Face-to-Face to Facebook,
Brostuen Built Relationships
An IBM model 30 with 30 MB of memory. That was leading technology in 1987 when Chris Brostuen started his career with Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative.
“We backed it up to a floppy drive,” he said. “It was the only personal computer in the entire co-op. Now there’s iPads in the line trucks. A lot has changed.”
After more than 35 years, Brostuen will retire from the co-op in January 2023.
A lifelong Williston resident, he worked summers with MWEC during college and landed a full-time position in the engineering department after graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree from Montana State University.
Much of his career has been in the Member Services department, which primarily involves communications and right-of-way acquisition. While the tools he used changed over the years, the core of the work has always been the same.
“It’s all about building relationships,” he said.
Brostuen enjoyed sitting down at the kitchen tables of landowners, and in the shops of farmers, to talk about the easements needed to build power lines.
“You really get to know your members and what makes them tick,” he said. “When you’re out in the public, there’s always something to talk about.”
Getting to know members is key to what Brostuen calls the “two-way street” of his role at MWEC.
“I think the biggest goal in communications is making sure the needs of member-consumers were are being communicated to the co-op, so that we succeed in meeting their needs.
The other side of that street?
”It’s building trust with the members on how the co-op conducts business on their behalf and that it has a vision for the future,” Brostuen said.
In the early days, his main tools included the North Dakota Living magazine, the annual meeting, some radio and television, and “a lot of face-to-face communication,” he said.
“That’s really changed to today with cell phones for texting and email. There’s more reliance on electronic communications. We work more in Facebook and our web page.” .
Communicating online is just another way to get to know people.
“It’s fun seeing the Facebook messages and comments from members and what their thoughts are. They’re more expressive, you might say. Sometimes it’s the best way to find out what a member really thinks,” Brostuen said.
When weather strikes, those lines of communication are essential.
“At the end of April, we had an ice storm that really impacted our area. That morning, we did not have one meter spinning,” he said.
Members depend on updates through the web page and Facebook, and also more traditional mediums of radio, television and print. “We still have a good number of elderly who like to hear and read news, so we still focus on them,” Brostuen said.
Young and old alike are more dependent on electricity than ever before.
“Especially with the Internet,” Brostuen said. “Today when you don’t have power it’s quite a burden and it impacts your quality of life. Even a half-hour outage can be hard on people who use it to do business.”
Building a strong co-op is important for current members, but also for making the area an attractive place for newcomers to live and work and raise a family.
Brostuen said it’s been essential to be involved in the local community and beyond – from communicating the value of electric power to consumers at the Upper Missouri Valley Fair to networking with national co-op groups.
“It’s a tiered approach with a lot of interaction on the local, county, state and national levels,” he said.
The co-op’s growth over the span of his career has been significant. “In the late ‘80s we were doing 30 megawatts, today it’s 600 megawatts, so that’s 20 times growth,” he said.
Brostuen pointed to load growth coming from commercial and industrial sectors – mainly oil and gas – over the last decade. “Because we sell so much energy we have been able to keep rates lower,” he said.
The bottom line? “When the members are doing good, the coop does good.”
It’s been a good run for Brostuen, who chuckles about the date of his last day with MWEC.
“Friday, January 13th,” he said. “So I say the first day of my retirement will be Saturday, January 14th.”
Brostuen plans to hit the links and work on a hole in one, and he and wife Sheila look forward to having time to travel and spend more time with family. They’d planned to spend time in the Fort Myers Beach, Florida, area in January – until Hurricane Ian hit.
“That was a blow to our travel plans, so we’re looking at options further north in the coastal area west of Tampa,” Brostuen said.
Even in retirement, he’ll remain tied to the MWEC.
“I just hope we continue to meet the needs of the co-op’s members and keep them in the heart of the coop. I hope it continues to be a good relationship and that we’re all successful together.”