Aug. 16 marked the debut of a mandatory, daylong professional development conference for all 160 employees at Central Alabama Electric Cooperative—but the co-op’s Central Growth Summit felt more like summer camp than corporate America.

Attendees were immersed in fun, interactive workshops, including a spirited game of Central Family Feud and an egg-drop challenge, and were treated to specially branded swag and trucks serving Kona Ice and coffee.

But along with the fun and games, the Prattville-based co-op’s inaugural summit at Jefferson State Community College in Clanton had a serious goal. Worried that CAEC’s close-knit organizational culture was unraveling amid an unprecedented number of retirements and the resulting turnover, co-op leaders organized the event to reach new workers and strengthen existing workplace relationships. About a third of current employees have worked at CAEC for three years or less, said summit co-organizer Nagea Littleton, the co-op’s manager of energy services and communications.

“We’ve been moving at such a fast pace and getting our broadband subsidiary [Central Access] up and running, that we wanted to make sure employees understood what co-ops are all about,” Littleton said. “We know the co-op world is special, and we wanted to make sure that the newer employees knew that, too.”

Aptly titled “Planting a Firm Foundation,” the co-op’s annual safety meeting kicked off the summit. As part of that, employees were asked for help in drafting the co-op’s first-ever corporate culture statement on safety.

“Safety is paramount here—it’s more important than anything else we do,” said Littleton, who joined the co-op in 2002 as a college intern. “We want to make sure our employees can go home at the end of the day.”

Employees were grouped by length of service, and each team drafted a statement to define the co-op’s safety culture. The groups fine-tuned the final statements, and they were presented during a general session that day. CAEC’s board of trustees then voted on the statements at their annual strategic planning session.

Communications Specialist Beth Presley was on a team of employees who’d been at the co-op less than four years.

“It was really interesting getting that one-on-one experience with people outside of my department,” said Presley, who’s been at CAEC since 2021. “We talked about what was important to us and worked together to create our own mission statement.”

Throughout the day, activities mixed education, fun and teambuilding to illustrate the cooperative principles and explain the co-op’s inner workings. Hosted by Alabama Rural Electric Cooperative’s Danny Weston, Central Family Feud included safety-related questions. During one workshop, non-linework employees donned safety gloves, sleeves and goggles while attempting to unlock pad locks and put together double-arming bolts with washers and nuts, and pick up small items off a flat surface.

And the co-op’s accounting, human resource, IT and facilities divisions ran an egg-drop challenge to illustrate principles such as budgeting and procurement.

“The egg represented the co-op’s member and the goal was to protect them,” said Lacie Mitchell, the co-op’s manager of accounting. “We gave each team a budget and they had to pull items out of inventory. We provided a list of materials from the warehouse and assigned everything a cost and, at the end, teams determined how close they came to their budget while being successful in protecting the egg.”

Encouraged by attendees’ overwhelmingly high marks in a post-event survey (99% of respondents said they “felt engaged”), the co-op plans to hold at least two more summits, Littleton said.

“This year, we focused on the co-op’s ‘who,’” she said. “Next year’s theme, ‘the Central Difference in Action,’ will provide a deeper dive into the ‘how’ by demonstrating the role each division plays in making things happen. We all work together. And what you do matters and affects other departments. We’re hoping that concept will be easier for people to understand now that they know what we do.”