Locally grown leadership
As PKM Electric Cooperative CEO Mike Schmidt retires, protégé Jeff Rustad will become the co-op's new leader in 2023.
PKM Electric Cooperative territory has always been PKM CEO Mike Schmidt’s home. He was raised on a farm 30 miles north of Warren, Minn., where his family grew potatoes and small grains. As the crops took stronger hold on the land year after year, so did he.
“I just like being in this area. It’s where I grew up,” Schmidt said. He explained that he was able to land a job as a PKM accountant in 1983 and his wife was a local teacher. Warren just felt right for their young family. “Small-town living was good for my three kids. The goal was that we would raise all three kids in the same house, the same church and the same school.”
Schmidt accomplished that goal, along with career goals that took him from accountant to CEO. Now, after nearly 40 years with PKM Electric, he’s ready to hand cooperative leadership to another local of the territory – PKM Member Services Manager Jeff Rustad.
Rustad was an electrical contractor before joining PKM in 2004. At that time, Schmidt was looking for a master electrician in the Member Services department. But Rustad brought more than a contractor’s license.
“One great thing about coming to PKM was that a lot of my customers were PKM members,” Rustad said. “That was the awesome thing. I was helping out customers I’d been working with forever. I had a lot of connections, because I grew up just north of Oslo [Minn.].”
In the 18 years they worked together, Schmidt and Rustad were able to find new ways to enhance the lives of their members (or rather, friends and neighbors). Two of their highest priorities were keeping rates affordable and keeping outage times low – priorities that will remain high as Rustad takes over as CEO in January 2023.
“The changes that we’ve been making recently have been the right ones to reduce outage times. It’s strategic,” Schmidt said.
“We’ve been trying to get rid of our east-to-west lines and put them underground,” Rustad replied, adding that the lines to be buried are ones that have historically caused problems during major wind events.
PKM Electric has seen more than its fair share of weather disasters, the most unforgettable being the devastating ice storm and flood of 1997. For two weeks, the PKM Electric staff worked out of the Minnkota Power Cooperative warehouse in Grand Forks, N.D.
“We were answering the phone without a computer system to look things up. We didn’t have a backup generator, so we were using flashlights,” he said. “We did our worst-case scenario planning, but this was way off the charts for worst-case. We had every single account out of power.”
The ice storm snapped around 3,500 of PKM’s 33,000 power poles. Ten percent of their line infrastructure was on the ground. However, in true cooperative fashion, line crews from around the region arrived to help. “We normally have eight or nine linemen, and there were 140 linemen working here. That was memorable.” Schmidt said.
Time of transition
Rustad says he admires the leadership qualities of his CEO predecessor, especially his policy of open and honest communication. Rustad will continue Schmidt’s monthly staff meetings to be sure the PKM family is informed of changes at the cooperative or the industry as a whole.
In addition to nearly two decades of learning from Schmidt, Rustad will also bring knowledge gained from the NRECA’s Management Internship Program (MIP), a six-week intensive course for aspiring cooperative leaders. At the start of the new year, he’ll join the ranks of more than 40 other CEOs across Minnesota, many of whom took the same path to leadership as he did.
“I told Jeff that if he needs help in the future, I’m available,” Schmidt said.
“You’re not changing your phone number,” Rustad teased back.
Schmidt might be harder to call in retirement, though. When he’s not spending time with his three children and four grandkids, he plans to be casting a fishing line up in the Lake of the Woods. “We have a place that’s remote, so it’s me and the bears and the wolves and the deer. And I hardly get a cellphone signal – emails don’t come in. So that’s pretty good,” he said with a smile.
MAIN IMAGE: PKM Electric CEO Mike Schmidt (left) says he's confident Rustad will be a strong leader for the cooperative.