-fiction stories, as well as book reviews. She has written columns for Saddle and Bridle, a national magazine and Silver Eclectic, a publication of the state agency on aging. She earned her B.S. degree from Southwest Missouri State.
COPYRIGHT 1991 National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Boone Electric Cooperative's tree trimming program
Author:Gilbert, Joan
Publication:Management Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1991
Words:2392
Previous Article:Management memo: strategies in packaging a zero interest loan for REA's rural economic development financing program.
Next Article:Tough times for demand new strategies.
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