A legacy of loyalty
Wild Rice Electric Cooperative CEO Steve Haaven has retired after 47 years of service to members.
When asked about the more than 14,000 accounts on Wild Rice Electric Cooperative’s system, CEO Steve Haaven doesn’t focus on meters, miles of power line or electricity usage. Instead, he’s quick to bring up the relationships he has with the families and farms that make up the membership.
“I have come to know many, many members over the years,” Haaven said. “Not only that, I know their parents and I probably knew their grandparents, too. We provide them with a service, and through that we get to know them extremely well.”
Those close bonds developed over Haaven’s 47-year cooperative career are what he will miss most after retiring at the end of October. Through nearly a half-century, his door remained open to the members in good times and during challenges.
“I’ve been blessed to work for an organization that is member-focused and member-driven,” Haaven said. “We pride ourselves on our service and being responsive to the membership.”
That mindset inevitably rubs off on employees, many of whomweren’t born when Haaven began at Wild Rice Electric. He has been involved with hiring each employee at the cooperative and, in many situations, their predecessors.
“We have a good group of employees here,” Haaven said. “Over time, you develop a camaraderie and they become like family. Everyone knows their job and we work well together.”
Changing with the times
As an electric cooperative leader, Haaven drew on the work ethic he learned growing up in McIntosh, Minn., and spending a significant amount of time on his grandparents’ farm. After graduating from high school, he earned a business degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead while working summers for Garden Valley Telephone Company building telephone lines. That mix of experience helped make him an easy choice for the engineering aide position at Wild Rice Electric in 1973 – his first full-time job out of college.
Learning the business didn’t take long. Two years later, Haaven was promoted to office manager and in 1987 he became the cooperative’s fifth CEO.
Haaven marvels at how technology has reshaped the daily functions of the cooperative. He can recall manually writing in all the debits and credits into the cooperative’s ledger each month, and working on computers that filled entire rooms. But the biggest changes may have come in the last decade.
“I am especially proud of the positive steps taken to upgrade and digitize our mapping system, metering and outage management systems,” Haaven said. “It’s unbelievable to see the changes and efficiencies gained.”
Respected in the industry
In addition to managing the cooperative, Haaven has been engaged in legislative and regulatory processes on behalf of the membership. He often spoke to key decision-makers on issues that could impact the cooperative’s operations and consumers at the end of the line.
“Steve is well respected by peers in our industry not only at the local level, but also on the statewide and national levels,” said Russ Okeson, who served on the Wild Rice Electric board from 1978 to 2019. “He has guided Wild Rice Electric through a number of challenges over the years, and he should be proud of the leadership he has displayed for the members of the cooperative.”
Those leadership qualities have translated to numerous cooperative boards and committees. Haaven was chairman of the board for Carr’s Tree Service, which completes tree-clearing work for the electric utility industry, for more than two decades and represented Minnesota and the Dakotas on the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation board for six years. In another unique situation, Haaven stepped in to manage Red River Valley Co-op Power, a neighboring electric cooperative, for more than a year as it went through a management transition.
Guidance and trust from the board of directors have been essential as Haaven has navigated the cooperative through significant industry changes.
“We’ve been blessed with long-term board members who have been supportive,” Haaven said. “Their center of focus has always been to do what’s right for the membership. That’s guided their governance and helped position our staff to get the job done.”
Life after Wild Rice
Haaven’s career at Wild Rice Electric may never have happened without his wife and high school sweetheart Candace taking a teaching job in the area. That decision prompted Haaven to turn down job offers in the Twin Cities area and focus on his cooperative career and farming.
“When you think about those 47 years, she’s been involved every step of the way,” Haaven said of his wife. “She’s been willing to schedule around those sacred last Tuesday of every month board meetings. I know she has attended every annual meeting since March 1974 and has adjusted her schedule often to take care of many family matters in my absence.”
In retirement, Haaven will remain a Wild Rice Electric member on Maple Lake, where he plans to spend more time with his two children and five grandchildren, live near Fargo and Fertile, Minn. He’s also excited to travel more when it becomes a safer and easier option post-pandemic, but he and Candace are already looking forward to spending time in Florida during the winter.
“As I move into the next phase of my life, I leave knowing I have been truly blessed in so many ways,” Haaven said. “I have a few projects lined up, but I’m really looking forward to taking things one day at a time.”
Main image: Retiring CEO Steve Haaven stands outside his career home of 47 years, Wild Rice Electric Cooperative. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)