October 2019

Reflections from a Newly Retired CEO

The electric cooperative that Mike Wheatley joined in 1993 is not the same one that he retired from in March. It won’t be the same five, 10 or 20 years from now, he says.

Oh, the name on the building remains Choptank Electric Cooperative. And the mission still is to provide safe, affordable, reliable power to the co-op’s 54,000 members. But achieving that goal will require agility and resiliency in every aspect of the co-op’s business.

“One of the things going forward is that the business is getting more technical,” says Wheatley, who retired as president and CEO of Choptank in March. “In general, as opposed to 25 or 30 years ago and what it is today, it’s going to be important to keep up with the tech part of the job and to stay current with what’s going on.”

How much so? Consider that less than a generation ago, Choptank had the standard mainframe computer. “When I left, we had more computers than we did people. Everybody had a desktop or a laptop or a mobile device or an iPad. It was probably a 2-to-1 ratio of devices to people.”

Used in the right fashion, and with proper workforce training, technology is a good thing, Wheatley says. Choptank’s state-ofthe- art automated meter reading system has saved money on the metering side and enables the co-op to detect outages before members even know there is a problem.

“You can automate equipment and save money and save the members’ money,” he says. “You have to make the investment in the infrastructure, but at the same time you have to keep up with your investment in your people.”

A graduate of the University of Virginia, Wheatley joined Choptank in 1993 as financial and administrative service  coordinator. He rose through the ranks as vice president of corporate services and senior vice president of corporate services before becoming CEO in 2011.

Technology is changing the face of the co-op in other ways. The growth in energyefficient appliances and the expansion of solar power are factors in lagging kilowatthour sales.

“You’re in that environment where people replace their refrigerators and appliances with something that uses significantly less kilowatt-hours. On top of that, with net metering in Maryland, we have over a thousand people with solar panels.”

So how does a co-op cope with a stagnant revenue stream? Wheatley says electric vehicles hold some promise.

“If you get a vehicle that’ll go 200 miles on a single charge, the owners are not going to charge on the road. They’re going to charge at home at night,” he says. “Creating a rate structure that accommodates them and making sure you have your infrastructure in place for those folks is going to be a plus. That’s really one of the things that could help in the future.”

“Co-ops always should be on the lookout for administrative efficiencies,” he adds. Wheatley said Choptank and its members benefitted from consolidating three offices in its southern region to a single regional service center.

“We got in a position where we didn’t have to carry as much inventory or carry as many trucks,” he says. “I think that gave the better combined workforce a more efficient operation.”

Wheatley gave high marks to Choptank employees for their commitment to continuing education, noting many capitalized on the co-op’s tuition reimbursement policy to improve their skill sets and help prepare for the future.

“Several employees received their associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees while working full time at Choptank,” he says. “Most all of our operations’ employees have earned numerous certifications from the Northwest Lineman College’s program.”

In retirement, Wheatley plans to continue to be active in community, civic and church affairs in his home of Easton, Maryland. “There’s a lot of opportunity where we live and that’s kind of continuing in the co-op spirit.”