Public Power Leaders: Tom Heller

A Q&A with Tom Heller, president and chief executive officer of Missouri River Energy Services in South Dakota. Tom is retiring from MRES in June 2023 after spending 47 years working in public power – with 30 years at MRES and 17 years at Moorhead Public Service in Minnesota. He served on the APPA board of directors and currently serves on the Transmission Access Policy Study Group and Public Power CEO Climate Change and Generation Policy Task Force. 

How did you come to work in public power?

Public power kind of found me. As an engineering student at North Dakota State University, one of my instructors said the public utility across the river in Moorhead was looking for a student to help with some work. So I called, interviewed, and got the job. I worked part time for a year, then when I graduated, a full-time opening became available. It just worked out well for me.

I had other job offers in bigger communities, but I didn’t want to live in a big city. I grew up on a farm, so it just fit my lifestyle quite well. After several years, when I was only 31 years old, I had the opportunity to be general manager.

Over the years, it’s been such a privilege to work with the people in public power. From the local utility board to city council, they are truly public servants. Working with them made me want to stay in public power for the rest of my career. Moorhead is a member of MRES, so I still have a connection with them. When I retire, it’s the people I’m going to miss the most.

What key lessons has working in this sector taught you?

Two things.

First, the power of local control and local decision-making is so valuable. You get people who live in a community and care about the community, and who pay the power bills, who are elected or appointed to run and manage these local utilities. That’s one thing that I really appreciate and the reason why I wanted to stay in public power. One of the things we are focusing on with our members is the value of the local public power system. It provides such an economic benefit to the community: They’ve got very low rates, and most of them have fairly good transfers to their city general fund. We have to continually inform customers just what a gem they have.

Second, the big lesson I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t do it yourself. You’ve got to partner with others in public power cities. Joint action agencies can work together not only in building power plants and transmission lines, but also in leading legislative advocacy and training. MRES is one of the oldest multi-state joint action agencies in the country. All of the cities that were first members of MRES relied entirely on hydropower allocations. About 10 years before MRES formed, the federal government said that the hydropower supply would run out, and that the cities would need to buy power supply from another source or build generation of their own. So Moorhead and 60 other cities decided to join together and develop generating resources through MRES. It was truly joint action to make sure these smaller communities could have a reliable power supply.

Is there an accomplishment you are most proud of from your time in public power?

The number one thing is that I haven’t accomplished this alone. We have such low turnover on our staff – people stay and that’s because we engage them.

We have long-term power supply contracts with our members. We have extended the term of those agreements five times and we have never had a member try to leave or not sign an extension. That shows me that we’re doing something right. In our member satisfaction survey that we do every other year, we consistently get high ratings.

If we continually focus on “what do our members really need,” then we will continue to be successful. That’s why we’re in business. One of the programs that we started is distribution maintenance, in the form of providing lineworkers for several of our member communities. We started it back in 1997, and for well over 20 years it has provided municipal utilities who have a hard time keeping lineworkers the opportunity to contract with us to do the work for them.

What would you like future public power leaders to know?

You have to network. If you’ve got a problem you are working on, there’s probably someone else who has dealt with the same issue and addressed it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Be involved with APPA and come to the meetings. Going to conferences and talking to others is so valuable. There’s a group of us joint action agency managers in the upper Midwest that get together twice a year to talk about problems we are facing and how we can fix them.

I have been so pleased and so impressed with how much other managers who have worked with me over the years have been willing to share. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just have to have the phone numbers of people who you can call and ask to find out what they’ve done.

We’re all going to have some tough times and negotiations. You may have some issues with people internally or on city councils, but the best advice I have is to be easy on the people, but tough on the issues. Somebody who you may have an issue with today is probably going to be a valuable asset for you to work with in the future, so don’t burn bridges.

Lastly, have fun. Try to use humor when you can. It does work if you can find the balance between using it appropriately and not overusing it.