In Coastal South Texas, An Electric Co‑op Uses Lessons From Beacon Strategic Planning Session To Shed Light On Challenges, Guide Future Success

Stepping into his new role as CEO in the fall of 2019, Varzavand “Avan” Irani felt confident that he and his team could address whatever challenges would come their way. At that point, he had been with Nueces Electric Cooperative for 16 years and had seen the co-op successfully manage through an assortment of business hurdles and industry changes. Little did he know that for NEC, which provides power to members in an eight-county area of the South Texas Coastal region as well as across Texas as a retail electric provider, a perfect storm of hardships was brewing.

Trouble started with the global pandemic, which uprooted the way the co-op had been doing business. Half of NEC’s 85 employees could not work remotely due to COVID-19, so measures had to be taken so they could perform their jobs safely. Then came Hurricane Hanna, which slammed the South Texas coast with heavy rains and powerful winds in July 2020, just when the state’s COVID-19 cases were spiking.

CoBank has served as NEC’s main financial partner for more than 25 years

While coastal Texas is famous for tropical storms and hurricanes, the double whammy that NEC and some of its 34,000 members experienced over a year and a half period, pandemic included, was truly unprecedented in the co-op’s 80-plus year history, Avan says.

“There is one constant that I’ve witnessed throughout, and I think of it as a silver lining through our darkest days,” he says. “Our employees stood strong, helped members through hardships, and embraced our culture of safety as well. For instance, in the last year and a half, they’ve driven over 1.5 million miles with no incident and with no lost time. That track record alone is simply amazing.”

A Well-Timed Phone Call

Amid the tumult, something else was on Avan’s mind. He had focused much of his attention on short-term crises, and understandably so, for the sake of members and employees alike. But what about long-term planning? How could he ensure that the business priorities that he considered most important to NEC were aligned with those of leadership and staff?

“There were plenty of distractions going on, but in retrospect, I’m glad that we called time-out to do some thoughtful strategic planning,” Avan says. “Almost a full year into the CEO job, I needed to collaborate with the team on a shared vision and goals and make sure there were no disconnects among us. And I wanted direction on the best path forward, given that the industry is going through so many changes. It was then that I learned of Beacon with CoBank, and I latched onto it quickly.”

I strongly encourage electric co-ops to take advantage of Beacon

Placing the phone call to Avan was Ken Gajdos, CoBank electric distribution vice president. The two had spoken in early 2020 about the expertise of CoBank facilitating an in-person planning session for NEC, and Avan had given the green light to have the Beacon Team facilitate a session. Ken was calling back to ask if, due to the pandemic, NEC would consider participating in a strategic planning session on a virtual basis.

“CoBank has served as NEC’s main financial partner for more than 25 years,” Ken explains. “Over that time, we’ve provided them with lines of credit, term loans for construction of their headquarters building (in 2013) and investments and modifications to their current electric distribution system. The timing seemed right to hold a strategic planning session, but with the pandemic, we had to look at options for facilitating the meeting safely and efficiently.”

Planning Session Delivers Results

The session took place over two half-days in August 2020. It marked the first time CoBank would conduct Beacon, its new, complimentary strategic planning service for electric co-ops – remotely, via video conferencing.

At first, both Avan and Ken were concerned that the virtual set-up, comprised of 18 NEC senior and mid-level staff, and three CoBank facilitators, might dampen discussion and that some participants may not fully engage during the entire summit. They were pleasantly surprised to discover that the virtual session was just as effective as the historic in-person sessions.

“Right from the start, Avan challenged his team to speak their mind and to hold nothing back, and they did exactly that,” Ken says. “That’s what makes the Beacon sessions so great; it gives an avenue for people to speak up and engage honestly and fully; to put differences aside and build consensus.”

The Beacon session required weeks of precise planning before the meeting was held, Avan says. As part of the pre-planning effort, NEC teammates answered a questionnaire as part of their “homework,” and, with answers in hand, CoBank came to the (virtual) table fully prepared with a short list of clear, actionable goals to discuss and finalize.

By the conclusion of the session, Avan and NEC staff had agreed to focus on four business priorities – member engagement, inter-departmental communication, safety, and employee selection, compensation, and retention. Now that NEC has a clear understanding of a path forward, Avan has noticed a renewed spirit of confidence in the organization, from top to bottom.

“I strongly encourage electric co-ops to take advantage of Beacon,” Avan says. “At NEC, we needed to make sure we were in sync as an organization, and I think we’ve achieved that. The best part is that the retreat helped us determine clear, identifiable goals. We haven’t completed all of those tasks, of course, but it’s great to see we’re moving in that direction.”

For more information on the Beacon strategic planning service from CoBank, please contact your relationship manager or call 800-542-8072.