After the light went on
General manager Tony Herrin retires this month after more than 30 years with Union Power Cooperative.By Michael E.C. Gery
When Tony Herrin in 2002 was interviewed by Union Power Cooperative's board of directors for the top managerial job, he told them, "It's very humbling to know where you come from, to realize that you've been given opportunities that you never thought possible." At the time he had worked 19 years for Union Power in increasingly responsible roles. The board appointed him to run the cooperative, knowing that his humility, his skill in working with others and his drive for continuous improvement would serve the co-op and its members well.
Born, raised and educated in Stanly County, Tony came to realize that his parents made sacrifices on his behalf so that he could have opportunities that they never had. After high school he went to Wingate College, then a two-year school in neighboring Union County. When he matriculated to Appalachian State University in Boone, he says, "the light went on," and he knew what he wanted to do. He married Carlene, his high school sweetheart and fellow ASU student, and earned his degree in business.
While working in manufacturing, traveling a lot on business, he yearned in 1983 for a life closer to his Union County home. The first of his two sons was still a toddler, but Tony was coaching a local youth baseball team. Waiting to take the field one day, he was talking with the other team's coach, Phil Wally, Union Power's general manager. It didn't take long for Phil Wally to ask young Tony Herrin to visit him at his office in Monroe. A few months later, in October 1983, Tony was hired as the co-op's first director of energy management.
For two years, he introduced Union's consumer-members to "load management," whereby the co-op installed a switch to control electricity use at peak load times, when the cost of electricity was highest. Learning the technology was brand new, but Herrin managed to enroll about half the members.
In 1985, Herrin was promoted to manager of member and public relations, which involved communications, marketing and member services at a time when computerized communication was just emerging. By the late 1980s, he became manager of the Monroe district, supervising the office and field operations for the co-op's services in Union and Mecklenburg counties. (The district office in Oakboro services Stanly, Cabarrus and Rowan counties.)
Located near Charlotte, the cooperative's membership was growing faster than anyone expected. Herrin then faced something else no one expected: Hurricane Hugo in September 1989. Reaching category 4 strength when making landfall at Charleston, Hugo aimed directly for Charlotte, with Union's service area on the city's east side, where the storm was strongest. Hugo knocked out every electric service in the co-op's system. "We had zero meters turning," Herrin remembers. His role was to support the engineering folks' dispatches and manage crews repairing the system. It took nearly four weeks.
"What you learn is to be patient," Herrin says. "You just have to take it one task at a time, one day at a time. You need to be patient physically and mentally."
He also learned the value of teamwork. Ever since, he has instilled in the co-op's staff an attitude of mutual respect and cooperation. "I have always believed in teamwork," says the baseball coach turned electric utility executive. "But talk is one thing, leading and demonstrating and communicating is the real thing."
Tony Herrin moved on to manage Union Power's large accounts, which had become increasingly important as the co-op grew. The work, he says, "turned from a game of checkers to a game of chess." It included planning and negotiating with city-owned utilities and Duke Power, who at times competed for accounts. It included responding to certain "deregulation" initiatives that prompted the co-op to expand its brand as a member-owned utility as well as its service into home electrical and HVAC services offered by a new co-op subsidiary, Union Services.
And now, the industry is evolving again, primarily because of new technology for everything from generating power to delivering and monitoring it. Under Herrin since 2002, Union Power has not only tripled its membership, but also has been known as a technological leader. With its area poised for another growth stage, it has to be. And Herrin believes the cooperative can handle it. "We have extremely bright, innovative and hardworking employees, eager and able to continue fulfilling the cooperative's mission."
"The beauty of a cooperative — and its strength — is that the size is not important," he says. "It's the service. We are not here to make a profit, but to serve the members and their communities."
Tony Herrin serves on the Session of his church, Benton Heights Presbyterian, and has volunteered with civic and educational organizations. Carlene, a former teacher and bank staffer, works for the Union County Board of Elections, but the two of them look forward to enjoying time together outdoors, golf, quiet times, and the families of their sons, Josh and Jacob, who are nearby.
Meanwhile he has been helping in the transition of Greg Andress, assistant general manager since 2013, succeeding him at the helm. Andress worked with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association for 10 years before coming to Union Power. "He knows cooperatives," Herrin says. "He will be good for Union Power and its members."