North Star's guiding light
After a 43-year cooperative career, North Star Electric’s Ann Ellis is setting a new course – retirement.
The view out of Ann Ellis’ office window at North Star Electric Cooperative is a portrait of a northern Minnesota winter – a row of tall evergreen trees coated in a dusting of snow.
But looking back more than four decades to her first month at North Star, the co-op’s general manager recalls a not-so-serene scene.
“We had the worst storm of my career,” Ellis said, evoking the deer-hunting-opener blizzard. “Instead of walking the nine blocks to work in the morning, I remember rolling over the snowbanks in the road, trying to get to the office. We had some people out of power in the Swift area for three days. That’s the worst outage in my 43-year history.”
Ellis had just been hired as an office assistant, learning the ropes of the energy industry, finance and member service. Now, she’s retiring from the co-op’s top post, leaving the knowledge she has gained in the hands of her North Star colleagues.
“Those first days set the stage for showing me how the co-op invests in its employees. The co-op is so good about giving employees opportunities to grow, do their jobs better and advance,” she said.
Growing in the co-op
Ellis was eventually promoted to billing coordinator, and in 1986, a new opportunity arose while she was pregnant with her daughter, Lisa. It was an opening for North Star’s finance manager.
“The member services manager told me, ‘Ann, you need to apply,’” she said. “His confidence in me helped me move forward in that position. That taught me to help others and give them confidence to move forward as well.” Ellis was ultimately offered the finance manager position in the hospital, having just delivered Lisa.
As she grew within the co-op, she made sure the co-op was growing with her. Ellis points to several moments of pride in helping North Star evolve in terms of technology and member engagement.
Although she was knee-knocking nervous for her first annual meeting presentation, she soon turned the traditionally low-energy finance reports into interactive experiences. One year, she taped $5 bills to paper planes and flew them into the audience – but members could only keep the cash if they answered a multiple-choice question.
She also recalls when personal computers became a core co-op tool, after using equipment like keypunch machines to create single-use input data to feed into a neighboring business’s mainframe computer. Ellis and her co-worker Betty enrolled in an MREA-sponsored “Intro to PCs” course and quickly realized they had a lot to learn.
“The instructor, with his ponytail, gets up front and says, ‘We’re going to start, so go ahead and turn on your personal computers.’ I looked at Betty and said, ‘How do you do that?’” she said with a laugh. “On our way home, we were talking about all of the things we could do.” The duo ended up developing a finance spreadsheet that is still used today.
But Ellis’ proudest moment was less colorful than cash and computers. It was when she successfully convinced the board of directors that the co-op should raise the basic service fee (the fixed charge) and lower the kilowatt-hour (kWh) charge on members’ bills, something she had advocated for two years.
“I have had to prove things,” she said. “I think everyone should have to prove their point of view.”
Ellis served as finance manager until 2015, when the North Star board gave her the nod to become the next general manager. As captain of the ship for the past five years, she has followed one guiding star – the members. She ensures every new employee sets their compass that way as well.
“It’s what you have to remember when you’re making decisions about what to do on a project or how to treat a member in the field – everything we do is about the members. And relationships just flow from that,” she said.
As a servant leader, Ellis earned the respect and friendship of those within the building and throughout the Minnkota system of cooperatives. She says she’s proud of North Star’s employees and board directors, adding that their hearts are in the right place and they will continue to serve the region well once she leaves.
“Ann has always been so helpful, supportive and encouraging,” said North Star finance manager Robyn Sonstegard, who has worked with Ellis for 13 years. “She has been a great leader for the co-op, always putting the goal of providing safe, reliable and affordable power at the forefront for our members.”
In her retirement, Ellis won’t lose her view of the northern Minnesota trees – she will surround herself with them. She and her husband of 40 years, Steve, will build a new home on a 40-acre parcel that her family bought and filled with forestry when she was young. “I helped my dad plant some of those trees when I was around 12,” she said. “So you can just imagine how beautiful those maples and Norway pines are now.”
The Ellises’ daughters, Lisa and Laura, have already put down roots on the tree farm with their families, having both built homes on the property. Once the third, newest house is raised next door, Ellis (7), JoJo (4) and Ivy (2) will have easy access to Nana and Papa.
“I’m looking forward to just looking out the window and watching the grandkids running down the driveway,” Ellis said, with no attempt to hide her delight.
Main image: Ann Ellis spends her last month in her North Star Electric Cooperative office. (Minnkota/Robyn Sonstegard)