“Always remember that electricity is a people business”
Remembering the human side of the business helped keep every decision in perspective for Robert W. Leavitt Jr. (better known as “Chip”), who is retiring as CEO of Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation. This was brought home to him early in his career at the co-op.
In the summer of 1983, Hurricane Diana blew in with devastating damage to the entire BEMC system. Operations needed every pair of hands they could get out in the field, and they called Chip outside. He showed up to join the crew in summer construction garb — shorts and t-shirt — and soon learned why linemen always work in long pants regardless of the weather: snakes, bugs and scratches from the brush. With virtually the whole electric system down, he worked long hours learning how to restore power from veteran linemen like Bobby Gore, Don Hughes, Reno Coleman and William Lennon. Late in the day, a woman with several small children approached the crew to offer them some warm Cokes.
“Seeing that family and how willing they were to share what they had with us despite having no power or water for several days really brought home the human element to me,” Chip said. “To restore her power we needed a ladder that we didn’t have. My safety supervisor today would be horrified to know how we accomplished that repair, but we simply couldn’t walk away. We did what we had to do and made a human ladder to reach the connection on her house.”
Working alongside the line crews in that storm and 21 more major storms over his 32 years at BEMC, Chip Leavitt never forgot the impact of power outages on people, families and businesses.
“That’s the beauty and strength of the cooperative business model,” he said. “It provides fair representation to all geographic and economic groups with input from all. We have to answer to our members – that’s accountability.”
Leavitt grew up in northern Virginia, played college football at East Carolina University and came to southeastern North Carolina as financial officer for the Whiteville Board of Education. BEMC’s general manager David Batten soon recruited him to join the cooperative. Leavitt credits Batten and office manager Doris Redwine for helping him lay the foundation for his career at BEMC. Leavitt was named general manager in 2000, following Batten’s untimely death.
As CEO, Chip’s challenge was to balance the interests of the co-op’s board, members and employees. He always encouraged ideas from everyone and weighed the impacts on all areas. That ability to see the bigger picture served him and the co-op well.
BEMC is the state’s second largest co-op, serving over 86,000 locations in Brunswick and Columbus counties and parts of Bladen and Robeson counties.
During his tenure, BEMC technology changed dramatically, transitioning from member-read meters to BEMC meter readers to today’s AMI (automated meter infrastructure); from basic computerized billing to today’s variety of billing and payment systems, as well as automated outage reporting.
Always looking for better ways to serve the members, Leavitt oversaw the development of an innovative prepaid program that has served as a model for other co-ops.
Technical advances like these depend on a reliable communications system, so he made sure BEMC built a fiber communications network connecting all components of the system.
He took the underground conversion program started by David Batten to new heights by enlisting the help of U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre to orchestrate a rare meeting with the head of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). This resulted in BEMC receiving a total of $13 million in grants toward a $23 million cooperative effort with local towns to convert over 100 miles of overhead line to underground.
The successful project virtually eliminated the repeated damages from multiple hurricanes in the coastal areas so that the co-op was better able to deploy its resources. Chip also fully supported an aggressive right of way maintenance program throughout the system to enhance reliability.
Another part of Leavitt’s legacy is a host of community programs — Bright Ideas, community grants, college scholarships, $11 million in weatherization loans to members, and the Warm Homes, Warm Hearts community heating assistance program.
Other challenges included managing a growth spurt in the 1990s and integrating renewable energy into the power mix.
On state, regional and national levels, Leavitt served as president of the co-ops’ statewide power supply cooperative and strengthened relationships with national co-op groups.
Under his leadership, BEMC was one of the first distribution co-ops to earn a bond rating from Standard & Poor’s, opening up new sources of financing. By accelerating the return of capital credits to members, the return cycle was reduced to less than 20 years, with more than $21 million returned to the community.
Leavitt is leaving BEMC in solid shape. He sees great potential but a strong need to avoid the extremes of regulation and distributed generation. “Always remember the impact on the people,” he says. “Keep power both reliable and affordable.”