How the Cooperative Water Utility Model Empowers Regional Communities to Thrive Feat Bill Teichmiller
In the US there are literally thousands of small municipal water utilities and one of the big
challenges faced by small utilities is how to leverage innovation to better serve water consumers
Building new infrastructure and developing new ideas is often too costly and resource-intensive
for small regional utilities. However, one US regional utility company has developed an
innovative co-op model to up the game of local utilities so they can bring the latest in technology
and innovation to their communities. In today’s interview, I talk with EJ Water Cooperative CEO Bill
Teichmiller to find out more about how it works and how this model has transformed regional
Meet this week’s expert
Bill Teichmiller is the CEO of EJ Water Cooperative. With his passion for strategic planning and effective utility management, he brings cutting-edge technology to the rural communities that EJ Water helps. He speaks nationally on leadership strategies, creating and advocating for culture in the workforce, rural community relations and regionalization. When Bill started working at EJ Water, they were serving about 3,300 meters, 4,500 members, and managed a team of 9 employees. Today, Bill’s leadership has drastically grown EJ Water to 11,200+ meters, 10,400+ members, and manages a team of 38 employees. In addition to increasing EJ Water’s members, Bill’s visionary leadership has expanded EJ Water’s service area by adding Management Services to more than 22 communities, as well as providing water to 14 wholesalers.
Based on EJ Water’s mission of growing rural communities and providing economic development, Bill directed EJ Water into a joint venture with Wabash Communications, Illinois Fiber Connect. Illinois Fiber Connect provides fiber internet with speeds up to 1Gbps to rural communities in Illinois, which Bill envisions will be crucial in the growth for rural communities in Illinois. In addition to being the CEO at EJ Water Coop, Bill has served two years as the President of Association of Regional Water Organization. Furthermore, he’s been invited to speak at the White House on the importance of regionalization and the positive impact it has on the rural communities EJ Water serves.
- Bill: Much like most countries, you know, we’ve had a long term, I guess, exodus, if you will, migrating from rural to more urban settings. And most of it’s been jobs.
- Bill: There’s been this long migration for decades. And so what kinda has happened is we got declining populations and also the median age of the population continues to age. And that’s where probably the biggest challenges with rural compared to more urban.
- Bill: This is a very, very low margin business and it’s extremely capital intensive. And so the challenge obviously is how do you keep systems functioning or repaired or even replaced and the ever-increasing environment we have, which is increasing costs?
- Bill: People are complaining about high water bills, but we just haven’t done a great job of really explaining just a CapEx story, let alone compliance and workforce and all these other challenges.
- Bill: COVID has been a catalyst. It’s accelerating this problem because it’s casting this incredible light on the issue and as an example, say you’re working for a larger utility, you have a couple hundred employees where you lose, you know, a dozen of them because of COVID, not a big problem. You’re in a rural area and there’s like three employees and one gets sick, that’s a third of the workforce.
- Bill: So it’s really highlighted a sense of vulnerability. It’s also kind of renewed a lot of people talking about resiliency and sustainability and a much different way than ever was before.
- Bill: [In] the co-op model, the actual members, the actual users own us. So there is no owner. It’s actually the users that own us. And then they vote on a board of directors that provides the governance piece that basically oversees our leadership team. And that’s kind of the beauty of the co-op. Now, the other thing that’s kind of interesting is that once the debts are paid off long term, they’ll start returning capital credits back to the users, you know, accumulated over time.
- And I think because of our rural and regional aspect, we run fairly lean, we’re fairly lean organization. And it forces us to really be, I think, creative and really access innovation, because oftentimes the innovation can really save you a lot of people costs, because that’s the number one cost aside from debt service. So if you can really figure out how to minimize your own costs, it can really influence your rates as well as allow you to do more cap ex because you’re not spending so much on the people side of it.
- Bill: I think innovation starts at the board level because that’s what sets the tone. And then I think you have to have a leadership team that embraces innovation.
- Bill: And so because I’ve had people ask me, ‘why do you guys try so much?’ Well, as I said earlier in my comments, my background, I got a physics degree, so my brain is wired towards trying stuff and realizing that I don’t have it figured out and I don’t have an attitude that, “oh, my God, I failed.”
- Bill: And so one of the things that I find that’s really sad in our business is that we try to risk ourselves right out of all pain, suffering, bad mistakes, all these types of things, and the problem with innovation, there is a lot of pain, there are a lot of bad decisions. It’s not that we’re trying to waste money or do things that cause problems, but when you’re on the front end of a lot of innovation, it’s not that you’ve got it all figured out.
- Bill: we’ve had things that haven’t worked out and we do a debriefing and we talk about lessons learned. How could we’ve done better, what assumptions did we miss, because it’s all part of this journey of learning and learning, learning. And I think why we’ve become so innovative.
- Bill: …we’re not afraid of taking responsibility, you know, to say that didn’t work out so good. And I think that attitude is what causes us to have a certain amount of risk tolerance to it and also feel safe that it’s OK to make some mistakes.
- Bill: We call it the Amazon effect because I’m interested in understanding ‘how is this training our customers to think differently?’ And I am watching this happen right before our very eyes because they’re wanting communication quicker, faster, more efficient. They want texting, they want stuff that really in the traditional utility model, we’re not geared that way. You know, I mean, most of the leaders in our industry are engineers, which are great engineers, but they’re not really from the mind frame of marketing, sales, customer experience.
- Bill: Where I think where the industry’s heading is leaders that can actually pivot. They have to understand that, but they’ve got to pivot into the customer experience. And I think that’s where everything is kind of heading towards.
- Bill: Now I’m pivoting. We’re still a water utility, don’t get me wrong, but …we don’t have really great broadband in a lot of our areas. So we’re trying to keep our small communities relevant and equitable because as COVID’s highlighted, a lot of people are working remote.
- Bill: a lot of the bones, a lot of the thinking, a lot of this economic development on ‘how do we help small towns?’– that all came out of the electric world.
- Bill: We started asking more and more questions of like, well, what are people needing? What’s our communities need? And I think it was this kind of this aha moment some 10 plus years ago, that we kind of realized that the water wastewater business is really connected to all these communities.
- Bill: Some of the secret sauce is challenging things, turning things upside down, not to upset people, but then ask the hard questions. And I think to our strategic planning that we have, we’re nuts about education, we’re nuts about training. I think education and training are really the key components that keeps your workforce sharp and keeps you moving forward.
- Bill: We’re fairly nimble and we can kind of pivot pretty quick. But then also, I think because of our rural and really the economics that we face, it’s forced us to be innovative. But I think that’s been where a lot of inspiration has come, is just really meeting people, talking to people, understanding what works, what doesn’t work. I’m also not afraid to go outside of the industry. And I do have a lot of good, good colleagues and friends in different industries.
- Bill: I think the industry’s going to have to stand on its own more and more. And I think there’s going to be assistance. But I think it’s really going to be the boot straps in the ingenuity and the innovation and I think the leadership that is going to help people move the ball forward.
- Bill: The complicated part is the people, right? And so the people part is often talked about, well, they didn’t perform or they didn’t do this. They didn’t do that. And so very few people, especially in our industry, really deploy, say coaching is an example.
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