Michael Volker can be forgiven for sometimes forgetting where he’s going in the morning as he heads to work.
Depending on the day of the week, Volker could be driving to his job as general manager of Brown-Atchison Electric Cooperative Association in Horton, Kansas, or to his job as general manager of Doniphan Electric Cooperative Association in Troy, Kansas.
The two co-ops have joined together to hire Volker to lead both of their staffs, making him one of only a handful of CEOs to serve two electric co-ops at once.
He works at 2,300-member Brown-Atchison on Mondays and Wednesdays and at 1,100-member Doniphan on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He divides his time equally between the two on Fridays.
“I’ve more than once turned the wrong way and had to go back,” says Volker, who lives between the two co-ops near the town of Hiawatha. “My wife will say every morning, ‘Now, which one are you going to today?’”
“It gives me a chance to work with two different cultures,” he says. “I really enjoy working with two different groups and finding ways to succeed at each one, whether it’s having really positive morale at both places or ensuring that we have very few member complaints—those kinds of little satisfactions.”
The presidents of both co-op boards say sharing Volker is working well and saving money for their respective members by splitting the cost of his salary.
The unique arrangement allowed them to hire an experienced manager whom neither could have afforded alone.
Volker’s co-op experience includes more than five years as manager of rates and treasury at East River Electric Power Cooperative in South Dakota, more than two and a half years as vice president of utility services at Corn Belt Energy Corp. in Illinois and more than 15 years as director of regulatory and energy services at Midwest Energy Inc. in Kansas.
“It’s been working out great,” says Kevin Gigstad, board president at Brown-Atchison. “Michael is a sharp guy.” The idea for a joint manager came in 2021 when Gigstad and Richard Lemke, Doniphan’s board president, were both searching for general managers for their co-ops.
Doniphan had had several part-time, interim managers and wanted a permanent manager right away. Brown-Atchison’s manager was set to retire in about six months, and the co-op wanted to line up a replacement.
At the same time, Volker was looking to return to Kansas where his daughters and grandchildren live.
“Richard and I were talking and he said, ‘How about us sharing a general manager?’” Gigstad says. “I’ve known Richard for years, and we trust one another.”
That trust is crucial if co-ops are going to share a CEO, Lemke says.
“If you do not have trust, don’t even try it,” he says, adding that he and Gigstad talk regularly about how the arrangement is working.
Lemke and Gigstad interviewed Volker together and agreed he was right for the job. The boards of both co-ops then had to agree to split Volker’s salary and his time 50-50, even though Brown-Atchison is about twice as big as Doniphan.
“I told the other board members, ‘When you pay 50-50, you get the man 50% of the time,’” Lemke says. “If not, you get crumbs.”
Volker, who started at Doniphan in September 2021 and at Brown-Atchison in February 2022, says he takes that 50-50 split seriously.
“I’m even sensitive about trying to wear only a Brown-Atchison shirt at that co-op and a Doniphan shirt when I’m there,” he says. Volker also sends out emails with different logos beneath his signature, depending on where he’s working that day.
However, he says the reality of his job is that he always needs to be accessible to both co-ops, no matter which day of the week it is. When he’s at Brown-Atchison, he’s often taking phone calls from Doniphan, and vice versa.
“I’m never really gone from either co-op,” Volker says. “I really like, personally and professionally, the staff at both places. Not being able to be there and work with them every day is a challenge. But they’ve adapted to this model, probably better than I have.”
Volker’s two board presidents say he’s highly organized and keeps them both informed of what’s going on at each co-op.
“He’s on top of everything,” Gigstad says.
Volker’s advice to other co-ops that might want to share a manager is to look for a candidate who has strong administrative experience.
“You can’t do this job if you’re down in the weeds,” he says “Physically, you can’t micromanage two staffs. I’m constantly checking in with them, but I’m not micromanaging them. Our staff has stepped up and taken the ball and run with it. You’ve got to let them do that.”
Ultimately, Volker says, “it takes the right marriage” of two co-ops.
“It requires not only getting the right individual in the door, but also the right blending of cultures and the willingness of both boards to be flexible and work with each other to make it succeed,” he says. “The cost savings of this arrangement sound great, but it takes a lot of effort to make it work.”