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When Debra Cole, general manager and CEO of HILCO Electric Cooperative, ventures out into the community, it’s not unusual for members to stop and talk to her about the cooperative. It’s something she loves about her job and will cherish forever.
Cole’s name and face are known throughout the communities HILCO serves, and she spent her career making that happen by being accessible and member-focused. “It made me proud that our members were always comfortable calling me to ask me questions or stopping me in public to ask me a question,” she said. “I am glad that I made them realize the cooperative was important to me.”
Cole began her career with HILCO EC (then Hill County Electric Cooperative) in 1984. She has worn many hats and seen many changes since then. “Years ago, the member coming into the office to pay their monthly bill was actually a visit session,” she said. “You caught up on what they had been doing all month, and you felt as if they were actually a friend.” With today’s automated payment options, co-op employees don’t get to see and visit with the membership as much, Cole said.
In 1997, Cole became the first woman assigned to the co-op’s operations department as the operations coordinator. In 2000, she was promoted to office manager, and in 2001, she advanced to assistant general manager. During these years, Cole worked under three general managers and two interim managers.
In 2007, Cole became one of the first women to serve as an electric cooperative general manager.
Her management experience prepared her for the challenges of being a female CEO in the electric cooperative industry. “I had worked in the operations department with nothing but males, and I never was a girly-girl, so I did OK holding my own,” she said. “Now, I did face some hurdles when I had to deal with people that didn’t know me and thought I might back down fairly easy, but it never took me too long to change opinions on that one.”
During Cole’s tenure at HILCO, the cooperative has grown from 10,000 meters to 29,000 meters. Despite that growth, HILCO’s member rating has always remained in the mid-to-upper 90th percentile, which Cole said is one of her proudest achievements. “To me, that means our members know we really care about them,” she said. 4706152006
Cole’s achievements have earned the respect of board members and employees over the years. “Debbie has given 35 years of dedicated service to HILCO members and employees and is going to be missed around here,” said Joe Tedesco, HILCO board president. “Her attention to detail, while keeping the broader picture in mind for the co-op, has been invaluable. Her willingness to put in the extra time and effort to help everyone become successful is something we all have come to depend upon.
“The board owes her a debt of gratitude for all the times she has helped to keep everyone on track, on time and within budget. We truly appreciate everything she has done over the years. Debbie’s retirement is our loss but a well-deserved respite for her,” Tedesco said. “It’s been a joy to work with someone so passionate, calm and professional all at the same time. Working with her has been such a pleasure. We will always appreciate her thoughtful, steady approach to solving any problem, large or small. She has proved that it doesn’t take a loud voice to accomplish tremendous things, and that is because of her outstanding leadership and mentoring to her staff. She leaves HILCO members in the hands of a very competent and able group led by our new CEO, Thomas Cheek. Best of luck and enjoy your retirement.”
Many employees echoed Tedesco’s sentiments about Cole’s leadership.
“Something I will always remember about Debbie and her time as the CEO is that she never asked an employee to do anything that she herself was not willing to do—that might be coming up to the office at 2 a.m. to help answer phones during an outage, keeping members updated or cleaning up the employee break room.”
—Lea Sanders, chief human resources officer
“Debbie has played a vital role in keeping the cooperative focused on helping others, which is the last but not least one of the cooperative principles, Concern for Community. We are shaped by the communities we serve, and Debbie has always strived to make things better while also making fair decisions.”
—Thomas Cheek, incoming general manager and CEO
“Most of our conversations regarding the cooperative show her desire to serve the members to the best of our ability and her appreciation of the cooperative employees.”
—Paula Farquhar, chief financial officer
Through the many hours Cole has dedicated to the members, employees and trustees of HILCO EC, she has earned the respect and admiration of us all.
After she steps down from the co-op June 30, Cole plans to take plenty of road trips with her husband, Gary, and spend time with her two children and numerous grandchildren.
“I will miss everything about the cooperative, but I’m still going to be part of the community and keep in touch,” Cole said. “I will miss the people, both co-workers and members. I will miss the opportunity to help someone and know they really appreciated my effort.”
Kendra Markwardt, director of marketing, described the culture Cole instilled at HILCO and the legacy she leaves. “Commitment, honesty and trust is what Debbie has created as general manager and CEO of HILCO,” she said. “She will be missed but never forgotten.”
Cole is confident she’s leaving the co-op in good hands when Cheek takes over. “Thomas will be a great leader, and he is surrounded by the best team any leader could ever ask for,” she said. “I wish him and the cooperative nothing but the best in the years to come. As I jokingly told him (not really joking, LOL), ‘I am a HILCO member, so don’t forget I will always be praying for you and keeping at least one eye on you!’ ”
Congratulations, Debbie, and thank you!