With a service territory made up of one small Alaska community of 2,700 residents, Cordova Electric Cooperative is focused on building strong member engagement with face-to-face conversations.

“Our customers are literally our parents, neighbors and friends, so we want to give them the best service possible,” said Clay Koplin, CEO of the Cordova-based co-op.

Koplin, who has served on the city council and completed two terms as mayor, joined the co-op nearly 25 years ago as operations manager and moved into the top staff position in 2007. With just two small grocery stores and one service station in town, most of the co-op’s accountholders not only recognize him, but he knows many of them by name.

Every member of the co-op’s staff is encouraged to listen and share what they hear with the co-op’s leadership. The resulting goodwill has helped to boost member engagement scores, receptive responses when reliability challenges occur, and widespread support for major projects, even when they can potentially impact rates.

When historic storms and flooding washed away much of the infrastructure at its Humpback Creek generation dam in 2006, the co-op rallied community support to build a modern and storm-hardened replacement. They eventually added battery storage to improve peak capacity and reduce dependence on expensive diesel generation.

“I made people understand that this was a 100-year project. We weren’t just building the project to meet our current needs,” said Koplin. “This was for our grandkids and great-grandkids.”

Koplin also sought municipal and member support to replace 40-year-old overhead lines with new underground wiring and upgrade street lighting in the town’s commercial district to energy-efficient LEDs. Those projects not only improved reliability but also helped attract and retain major commercial accounts, including seafood processing plants.

When Koplin and his staff began planning the co-op’s 2023 annual meeting, staffers talked up personal invitations to help boost turnout. Nearly 20% of the voting membership braved snow and temperatures in the teens to attend the March 20 event, which featured fresh sushi as one of the refreshments.

The co-op’s leaders cite strong customer service scores and survey results as validation of their face-to-face communications strategy, often reinforced with letters, emails and social media posts from members.

“Our community’s small size is one of our most important assets,” said Leif Stavig, Cordova EC’s executive assistant and human resources coordinator. “I have a lot of casual conversations where members provide feedback. These can happen at the barber shop, in line at the post office and anywhere in town.”

“People want to be heard,” said Koplin. “I can’t recall a single time in my career when anyone got angry or dissatisfied when I shut my mouth and listened.”

And the co-op’s support and involvement go beyond providing electricity; employees are also encouraged to volunteer in the community.

“One of my member services reps is the high school volleyball coach, and the other is involved in the local quilting guild,” said Emma Merritt, the co-op’s manager of information and finance. “I run a personal development scholarship program for high school girls.”

Merritt is a third-generation resident who only left the community for college and returned immediately after graduation. “A community with strong programs and social fabric makes it a better place to live and work,” she said.

But operating a small, modern co-op in a remote community is still challenging—getting to Cordova requires an hourlong airplane flight or six-hour ferry trip from Anchorage. Prospective staffers need to fit into the co-op’s culture.

“We sell the sense of community, our safe location and the exciting projects we take on to help meet our members’ current and future needs,” said Koplin. “We work well together, and we insist that anyone new to the team share these values. We’ll leave open positions vacant rather than hire the wrong person that’s not a good fit for the co-op or our community.”