Seasons of Service
Eighteen million, four hundred eight thousand, two hundred twenty minutes; three hundred six thousand, eight hundred and three hours; or twelve thousand, seven hundred eighty-three days—no matter how you count it, it adds up to 35 years. To riff off the song Seasons of Love, how do you measure a year:
In daylights, in sunsets,
In miles of line, in members served?
In new construction, in number of storms,
In manpower needed, in power restored?
For General Manager John Middleton (middle), Operations Manager Travis Page (right), Warehouseman Rob Taylor (left) and Manager of Human Resources and Safety David Smith (not pictured), they each have their own story tell about the past 35 years serving Okefenoke REMC.
As General Manager John Middleton puts it, “my first real job at OREMC was when I was hired as an engineer to remap the entire system. Travis Page and I were hired to update the maps as it was period of high growth, particularly in Camden County, and it was hard for the guys in the field to keep paper maps current. Once we did, we then began to transfer them to a digitized system.”
While John was hired in 1988 after graduating from Georgia Southern University, he actually grew up in the business. His father, Emory Middleton, was general manager when he was hired and had been working at OREMC since the early 1950s. John recalls, “When I was a kid, OREMC didn’t have 24-hour dispatch like we do now. My dad was the assistant manager, so when the office closed at 5 p.m., the phones rolled over to our house. My mom and my brother, Mark, answered the phones, but I had to maintain the consumer index—a duplicate of the file at the office—where every member had a card with their name, account number and map number location. It was my job to add new members and purge disconnected accounts. It was definitely a family affair.”
And that sense of family is one of the things that hasn’t changed. While years ago, quite literally several members of the same family would work at OREMC, today there is a nepotism policy in place. However, John says, the commitment of employees to serve our members and support one another has maintained that sense of family at OREMC.
What has changed over the years is the workforce. John says OREMC employees have always been dedicated, but today’s employees are better trained, more educated, have better equipment and are much safter as technology and national best practices have improved. Better technology and right of way management have also led to vast improvement in OREMC’s system reliability over time.
John became general manager in 2000. He says the circumstances that led him to this position are among one of the most notable time periods in his career. His predecessor had been instrumental in building OREMC back to a stronger financial position and significantly improved employee morale after a particularly difficult time in the co-op’s history. “Naturally,” John notes, “there was some concern about what would happen and where do we go from here? But I had a lot of help from the Staff Leadership team. Our strong bond working together enabled us to continue moving forward. That is what is most notable, the people I’ve had to work with and the relationships built over time.”
To sum it all up, “Working at OREMC is rewarding,” John says. “The people, the relationships and that we provide a service to our members. I like the cooperative business model.”
Like many before him, Operations Manager Travis Page got his start at OREMC cutting right of way during the summer. When he hired on full-time it was as a draftsman/dispatcher, and worked primarily on updating system maps and converting them from paper to digital. He became manager of operations in 2012 after Danny Thornton retired, having served as his assistant manager.
“Everything has changed,” Travis says in reflecting over his 35 years. “The equipment is better, system is more automated, the work environment is safer as standardized best practices, processes and procedures were implemented and the system as a whole is a better product.”
On the flip side, what hasn’t changed is that OREMC is still a family-oriented company. “Our members are our focus and we take pride in our work and our company and how we are represented in the community,” Travis notes. “But it is also all I have ever known as my dad and uncle both worked at OREMC.”
When asked what has been most notable to him over the years, Travis said he really enjoyed going through the lineman program. “I won’t ever be a lineman, but in going through the program along with some of the guys, I better understand the job and it brought me closer to them—we created a bond beyond me just being their supervisor.”
He chuckles as he recalls being given the official OREMC shirt in bright pink, not gray like the rest of them, to wear at a lineman rodeo where he could put his skills to the test. “They could see me anywhere on the course throughout the day in that pink shirt. I stood out like a sore thumb, but I was happy and proud to wear it and it showed they were comfortable with me.”
Rounding out his thoughts on his tenure at OREMC, Travis says, “Working at OREMC is one of the best opportunities anyone could have. There is family, church and work that supports all of that. Can’t imagine going anywhere else. It is all about opportunity and leaving it better than we found it.”
David Smith began his OREMC career as a meter reader, a job that no longer exists at the co-op. “Never thought we’d have the capability of managing connects/disconnects or energizing line equipment from the office, but technology sure has changed a lot,” muses David.
After a thoughtful and reflective pause, he continues, “Back then we didn’t have district offices. I started my day at the house in Hilliard by signing on over the radio. Everything we did was communicated over the radio. Today we use radios very little, except when communicating with dispatch.”
Prior to district offices being built in Hilliard and Kingsland, David describes their operational base in Florida being out of a shed by the Callahan substation. At that time, part of Duval County was in OREMC service area. David recalls, “It was 59 minutes from my house to Black Hammock Island. Having the district office, even getting a bucket truck, was a big deal as it gave us what we needed to restore power. Prior to that, we’d get down there, find a short, radio into dispatch what we needed and have to wait on a crew from Nahunta to arrive with materials and equipment. Opening the district offices showed how much we had grown, that the need was there to better serve our members.”
By then David’s role at OREMC had changed as well. From meter reading he moved into construction and was a foreman, before later becoming a member service representative. He got back into operations by taking on management of safety and loss control, then adding human resources manager to the mix.
“Progress,” David says. “We have evolved operationally in building and maintaining a more reliable distribution system over the years. It is necessary to keep up with the times as advances in technology enable us to provide better service to our members, because at the end of the day, that is what we owe them.”
As for what hasn’t changed, “Dedication to our members. They are why we are here.”
So, what started 35 years ago—just as David was about to get married— as a job that promised a solid career path, has become “my life,” David insists. “I’m blessed to be doing what I do.”
When Warehouseman Rob Taylor first came to OREMC, he worked as an automotive shop helper. Around the same time, he also felt called to join the military and was active duty with the U.S. Marine Corp. for six months and then served in the reserves for eight years. Back at OREMC he was promoted to mechanic, and then took a position as warehouse mechanic in the newly opened Hilliard district office.
After five years in Hilliard, Rob had the opportunity to come back “home” to Nahunta and take over the warehouseman position that became available due to a retirement. “I’ll never forget being able to come back to Nahunta,” Rob recalls. “I was young, just married and our family was here, so I was happy to have the chance to come back.” Maintaining inventory control, quality assurance, issuing materials to the line crews, minor facility maintenance and maintaining the operation yard are all part of his daily routine. It should also be noted Rob decided to go back to the military and joined the Georgia Army National Guard and has 21 years of combined service.
While Rob’s days may have some semblance of regularity, a vast amount of change at OREMC has occurred around him over the years. “We have much better facilities, better vehicles and equipment, and the changes in industry and technology have upgraded our materials, resulting in more components to keep up with. And there have been a lot of employee changes, many new faces in recent years.”
However, Rob insists what hasn’t changed at OREMC is the business at hand: providing power at a reasonable price and keeping the lights on. “I remember what we all call the ‘storm of the century’ that hit in 1993. I had heard stories from old-timers about the ice storms and the system damage they caused but had never seen devastation like I did after that storm. We worked tirelessly to get power restored. That’s when I realized what it really takes to keep the lights on and how hard the line crews work.”