The cooperative way

By Susan E. Flythe

Susan-FlytheAs a cooperative, we believe in the benefits of a community working together. We know we're stronger and can accomplish more when we're united — that's what makes cooperatives and our country great. When we cooperate with each other — pool our resources and focus on a goal — we can do anything.

Consider that a year ago this month, our Hatteras Island community was devastated and isolated, physically and economically, by Hurricane Irene. It seemed at times that whatever could go wrong, did. At the same time, so many good things happened that demonstrated the resilience and community spirit that is second nature to the people of Hatteras Island. Those who were not personally affected by the hurricane, as well as those who were, immediately went to help others. Business people came together to help others navigate paperwork and bureaucracy so they could get back to business. A really, really free market was set up to provide people with basic necessities. Two high school students brought Christmas decorations to families who thought Christmas was not possible last year. And at every step along our way to restoring electric power to members, they were patient, supportive and encouraging.

It is not as if we did not have help. We benefitted from the cooperative way of doing business.

The cooperative way follows seven principles:

  1. Open and Voluntary Membership. The cooperative is open to anyone in its service area who chooses to join.
  2. Democratic Member Control. You elect a board of directors to manage the cooperative, and you have a voice.
  3. Members' Economic Participation. We are not-for-profit, operate at cost, and return any margins to members according to their participation.
  4. Autonomy and Independence. We are an independent, self-help organization.
  5. Education and Training. Communicating with members and the public is a major priority, as is training employees to be the best they can be.
  6. Cooperation Among Cooperatives. Co-ops work in harmony, helping one another succeed.
  7. Concern for Community. We are committed to sustaining progress in our communities.

Hurricane Irene certainly provided a plethora of examples of these principles at work.

  • North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation, our wholesale power cooperative, immediately went to work to provide emergency generation to the island.
  • The North Carolina Association of Electric Cooperatives storm center in Raleigh worked around the clock to communicate and coordinate our needs with North Carolina emergency management and others.
  • The Tarheel Electric Membership Association, our materials supply cooperative in Raleigh, sent the materials we needed, along with a small army of cooperative lineman, trucks and equipment from Brunswick Electric Membership Corporation, the cooperative headquartered in Shallotte, N.C.

The arrival of the Brunswick crews literally tripled our operations work force. Those men left their families and homes for more than a week, giving up their Labor Day holiday so that they could be here when the temporary restoration of the transmission line was complete. They did this because that is the cooperative way.

There are many challenges ahead for Cape Hatteras Electric and the electric utility industry. We are seeing rising costs as we work to comply with new regulations meant to address environmental, financial and reliability concerns. Utilities face the cost of replacing aging infrastructure and modernizing the grid. The continued lack of a national energy policy creates uncertainty in an industry that must plan decades in advance. All of this comes at a cost, a cost that trickles down to you and me.

As cooperatives, we will meet these challenges together to serve our members. Cooperatives take many forms, often to fill a community need, giving a voice to folks that profit-driven businesses often overlook. This year has been declared the International Year of Cooperatives. There are 252 cooperative organizations in North Carolina, 29,000 in the U.S. ACE is a locally owned hardware store on the Outer Banks that utilizes the power of a purchasing cooperative and national brand. ElecTel Cooperative Federal Credit Union is a cooperative bank, and membership is now available to members like you.

As a cooperative, members are the whole reason for our existence. The International Year of Cooperatives is a chance for us to celebrate our legacy of innovation, and to remind us of what is most important in business: putting people first.

About the Author

Susan E. Flythe is executive vice president and general manager of Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative, the Touchstone Energy cooperative serving more than 7,400 member accounts on Hatteras Island. These remarks are adapted from her address to the cooperative’s 2012 annual meeting of members.

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