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Commentary: Black History: A Conversation with Curtis Wynn

Commentary: Black History: A Conversation with Curtis Wynn
February 14
17:15 2018

Curtis Wynn has a big role, a big heart, a big family and a passion for small communities.  We connected on a rainy Saturday morning during his “quiet time” – a two-hour window before his wife rises. 

Wynn was already thinking ahead to what he needed to accomplish later in the day, which included visiting the widow of a retired co-worker who recently passed.

Wynn was born and raised in Graceville, Florida, a rural community near Tallahassee.  Wynn’s father was a farmer, so his passion for rural America started at a young age.  While in high school, Wynn landed a job at West Florida Electric Cooperative, a nonprofit rural utility headquartered in Graceville.  He washed trucks, cleaned out the warehouse and dreamed of one day becoming a line technician.

“I always knew that I wanted to work at the co-op,” stated Wynn, but it was a supervisor who encouraged a young Wynn to go to college.  So he attended Troy University, a small public university located in Troy, Alabama, close to Montgomery.  Wynn graduated in 1985 with a degree in business and information systems.

Wynn returned home and took a position at West Florida Electric.  He would eventually spend 17 years at the company and become vice president with a range of oversight that included information technology, marketing and member services.  It was also during his stint at West Florida Electric when he would meet his wife of 25 years in the elevator after sitting for an interview.  I guaranteed his wife no similar event would happen after our conversation 🙂

Wynn hoped to lead West Florida Electric when the role became available, despite feeling more than qualified, the Board of Directors made up of nine white males rejected his bid.  “It was the first time I felt any resistance to upward movement at the company,” Wynn shared, “I believe they wanted someone who more closely resembled the local demographics.”  Less than 1 percent of Graceville’s population is African-American.

Wynn prides himself on maintaining strong relationships and it was a close friend that would bring him to Eastern North Carolina.  Roanoke Electric Cooperative had gone through some changes and they expressed the desire to have an African-American lead their organization. 

Wynn had never visited North Carolina, had no relatives in the state, but applied for the open position.  Within 45 minutes after his interview, Wynn received a call when he arrived back at his hotel; they selected him to become their new president and CEO.  Wynn is the first African-American to serve in the role, but made it clear that he doesn’t want to be the last.

“I was excited, I knew the corporate culture and people were the right fit,” said Wynn, “You don’t always need an engineering background to run an electric co-op.” 

After 20 years at the company, Wynn, his wife, and three children firmly believe the move was a great decision.  Not to mention Eastern North Carolina closely resemble the rural area that he called home in Florida.

Electric cooperatives were originally created in the 1930s to generate economic development in rural communities that were underserved by investor-owned power generators.  Cooperatives have no shareholders, they are not investment driven and customers own the utility.   Without affordable, safe, and quality electricity, these small communities would have died.  Wynn takes the industry’s history and overall mission seriously.

“We are only as good as our member participation, so I encourage members to get engaged,” stated Wynn, “We need everyday folks to serve on the board.” 

During his tenure, Wynn has led a number of initiatives designed to enhance the quality of life for their members, but he also takes pride in distributing $750,000 back to members in 2017 – a clear sign Wynn is running a profitable company.

He is most proud of their energy efficiency program that provide members with “on bill” financing to make critical upgrades at their homes, which can often lead to as much as 35 percent in savings.  A large sum in a market where families may choose between paying the electric bill and putting food on the table.

Wynn also spoke extensively about their sustainable forestry program – typically a utility may not lead the charge on such an effort – but in rural America electric cooperatives may be one of the few institutions that have gained trust.  The program is a partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture and specifically targets black landowners and provides awareness and education on how to setup forestry programs and other revenue producing activity. 

Many black families lose their land due to unpaid taxes or they may not have a will in place to properly transfer ownership – both liabilities that Wynn hopes to ease.  Over the past three years, the program has assisted over 100 landowners with selling timber for maximum dollars, abating taxes, and the implementation of forest management practices.

When questioned about the future of Roanoke Electric, Wynn shares a vision of utilizing the organization to provide broadband services in rural areas.  in North Carolina, 145,000 people don’t have any wired internet providers available where they live and 1.1 million people have access to only one wired provider, leaving them no options to switch.

Wynn also is looking forward to leading the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a trade association that represents over 900 electric cooperatives in the country. He currently serves as vice president and represents North Carolina on their Board of Directors – but in 2019 he will ascend to role of president.  Wynn has come a long way since his days laboring at West Florida Electric in Graceville.

“The industry needs a diverse set of people, skills, and talent – it’s a good time to be in the utility industry,” stated Wynn.

Algenon Cash is a nationally recognized speaker and the managing director of Wharton Gladden & Company, an investment banking firm. Reach him at acash@nullalgenoncash.com.

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