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Changing of the guard at Clark Public Utilities

Wittler takes over as utility wins 12th consecutive award for customer service

By , Columbian staff reporter
5 Photos
A service representative helps a customer over the phone at Clark Public Utilities in 2019.
A service representative helps a customer over the phone at Clark Public Utilities in 2019. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Clark Public Utilities’ emphasis on customer service started more than a quarter-century ago, during a push to deregulate electricity.

Robert Hill, the utility’s customer service manager, remembers when then-CEO and General Manager Bruce Bosch asked two basic questions. What would happen if customers had a choice? Would they choose Clark Public Utilities?

“Bruce was the one who really transformed the culture,” said Hill, who recently completed his 28th year at Clark Public Utilities. “That was when I was just starting with the company. There was a real cultural shift.”

Bosch, viewed as decisive and visionary by some and abrasive and dictatorial by others, guided the utility through a contentious period when it built the River Road Generating Plant before resigning in 1997. Wayne Nelson became the utility’s top executive in 1999 and ushered in a period of comparative stability.

Nelson’s retirement at the end of June marked a changing of the guard, one that new CEO and General Manager Lena Wittler wants to be barely discernible to the public utility district’s electricity and water customers.

“My hope is that it won’t,” said Wittler, who took over for Nelson on June 4. “My hope is they will continue to see the stability, the stability in rates. We haven’t had a rate increase in eight years.”

Wittler, a data and analytics wonk, has little reason to overhaul the utility’s approach to customer service. In late June, Clark Public Utilities learned that J.D. Power had ranked the agency highest for customer satisfaction among midsize utilities across a 14-state region in the western United States.

This was the 12th consecutive year that J.D. Power ranked Clark No. 1 in the West for utilities with 100,000 to 499,999 residential customers. The utility celebrated its accomplishment by sending out a news release and buying maple bars for its customer service representatives.

J.D. Power bases its rankings on more than 100,000 online customer interviews from the nation’s 142 largest utilities that together serve more than 100 million households. The rankings consider customer satisfaction in six areas: power quality and reliability, price, billing and payment, communications, corporate citizenship and customer service.

The annual consumer study allows utilities to gauge items that drive overall customer satisfaction and benchmark their performance against other midsize utilities. For Wittler, this information affirms where the utility is doing well and points out where there is room for improvement.

Clark Public Utilities, she said, is an ideal size: big enough to be progressive, small enough to pivot and react quickly.

According to the American Public Power Association, Clark Public Utilities is the third-largest public power utility in the 17th-largest state in the nation, based on number of electrical customers served. Clark has 200,000 electricity customers.

“We are nimble,” Wittler said. “If you need something to happen, you can make it happen in two to three weeks.”

Customer service

Customer service at the utility district, Hill said, is about the proverbial “going above and beyond” and providing extras. When someone establishes a new account, the utility will provide other numbers the customer can use to order cable television and other services, he said.

“We don’t charge deposits when they start,” he said. “We let them know we think they are going to be a great customer from the very beginning.”

Clark Public Utilities

History: Created by a public vote in 1938. Added water service in 1950 and power generation in 1997 when the River Road Generating Plant started operations.

Service area: 628 square miles.

Customers: 203,000 electricity customers and 35,400 water customers.

Governance: Three nonpartisan commissioners — Nancy Barnes, Jim Malinowski and Jane Van Dyke — elected to six-year terms.

Top executive: CEO/General Manager Lena Wittler, appointed in June 2019.

Employees: Equivalent of 395 full-time employees.

Annual budget: $387.5 million for electricity and water operations, plus another $64.8 million for construction and other capital projects.

Hill said the most critical aspects of customer service include listening to the customer’s entire situation and treating each one with respect, especially during difficult situations involving past-due bills. The utility’s customer service representatives are trained to refer customers who are in financial need to other agencies that can help, he said.

“If they are behind on their electric bill, they are probably having issues with other parts of their life,” Hill said. “If they are able to get back caught up on their rent, that makes it easier for them to pay their electric bills.”

“Most of our employees live in the community,” he said. “When you talk to the employees, they take that very seriously. We are serving our neighbors.”

Customer-friendly policies and practices should not be confused with playing loose with dollars, Hill said.

“We are well below the industry average for bad debt write-off,” he said. “We are owned by the ratepayers, so we have to make sure we are controlling costs.”

Wittler said many of the programs, such as energy conservation, are beneficial in ways that go beyond boosting consumer satisfaction.

“If we can reduce their consumption, we don’t have to go out and purchase power somewhere else,” she said.

One of the extras is providing event tents for nonprofit and community organizations at no charge, a service that includes setup and breakdown.

“That’s a way to give back to our community,” Wittler said. “I know our commissioners value that.”

The day before commissioners selected Wittler as the utility’s top executive, Commissioner Jim Malinowski said the utility’s approach to customer service was so important that he would not want to entrust it to someone from outside the agency.

Wittler isn’t shy about endorsing the commissioners’ decision to hire internally.

“Things are very stable right now,” she said. “We don’t need someone coming in with a bunch of ideas to fix something that is not broken.”

There are still challenges ahead, including shifting power generation to clean, green sources.

The 2019 Legislature approved Senate Bill 5116, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed May 7, requiring Washington utilities to stop using fossil fuels, namely coal and natural gas, and generate 100 percent of electricity from renewable sources by January 2045. The legislation includes a 2 percent cost cap, meaning a utility would not have to meet the 100 percent requirement if the cost of doing so exceeded 2 percent of its electricity revenue from homes, businesses and other retail customers.

In 2017, Clark Public Utilities received 62.8 percent of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration and its network of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Another 28.7 percent came from its River Road Generating Plant, which is fired by natural gas. The remaining 8.5 percent came from nuclear, coal and other sources.

First female leader

Wittler is the utility’s first female general manager in its 81-year history.

She grew up in the Washougal-Skamania County area. When she was 16, she worked as a summer tour guide at Bonneville Dam, explaining the fundamentals of electricity and the basics of fish passage.

Wittler earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Willamette University in 1993 and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Portland in 2003. During her senior year at Willamette, she participated in a study abroad program in England.

“The diversity of London I think was good for me to see at a young age,” she said.

She started working for Clark Public Utilities in June 1999 and progressed through a series of jobs in communications and human resources. In her last position before taking over as CEO, she oversaw communications, public affairs, utility research and analytics, human resources and loss control.

Wittler’s salary is $240,000 annually, plus a $400 a month car allowance. She receives the same benefits package as other nonunion employees.

Columbian staff reporter