By Errol Castens
OXFORD – When the office doors closed last Friday at North East Mississippi Electric Power Association, Bob Collier ended 23 years as the cooperative’s general manager and CEO. A Nettleton native, he came to the job after serving other utilities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Virginia.
Those 23 years have seen “huge changes,” he said, both in the region that NEMEPA serves and in the industry in general.
“When I started we had about 11,100 members; now we’re approaching 24,000,” Collier said. “Every meter is read every day with smart-meter. We operate our substations remotely.”
He said that even the utility’s right-of-way is “in wonderful shape.” That would be an upgrade prompted by the February 1994 winter storm, when countless ice-laden limbs and even whole trees fell on equally burdened wires and took out the entire system.
“That was a memorable event,” Collier said – a studied understatement to describe a disaster that interrupted power to more than 2 million people and did more than $3 billion in damage across nine states.
“We came into the office that morning and didn’t have a single member with service,” Collier said. “It was 28 days before we had the last connection restored.”
During that time, North East’s 920-square-mile service area, which includes parts of Lafayette, Marshall, Union, Pontotoc, and Benton counties, was crisscrossed by its own three dozen field employees plus as many as 350 outside crew members brought in from several states around. To customers sitting at home in the cold and the dark, the progress may have seemed slow, but Collier said it was a period of maximum effort.
“With a system our size, you can just manage X amount of crew members,” he said. “We were really maxed out in crew numbers. You can’t manage many more.”
In turn, of course, North East Power has sent its crews to help with other natural disasters.
“We’ve been to nearly all the hurricanes, including Katrina,” Collier said.
One new facet in NEMEPA’s operations is both a precaution against disaster and a response to growing concerns about aesthetics.
“We’re doing a lot more underground installation than when I first started,” he said.
Collier’s role as utility CEO has extended to leadership roles in numerous professional, civic and economic development organizations, including TVPPA North Mississippi Managers Association, North Mississippi Industrial Development Association, Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce/Economic Development Foundation, Electric Power Associations of Mississippi, EPA-MS Credit Union and Oxford Rotary Club.
Along the way, working with TVA, EDF and other organizations, NEMEPA has helped recruit such industries as Caterpillar and Olin/Winchester to Oxford and the Walmart Distribution Center and Diversity Vuteq to New Albany. It also helped the University of Mississippi build its own leading-edge, peak-time and emergency generation system.
Collier said even in retirement he’s likely to look for opportunities to contribute to his community. He and his wife, Judy, also are looking forward to more time with their daughters’ families.
Keith Hayward, Collier’s successor, actually has been at NEMEPA two years longer than Collier, having started with the utility soon after finishing college.
“I’m going to help with the transition,” Collier said, “but I’m leaving everything in good hands.”