Kristie Martin-Wallace says she realized her experience as a director at Southside Electric Co-op had blended into her personal outlook when her daughter came home from school all excited about recycling.
“We started talking about what it means for our family. This is kind of silly, but I started thinking like a director and talked about what recycling also means for the community. My daughter wanted to do something. So we went out and bought a recycling center to use in in the house.”
Martin-Wallace says that tiny decision was a way to put into practice the co-op notion of concern for community and to demonstrate the value of cooperation in a real way to her five-year-old.
Such lessons matter and can linger a lifetime. They could set the stage for the next-next generation of cooperative leaders.
It was true for Martin-Wallace.
Hers was a household that was defined in many ways by the cooperative. Her grandfather told stories about visiting families in the rural area just east of Richmond, VA to get their membership signatures. He was on the board from 1963 to 1999. Her mother worked in the co-op’s public and member relations departments.
“I grew up with this idea that cooperatives were a wonderful way to help people. In a way, I guess it was natural that I would follow along in the tradition,” she said.
Martin-Wallace brought that sense of tradition and a deep background in finance when she was appointed to the board in 2012.
For her, there were few surprises about the duties of serving on a board.
As the Senior Vice President of Compliance and Risk Management at Citizens Bank and Trust Co. of Blackstone, VA, Martin-Wallace said she was very comfortable in governance and financial procedures and policies at the co-op.
Understanding the environmental and utility regulations posed challenges. “The technical language takes a lot of time. It is completely necessary, too, to understand this because we are expected to make informed decisions. This is an essential duty of any cooperative director.”
She said that she is spending considerable time learning about the purchasing and selling of electricity on the marketplace. “This is such an abstract concept. It is a lot like commodities, but to really understand it requires a good grasp of some basic technical issues.”
Her husband, a lineman for an IOU, also gives her a technical edge. “We are a family that discusses the infrastructure and grid as we drive along and pass transmission lines or a substation. I get the inside scoop of what is on a pole or in a substation.”
That line of information has proven invaluable when the board discusses reliability issues.
”One area of work I am proud of is our co-op’s work plan for reliability. We have invested in a lot of switches. This gives our grid a lot of options in managing outages. Once again, this is an area I am really interested in because one of my roles at the bank is disaster recovery.”
“What I do professionally and as a director tends to reinforce each other,” she said, adding that an important but often neglected aspect of disaster recovery is tending to routine maintenance.
“We are currently in a five-year cycle of our danger-tree program. This is so much more than managing vegetation. What it means is we are getting to every mile of our line.”
Martin-Wallace, who also serves on the NRECA Director Advisory Group, said her preparation for a monthly board meeting requires between 28 to 42 hours a month.
She said the areas of study must be broad because of the policy of the board to operate as a whole rather than for smaller groups of directors to work in subcommittees that focus on specific areas.
“We have to be knowledgeable about all the aspects of the co-op. In some ways, this is a more demanding challenge. In other ways, it lends itself to greater transparency and engagement by the whole board. We discuss everything. Everyone belongs.”
The notion of “everyone belongs” was a tradition of her own upbringing. As a cooperative board member, she says that it is inevitable she will pass the values straight to her own daughter.
She realizes it when she passes the family recycling center – a reminder that the success of any community is built on the efforts and commitments of individuals.
MORE INTERVIEW NOTES
How did you come to be on the board? A gentleman passed away, so I was appointed. I ran two years after that and was elected.
How well do you feel you understood the expectations and responsibilities of being a director BEFORE you joined your co-op’s board? As part of the interview process for the nominations, the board made it very clear their expectations of the time it would take. We operate as a committee of the whole, so I think it does require more time to be up on all the issues.
Are you concerned that younger people are missing the message about cooperatives? I don’t think they are HEARING the message. My age group is not hearing the message and I don’t know if newer co-op members are hearing it, either. Most people think of the co-op as just another utility bill. We can get the message across that we have a different business model with community engagement and education. We have to deliver in a multitude of ways. I think we need to educate and engage throughout the year — not only when we have a rate hike or weather outages. As for my age group, there is a whole movement of people who want to go back to more localization and cooperation. That is what is behind the farm-to-table movement – knowing and supporting your neighbor. I think messages that capture this notion would take off. Isn’t that what the co-ops were founded on?
As a director, what keeps you awake at night?
Cyber security. I think about this all the time. I am taking the lead to spread that message of more cyber security awareness. It is easy to think we are just a small utility or that we are located in the backwaters and they (hackers) don’t want our data, but we know the vulnerabilities of our systems are being tested. The ways of getting into a system are endless. We have the same customer information as a bank, for example. We are about ready to implement a cyber security policy.