Telling the Public Power Story
Originally published June 25, 2014
Before becoming CEO of New Braunfels Utilities, Paula DiFonzo managed the accounting and IT departments. Photo courtesy of New Braunfels Utilities.
When Paula DiFonzo was growing up in New Braunfels, Texas, she thought about the excitement of moving to another part of the country and seeing a different side of the United States. After a few years of moving around, with her husband in the Navy, she realized New Braunfels was, in fact, the perfect place for her all along.
“When I was in high school, I thought it was boring,” she said. “Now I look back on it and remember going to country western dances and barbecues and know I had a pretty nice life then, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.”
An ambassador for the greatness of her hometown, DiFonzo is now using her passion to advocate for an aspect of the city that makes it so special: It’s a public power town. DiFonzo, CEO of New Braunfels Utilities, will now take that advocacy further as the 2014-2015 board chair of the American Public Power Association.
For DiFonzo, one of the key elements of public power—the strength of community and local control—is easy to see in a town like New Braunfels.
“We’re a great town with a strong sense of community,” DiFonzo said. “Really, we’re a big small town—65,000 people—but we have that closeness and community involvement that you see in smaller towns.”
Community involvement is seen as a source of pride, not a burden. The people of New Braunfels thrive on their ability to get involved in organizations that can improve the quality of life for everyone there. Such selflessness and volunteerism make DiFonzo proud. “I don’t know of a time when there’s been a need here and we’ve lacked people who want to help,” she said. “And it’s not just events that need volunteers or organizations. The times that I’ve been the most proud of how people see their own community
in New Braunfels is in how they came together to rebuild following three devastating floods.”
In 1998, 2002 and 2010 the city suffered from flooding on the Comal and Guadalupe Rivers. “These have been painful, costly and sad experiences,” DiFonzo said. “But each time, everyone has rallied to recover while NBU came together as a team to repair our systems and provide support to our employees devastated by the floods as well as the community members.”
Rising to the Top
When DiFonzo and her husband, Bob, returned to New Braunfels in 1981, he immediately took a job at NBU as an electric lineman. Later in the year, when an accounts payable clerk position opened up, she decided to join him at the utility.
“I realized quickly that if I said I wanted to try something and take on new challenges, they’d let me do it,” she said. “When opportunities and projects came up, I tried to make sure that I got to be part of them.”
On her way to the top, DiFonzo took over the accounting department, which allowed her to be involved in budgeting and the rollout of new accounting software. She moved to investment and finance, working on bond issuances, and later took over the IT department at the utility. All the while, DiFonzo went back to school to get a degree in accounting and raised two sons. In 1994, when then-CEO Bob Sohn announced his retirement, she decided to pitch her hat in the ring.
“We didn’t take on the decision lightly,” she said. “Becoming CEO meant that my husband would have to leave NBU. We talked about it and really thought it through, and he decided to support my promotion and support me while going for a new career path of his own.” Bob DiFonzo didn’t have to go far. He is now a director of district operations at Pedernales Electric Cooperative, which serves the area north of New Braunfels.
DiFonzo said she takes pride in the example she gets to set for her staff. “I always tell new employees that one determines their own destiny,” she said. “I think it encourages them because they realize that we are a small company where you can take many different paths to try new projects and grow.” She said one of her key roles has been nurturing the community’s volunteer spirit in the utility’s staff. “The young folks on our staff are enthusiastic to jump into anything, whether for their professional growth or for the community as a whole. I encourage them, and they excite me.”
One of the utility’s key community projects has been the growth of SAFEhaven, which started in the late 1980s as a program to teach children to recognize NBU trucks as a safe place to get help. DiFonzo didn’t let it stop there.
“We’ve extended it into our schools, built education programs on NBU and electric safety,” she said. “That then continued into our launch of our conservation education and volunteerism efforts, all taking on names like SAFEhaven in the Home and SAFEhaven in the Schools. We enable our residents to be more proactive in terms for protecting their personal information and participating in recycling by offering a community shred day a community shred day when large trucks are scheduled on location so people can shred all their confi dential documents, and Operation MedSafe, in which we work with the DEA to collect old drugs and pills so our customers have a proper means of disposal and can assist in the effort to reduce their presence in our wastewater and water systems.”
Ultimately it’s about more than project development, DiFonzo said. It’s about people development.
“I want to continue to lead my organization with enthusiasm and leave it better than it was before I got here,” she said. “My goal here is to provide as much opportunity to do the kind of things at NBU that will leave people with the right resources, enthusiasm and tools to take NBU and the community to the next level.”
A Year at the Helm
DiFonzo’s arrival as APPA board chair is perfectly timed with a transition at the association as Sue Kelly, previously APPA senior vice president of policy and general counsel, took over as president and CEO in April. DiFonzo sees a great opportunity to hit the ground running with the new perspective and qualities Kelly brings to the position.
“I’ve been really lucky to get to spend a lot of time with Sue these last few years, and her capabilities show just what said. “I’ve had some great opportunities to go with her to meet FERC commissioners and listen to her speak to groups. What amazes me is seeing her ability to convert complex matters into explanations that those of us who aren’t necessarily technical can understand. I am really looking forward to working with her during and beyond my time as chair.”
DiFonzo said she plans to use the relationship she’s built with Kelly and the rest of the APPA staff to help continue to expand the relationships the association has been able to develop within the industry and with legislative and regulatory bodies.
“APPA has elevated its game at the legislature and regulatory venues,” she added. “We will keep that up.”
DiFonzo is committed to working with members and staff to develop APPA’s goals and strategies.
This won’t be the first time DiFonzo has worked to advocate for public power. She was a major figure in the effort by Texas public power utilities to develop a deregulation bill for the state of Texas.
“It was important to preserve the characteristics of public power, including local control, focus on the customer and protect confidentiality of competitive information in the electric market for the municipal utilities,” she explained. The advocacy of Texas public power utilities paid off when the final bill was passed, including a number of provisions that helped protect the public power business model, she said.
“Successes like these happen when you have a strong story to tell,” she said. Her plan is to now leverage that same public power story for even more success at the national level.
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