When Dee Fox gets dressed for work in the morning, part of her routine is to double-check the electric co-op logo on her shirt to make sure she’s putting on the right one.
Fox, a compliance safety training coordinator, is officially employed by Dunn Energy Cooperative, a 10,000-member co-op in Menomonie, Wisconsin. But she also works for four other small co-ops in the area as part of a shared services agreement that began nearly 18 years ago.
During a typical week, she spends one 8-to-10-hour day at each co-op working with employees and contractors to make sure they’re following the latest safety regulations. Wearing a co-op’s logo when she’s with its crews is one of the ways Fox shows that she feels at home wherever she is.
“I’m really lucky,” she says. “I feel like I blend in with the people at each co-op. They all make the same joke with me: ‘Nice of you to show up and work one day a week.’ And when employees ask me, ‘Who’s your favorite?” I tell them, ‘You. You’re my favorite.’”
Jesse Singerhouse, general manager and CEO of Dunn Energy, says that sharing Fox’s expertise is just one example of shared service arrangements that have become prevalent among Midwest co-ops.
Dunn Energy has joined with other area electric co-ops on tree-trimming services and has partnered with Dairyland Power Cooperative, its power provider, and other distribution co-ops in the Upper Midwest to create a regional electric vehicle charging network. They’ve also worked with Eau Claire Energy Cooperative and Chippewa Valley Technical College to host “an EV experience” to let community members test-drive EVs.
“Upper Midwest co-ops really have a history of bonding together to come up with solutions to problems that small co-ops face,” Singerhouse says.
The CEOs of the co-ops that share Fox’s services (and salary)—Dunn Energy, Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services, St. Croix Electric Cooperative, Barron Electric Cooperative and Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative—meet periodically to talk about their safety needs and gauge how the arrangement is working.
“Communication is the key,” Singerhouse says. “We might have different needs for our compliance programs. We don’t try to say, ‘OK, St. Croix, you have to have the same program as us.’ We’re still separate co-ops. We share resources, but we may have different objectives.”
Fox calls her unique position “the best job ever” and says she likes the variety of working at different places for different bosses. She previously served in the Air Force and was accustomed to dealing with eight to 10 commanders at a time and adapting to each of their management styles.
She says the key to being a shared employee is to respect each co-op’s unique way of doing things.
“They take a lot of pride in that,” Fox says. “You have to embrace their differences.”
Although Dunn is her employer, Fox says she works for all five co-ops equally.
“Dunn’s home for me. It’s where I hang my hat. But when I’m at St. Croix, I work for Brian,” she says, referring to Brian Zelenak, president and CEO of St. Croix Electric Cooperative in Hammond.
Sometimes, one co-op will need more of her attention. For example, Pierce Pepin is bringing broadband service to its members this fall and will need her services more for a few months to ensure that crews are complying with safety requirements.
“The other co-ops know they’ll get their time back,” she says. “And I tell them, ‘If you need me, just call me.’ They all understand.”
One thing that Fox has learned is true at all five co-ops: Even the most unflappable crews can sometimes use a little pick-me-up, which she supplies.
“Our linemen are smart, hard-chargers and amazing to work with,” she says. “But on a hot, miserable day, a little ice cream goes a long way.”