It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in April 1986, and Dean Searls is flying his Cessna Skylane 1,000 feet above rich, brown farmland near the Illinois-Missouri border. The smooth, broad fields are dotted with tractors turning the soil.
In a few minutes, the town of Camp Point comes into view, and Searls banks the plane over a large one-story office building with garages and an equipment yard in the rear: Adams Electric Cooperative, the distribution system he’d managed for 40 years, from 1941 to 1981.
Two miles beyond is the Searls’ place: a large, white colonial-style house surrounded by 18 acres of trees interrupted by a grass landing strip and two small fields of winter wheat.
Searls and his wife, Frances, were headed home after spending the week 60 miles east in Jacksonville, Illinois, where he was working as the interim manager of Western Illinois Power Cooperative (G&T, now
Prairie Power). Searls, 72 at the time, was one of the first and busiest interim managers placed by what is now called NRECA Executive Search.
Before 1976, when a co-op unexpectedly lost its general manager, it often resulted in a leadership crisis. Either a staff member was hastily promoted or a board member served as a custodian until a replacement could be found.
With the interim manager program, co-ops could count on getting someone who really knew how to run a co-op, someone who could shepherd a loan application through the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) or untangle an operational knot. The program was a step forward in managerial stability for the co-ops.
Of the 20 interim managers placed in the first nine years of the program, Searls got four assignments, working at distribution systems in Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Louisiana before accepting the Illinois job.
Searls and another interim manager from that era, Hugh Crigler, were successful because “they both were recognized as exceptional managers; they’re both low key, can quickly assess a situation, and they’re men who don’t need stroking,” said Neil Doherty, the program’s director, in 1986. “They don’t need to be constantly thanked, and sometimes in these jobs, you’re not only not thanked, but there can be some unpleasantness.”
Beginning an assignment, Searls wanted to know as much as he could about the problems the co-op faced but not the personal conflicts behind them. That allowed him to maintain his objectivity, to not be beholden to anyone.
And because he wasn’t worried about job security, “you can be as tough on the directors as you are on the employees and tell them what they’re doing wrong,” he said.
On the first day at a new co-op, Searls would tour the office, warehouse, garage, and any other facilities, stopping to introduce himself to every employee. Tall and friendly with round cheeks and sparkly eyes, Searls put people at ease.
After the tour, he’d call a staff meeting at which he told them about himself and what he expected of them. He told them that his door was always open and that he wanted their suggestions.
Then he’d talk about the cooperative principles and remind them that their job was to serve the local co-op membership, “and if we can’t do a better job of that than a private power company can, there’s no reason for us to exist.”
Searls was always blunt with the board about who was running the show. “I won’t come in as the [interim] manager if the board is intent on managing the co-op.”
Sometimes, things got worse before he could make them better. One of his assignments took him to a distribution co-op where the lines were in terrible shape, employee morale was low, the board was angrily divided, and member unrest was growing by the month. Soon after Searls arrived, both the office manager and the engineer quit, leaving Searls as the only person on the staff with financial or engineering expertise.
The job at Western Illinois Power was much tamer. He guided the G&T through the last steps of a merger with Soyland Power Cooperative (also now Prairie Power). He also kept busy meeting with REA officials, negotiating a critical refinancing of Western Illinois Power’s loans.
Frances, Searls’s co-op co-pilot, got the last word in this accounting of her husband as an interim manager. He earned people’s respect, she said, because he was “always kind and fair, if firm.”
This story is adapted from an article published in the July 1986 issue of RE Magazine.