Manager "Lars" Nygren Retires
The curtains in Ordean “Lars” Nygren’s office are no laughing matter, although some of the Capital Electric Cooperative employees like to rib him about them every now and again for fun. The brown- and gold-striped curtains were hung decades before Nygren was hired by the cooperative in 1983, and they’ll likely be retired on April 1 — the same day Lars will retire, after having served as general manager for 32 years.
The curtains could rightly be accused of being old-fashioned and out of style. But they speak volumes about some of the leadership qualities Lars has shown daily and during some contentious times for the cooperative, and how he handled decisions with great thought and care. He has always treated the cooperative membership’s money as if it was his own.
“If we got new drapes, the guy at the end of the line in McClusky wasn’t going to see a difference,” Lars said recently. “Now, if we installed an automated meter reading system or TWACS (the cooperative’s two-way automatic communications system), yes it would. It will help us know when the member is out of service.”
Boldly going forward and getting it done
Lars was hired in August 1983 by a personnel committee consisting of three Capital Electric board members including Bernard Falkenstein, Art Hinkle and Duane “Rusty” Lasher. Bernard, who had served on the board since 1977, says the committee was impressed with Lars, who was working as the Minot office manager of Verendrye Electric Cooperative, because he was “one of us.”
“He came from a farm background and everything was right,” Bernard remembers. “You could see the co-op qualities in him. He was a co-op person.”
The cooperative experienced significant growth during Lars’ tenure as manager. In 1983 there were 5,900 member-consumers, compared to 16,228 in December 2015. Yet, the office staff only grew from 27 full-time employees to 34, in addition to some part-time help.
“We have a great staff that knows how to work as a team,” Lars says.
From the mid-1980s until 2008, the cooperative was able to maintain its general service rate until Capital Electric’s power suppliers started building more generation. Even though a significant amount of money has been invested to add renewable energy sources and other generation to the mix and upgrade technology at the coal plants to reduce emissions, Capital Electric has been able to keep its rates competitive under Lars’ leadership.
The cooperative has also experienced significant challenges over the years, some of which include a territory dispute in 2006 with Montana-Dakota Utilities over providing electric service to a Boulder Ridge subdivision in north Bismarck; a snow and ice storm in 2010 that caused power outages and destroyed more than 400 utility poles; and the flooding of the Missouri River in 2011 that devastated some homes along the river.
Lars says the cooperative has made the best of some difficult situations, and perhaps paved the way for other cooperatives in some instances — thanks in great part to the work and commitment of cooperative employees.
“They make management a lot easier. Without them, [running a business] isn’t going to work. You have to have dedicated troops who support the cause [of serving the memberowner]. And they do. There isn’t any question about it,” he says.
Capital Electric is a Touchstone Energy® Cooperative that takes pride in serving with integrity, accountability, innovation and commitment to community. Lars says co-op commitment has never been more obvious than when the Missouri River flooded parts of the Capital Electric service area in 2011. The cooperative had many flooded facilities including transformers, vacuum fault interrupters and miles of underground conductor. When some electrical infrastructure became submerged in the Sandy River Drive Development in northwest Bismarck, it jeopardized pumping efforts. In a monumental effort to save their homes from devastation, area residents worked with some Capital Electric employees to order an iron frame structure that could encircle a submerged circuit breaker and switching equipment. Once the frame was transported to the location by pontoon, along with a crane and sandbags, linemen cut off partial electric service to eliminate public safety risks. Then a line crew hoisted the frame over the circuit breaker, created a cofferdam around the equipment and pumped out the water. A lineman was then able to reroute the switching equipment. The temporary fix, which restored power to the impacted homes in the area, continued to work until linemen were able to get back to the site after the water receded, and inspect, clean and replace parts as needed.
“The innovation of the employees … not management; it was the employees … innovating with the folks, trying to figure out how they were going to get through this,” Lars reflects. “The many thank-yous we received from members reminded us what we already knew — we have a great staff.”
Dwight Wrangham, president of the Capital Electric board of directors, notes that a strong staff most often has a strong leader. In the board room, Dwight says he and the other board members see confidence in a manager who knows details to the very end.
“We see a manager who puts the information before us, makes his recommendation and allows the board to make their decision,” Dwight says. “The board has been honored to be represented by Lars on many local, state and federal organizations. When he participates in those things, we know he’s helping Capital Electric and all the other electric co-ops.”
Over the course of 30 years, Lars has served in additional cooperative capacities. He is the past chairman of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) cooperative management, employment and community committee, and the past chair of the Midwest Electric Consumers Association. He also served on the NRECA resolutions committee and the board of RESCO, a regional co-op supply group. All of these organizations serve co-ops and their members.
Paul Fitterer, the cooperative’s business manager who will take over as general manager on April 1, says Lars’ participation in the electric cooperative network has helped him understand the “big picture.”
“He’s really knowledgeable about the industry in general, and how Basin Electric and Minnkota Power Cooperative got started, and all the political players. Things we talked about years ago, he’ll bring up and remember the data,” Paul says. “He knows a ton of history and has a mind like a steel trap.”
Doug Mork, the cooperative’s member services director, says he appreciates how Lars never micromanaged and allowed the department heads to make decisions.
“If you understood what you wanted and brought it to him, and provided the back-up you’d need, he was always on-board with you,” he says. “There might have been cheaper ways to do some things, but if you could explain why your choice was probably better for the membership, Lars was ready to explain it to the board.”
Wes Engbrecht, the co-op’s director of communications and public relations, says Lars has lived and breathed Capital Electric and the cooperative world in general, and credits him for not cutting corners.
“He doesn’t come back from being out-of-town on business at 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m. and go home; he comes to the office until 5 p.m.,” Wes describes.
“There’s a lot of pressure with regard to making big decisions. Lars just boldly goes forward and gets it done.”
On occasion, it’s done with a laugh. Every now and again, those who know Lars best say he would get the giggles that would eventually leave everyone in tears. He also used colorful and often humorous analogies to describe the situation at-hand.
He didn’t often laugh about his old curtains, though, or his company car. He drove a 2001 Dodge Intrepid that could easily have been budgeted for and updated over the years. He chose to keep using the Intrepid.
“Lars has managed to the right of center, as far as being a little more conservative,” says Doug. “I think that’s where he had to be because he was dealing with the board, dealing with the employees, dealing with the members and dealing with a lot of money. I respect him for that. I really do.”
After retirement, Lars says he plans to travel to Minnesota, Florida, Canada and Alaska, and do some relaxing and fishing with family and friends. Married for 39 years, Lars and Helen enjoy spending time with their children, Andrew and Maren, and grandchildren Monica, Malayna, Michael and Matthew. He also hopes to maintain many of his cooperative connections.
Arlene Olson, vice president of the Capital Electric board of directors, concludes by thanking Lars for the 32 years he gave to the cooperative.
“Capital Electric has grown beyond any of the board’s expectations they might have had at the time they hired you,” she says. “You’ve been a shining star not only for Capital Electric, but across the nation. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done.”