Tony Anderson, NRECA's Michigan director and general manager of Cherryland Electric Cooperative, was elected NRECA president at the PowerXchange conference this March in Nashville, Tennessee.
He's a familiar figure in the electric cooperative program, with a career that has included working at five electric cooperatives in five states and a high-profile charitable campaign that involved running a marathon in every U.S. state.
Anderson, who announced he'll retire as Cherryland GM in June, sat down with RE Magazine to discuss where he's been, what he'll focus on as NRECA president and what his priorities will be going forward.
So Tony, you've pretty much spent your entire career working at electric cooperatives?
Absolutely. My entire career.
Why don't we start with that? Walk us through where it all started and where you've been over the years.
Sure. It started in my hometown of Timberlake, South Dakota, at a co-op called Moreau-Grand Electric Cooperative. I grew up on their lines, and they had a billing clerk position open in 1983. I started that job in August of '83 and spent a couple of years doing the billing. And then I moved into the accounting position. And then I had a couple of friends move to a co-op in Montana, and I got recruited there in '88 to be an office manager at Sheridan Electric Cooperative in Medicine Lake and spent three and a half years there. And I decided I wanted to be a manager. Instead of talking about problems at the water fountain, I wanted to be the guy they were talking about and maybe solving some problems. So I started looking for manager jobs, and I found a small co-op in Wyoming, Niobrara Electric Association. It was the best stop for me at that time because I could build line during storms; I could work in a substation with supervision; I did the magazine; I did member services; and then I ran the board meetings and supervised 11 other employees. I got my hands on everything. I tell people, “That's where I got my co-op masters." But I've been a Packers fan my whole life, and there was a co-op in Wisconsin, Oconto Electric Cooperative, that had an opening 35 miles from Lambeau Field. They'd had five managers in 10 years. The co-op in Wyoming had had a couple of managers over a three-year period. So it became my career trajectory to step in and take over a place that has had some manager turmoil. So I spent five years in Wisconsin, and then there was a manager fired in Michigan at a co-op; 62 employees at the time. And so I went over there, and I've been at Cherryland for the last 20 years. And one thing I joke about with people is I've made a career stepping over a low bar, replacing managers who've been fired.
To hear more from Tony Anderson, listen to the May edition of NRECA's monthly podcast, Along Those Lines.
I think most people probably have heard by now that you've announced your retirement later this year. Talk a little bit about what's going through your mind right now as that date looms. And then let's talk about who's going to be your successor.
What's going through my mind here is what's next. And I don't feel like I'm really retiring quite yet because the way the NRECA bylaws are, I'm able to continue serving as the president for two years. And that's one of the reasons I'm retiring. So I can focus on NRECA and do that as best as possible. It feels good. It feels natural. It's absolutely the right thing to do for Cherryland. If I stayed at Cherryland another two or three years, we could have lost Rachel Johnson. And Rachel sets us up for another good 20 years. She asked me a couple of days ago, what's my proudest moment. And I get a little emotional thinking about it. But the answer to that question is June 15, when I hand it off to Rachel. She's eminently qualified. She's smarter than I am. She's a great communicator and she can do things I can't. And the timing is right in her life and in my life. And I'm immensely proud that I can hand it off to somebody of the quality of Rachel Johnson.
Walk us through a bit of the unique role you'll assume as NRECA president, not only in setting goals and policies for the association but setting the tone for the membership.
You get asked to speak a lot of places, so you get an opportunity to vocalize the NRECA message and the co-op message, the only message I've ever had my entire working career. Being president means helping the board be the best board they can be. And that's a little intimidating. I lose a little bit of sleep over that. But we have 47 other board members that are bright, talented individuals. That's the nuts and bolts. I told the board when they elected me that I just want to serve. Where can I help? Where can I make a difference?
One of the things folks may associate you with is your multi-year project to run a marathon in every state for charity. Talk about that. What were your goals and did you accomplish what you were trying to do?
I believe I did. I took up running again because of the Green Bay Packers. They had a 4-mile run where you got to run inside Lambeau Field. So I ran coast to coast on the grass at Lambeau Field, untouched and untackled, and then that transferred into half marathons. And then finally, I did my first marathon in 2003. And then I joined the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Board in Traverse City in 2005. And I told them, I know what it's like to grow up without a parent because that's my life. But I'm not raising money for you. I'm not going to ask rich people for money. And then I was on a plane in 2009, and people were raising money for cancer. We're on our way to the Seattle marathon, and they're raising money for cancer. And I decided, well, heck, I'm running anyway. I may just as well raise some money while I run. I'll put in the time to do 26.2 miles; you can write a check. That'll justify the ask. So that started a project called Marathon for Kids. And so I went from 2009 to May of 2020. My last marathon was supposed to be Ohio, but it was during COVID, and we did it virtually. So I ran my final marathon in Traverse City. So technically there's one state I haven't done a marathon in, but I have a medal from every state. That was 17 years of running marathons, and I raised $900,000 for Big Brothers/Big Sisters. We were serving less than 100 kids at [the local] Big Brothers/Big Sisters in 2005 and on the verge of bankruptcy. But we hired some good people there, a good executive director, and they're going to serve over 300 people probably this year. That's a story I'm very proud of.
You have a new journey that you've embarked on. You announced earlier this year that you formed the Cooperative Family Fund. Walk us through what that group does and where you are in the process.
Sure. The Cooperative Family Fund was born out of finishing the last marathon and taking a break and deciding what's next. And then it hit me. We had a lineman pass away at the investor-owned utility in Traverse City, and it hit me that day: What happens to those kids? I've been focused on all the kids in Grand Traverse County in our region, and I hadn't thought about the kids across the nation. And so slowly the idea kept coming in my head what can I do for those kids? So the Cooperative Family Fund has three platforms. The first one is if you're a full-time cooperative employee in any occupation at any U.S. electric co-op and you pass away with kids under the age of 18, the goal of the Family Fund is to set aside $10,000 for each kid. The second thing is we're putting together a memory book with volunteers. We want to capture all the stories and pictures of the person who passed so the child has something they can feel and touch with their parent. And third, we want to encourage the coworkers and people who are left behind to support that kid as they grow without a mom or a dad. Can you get one or two people to go to their Christmas concert? Can you get 20 people to go to a ballgame? So that's the mission. It was born out of, “What more can I do?"
A different kind of marathon.
A different kind of marathon.