Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) board members voted unanimously Friday on their top choice to lead the organization into the future, choosing Brandie Ekren – the current executive director of strategic planning and development for the Lansing Board of Water & Light – to serve as the utility’s next executive director. TCLP will now enter negotiations to finalize a contract with Ekren, who described herself as an innovative and “transformational” leader with a passion for the industry and a desire to work collaboratively to meet TLCP’s fiber, smart grid, and renewable energy goals.
After former TCLP Executive Director Tim Arends announced his resignation last summer after 31 years working for the City of Traverse City, utility board members hired firm Preng & Associates to lead a nationwide search for Arends’ successor. Board Chair Paul Heiberger says the job listing was viewed by nearly 4,000 potential applicants, with “several hundred” applying. Preng & Associates screened and narrowed that field down to approximately a dozen finalists, with an ad hoc committee of TCLP board members then choosing four candidates to invite for interviews this week. Along with Ekren, invited finalists included ITC Holdings Director of Customer & Business Solutions Walter Dorr of Novi, Marquette Board of Light and Power Manager of Utility Planning and Projects Ben Collins, and past TCLP Executive Director Jeffery Feldt, who recently retired as general manager and CEO of Kaukauna Utilities in Wisconsin.
TCLP’s job description stated that the city-owned utility was looking for a candidate with ideally 15-plus years of “progressively responsible experience” in the utility/energy/municipal field, eight years of management experience, and a required bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience, with a master’s degree preferred. “Critical” qualities and capabilities sought in an ideal candidate included a collaborative leadership style, a commitment to being a regional leader in clean energy, business acumen, communication skills, and honesty and integrity. Board members also said they were looking for a leader who would be “actively involved in the community.”
After a series of interviews that included a one-hour interview with the entire TCLP board as well as individual one-on-one interviews with board members, officials unanimously named Ekren their top choice. Before serving the last three years in her current role at Lansing Board of Water & Light, Ekren served as an associate attorney and then general counsel for the utility over the previous 15 years. She has a juris doctorate degree from Michigan State University College of Law and was named “Boss of the Year” in 2010 by NALS of Lansing, a legal professional association. Ekren has also been the recipient of an Athena leadership award and has served on the board of directors for the Kiwanis Club of Lansing and for the human services nonprofit Highfields. She told TCLP board members she was both an “energy enthusiast” and an “environmental enthusiast” who believes in the “essential” and “evolving” future of municipal utilities, internal and external collaboration, and educating and engaging residents so they are empowered to make better energy choices.
“As you know, renewable energy is getting cheaper and the innovation behind it is growing,” she said. “The real hurdle probably is reliability and being able to ensure you’re going to sustain that renewability. The objective is to keep moving forward and assessing…not being satisfied with the status quo.” Beyond carbon-based goals and diversifying fuel sources, Ekren said it was important to look at practices that impact “human behavior,” using technology like smart thermometers and energy-tracking phone apps to engage customers in better energy management. “If you can be an active role and participate in (technology), you are in charge of your own destiny,” she said. “To me, that is going to move us forward. It’s being educated.”
During the interview process, board members touched on multiple TCLP initiatives underway to prepare for the future, including the introduction of smart meters, time-of-use rates, fiber Internet, smart grid preparations, electric vehicle charging stations, and a commitment to use 100 percent renewable energy community-wide by 2040. When asked about hesitancies or concerns she had about meeting the renewable energy pledge, Ekren said a “fear of failure” was the biggest obstacle that held utilities back from tackling aggressive goals.
“One of the things I’ve learned (about Traverse City) is you want to keep moving forward,” she said. “I’m willing to be on the journey with you there.” Ekren said that continuing to press forward on energy goals – to keep trying – even if utilities stumble or fall short was critical. Though moving from Lansing to Traverse City is a step down in terms of utility size, Ekren said smaller utilities have the advantage of “agility” and being able to react quickly to industry opportunities and trends, saying she believed in having a “utility and service that’s going to be different in the next few years than it is today.”
Multiple board members cited Ekren’s enthusiasm for the industry, her legal and executive experience, and her interest in HR issues and professional development opportunities in their selection of her as TCLP’s next leader. City Manager Marty Colburn said she was a “well-rounded” candidate who is “looking to the future,” while board member John Taylor said she was “constantly pursuing betterment of those around her and herself professionally.”
Traverse City Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe – who sits on the TCLP board – tells The Ticker Ekren was a “dynamic” candidate, calling her “forward-thinking, open to new ideas, and an innovator. She was the complete package.” Chair Heiberger agrees, commending utility staff and Preng & Associates for helping find Ekren and three other “high-caliber” finalists. “It was encouraging to have that level of interest and excitement in the position,” he says. “There was quick agreement around the room about Brandie being the top choice. She talked about listening to her staff, making sure she’s transparent, working well with the teams she has. She is in a great position to ask the right questions and learn what she needs to get rolling.”
To finalize the hire, the TCLP board ad hoc committee will meet on Monday to hammer out the terms of Ekren’s contract. The position had a listed salary range of $151,412 to $199,725. Heiberger says the committee will identify a proposed wage within that range, along with other terms, and forward the contract to Ekren for approval. Provided the parties come to an agreement, the entire TCLP board will vote to approve the final contract and Eckren’s start date at their February 8 meeting, according to TCLP Manager of Human Resources & Communications Kelli Schroeder. In the unusual event an agreement cannot be reached, TCLP board members selected finalist Jeffery Feldt as their second choice for the position.
Traverse City Light & Power – Special Meeting – Discussion of Candidates
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