Powering Strong Communities

Public Power Leaders: Bill Johnson

Bill Johnson has worked at the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities for more than 40 years. He began his career at KCBPU in an entry-level position and worked his way up, including directing KCBPU’s Electric Operations & Technology division prior to being appointed general manager. Over his career, he has sponsored many large utility projects, including modernizing the BPU’s electric infrastructure, and he has played a key role in introducing some of the utility’s most advanced enterprise technology systems designed to improve utility operations. He is past president of Kansas Municipal Utilities, past president of the Kansas-Missouri chapter of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, and past board member of the Boys & Girls Club. He is a current board member for United Way of Greater Kansas City and a member of the American Public Power Association and the Rocky Mountain Electrical League. He received the distinguished Black Achievers Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Black Man of Distinction Award from the Friends of Yates. Johnson earned an MBA from Ottawa University in 2007.

Bill Johnson, Kansas City BPU
What skills from your background in operations and technology do you leverage in your role?

I still leverage my operational background and knowledge to assist me with understanding the operations side of our business, be it electric transmission and distribution or generation. In my previous role, I managed the largest operations division at our utility. When I was offered the opportunity to manage our technology division, I was assigned additional administrative responsibilities to support the business side of our utility. Together, both areas of our utility assisted me with refining many of the skills I needed to better function later and in my current role as general manager. 

How have you seen that public power has benefited the Kansas City community?

Our community has benefited in ways beyond how I answer this question. As a public power town, our community enjoys rates that are lower than our investor-owned neighbors. KCBPU also reinvests into our community by supporting many nonprofit and other civic functions. We are intimately involved with assisting our community to help land many economic development projects that improve our citizens’ quality of life. We also provide great jobs for our citizens and support to our city and county government.

What key lessons have you learned from working in this sector?

That many of the key decisions I make, along with those made by our board of directors, impact the lives of our customers. We should continue to try to understand and focus on the needs of our customers. Our city today is far more diverse in many ways, and we need to continue to embrace that and ensure we are sensitive to all our customers’ needs. Our customer base is also diverse, based on our rate classes. We have a near-equal split between residential, commercial, and industrial customers, and they all require services tailored to meet their needs.

Another thing I have learned is to not take anything for granted. Over the past four years, we have had to work our way through a pandemic, a downturn in the economy, supply chain issues, and inflationary issues that we have not seen for at least 40 years. 

Finally, it is important to remember that we will always need to address any regulatory or legislative concerns that arise. The utility industry as a whole will have to work through environmental and social concerns in determining our strategy to sustain affordable and reliable public power for years to come.

What challenges should public power’s future leaders be prepared to face? 

Future leaders should be prepared to deal with a world that will become less predictable. Everything we are confronted with today seems more complex, and changes happen more rapidly. Our customer base is quickly evolving, and their expectations of what their power company should provide are also changing. Customers of all types today want more options from their utility, and we need to pay attention to that. We continue to revisit our customer service programs to make sure we are addressing those customer needs.

We must also prepare for employees who will not necessarily work for one company as long as previous generations have. Our approach to recruiting has gotten harder, as the competition in our regional market now includes other businesses and industries seeking some of the same technical and professional talent that we recruit. 

Finally, we will need to closely monitor how future customers and stakeholders want to receive information about our utility. With social media and the additional communication platforms that will be part of the future, we cannot risk losing touch with those we want to reach.