Pendergast says goodbye
When Mark Pendergast graduated from Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, Minn. he didn’t have any specific career goals. After a short time in a manufacturing production job he realized he needed a different future and saw the need to go back to school and enrolled in a two-year vocational program. He then went to work at the St. Cloud Times where he saw his future as a press operator, but instead he is now winding up a 38-year electric cooperative career when he retires as President and CEO of St. Croix Electric Cooperative, a position he’s held for 26 years (although when he was hired in 1992 his title was General Manager). His final day on the job is Monday, Nov. 19.
“My work at St. Croix Electric has been challenging and personally rewarding,” Pendergast said. “Together with a dedicated member-focused group of employees and directors, past and present, we’ve elevated St. Croix Electric Cooperative to be a best in class organization.”
He leaves the co-op with this final thought:
“One of my concerns for the future is making the cooperative’s services convenient and efficient while trying to hang on to the personal touch and the one-on-one service we can offer our members. I’m concerned we’ve been too successful in disengaging with our members via technology. If you want to sign up as a new member for electric service you can do this on our website. Most members no longer write out a check to pay their bill, it’s all done electronically. And there’s no need to call to report an outage since the meters do this automatically. If you think your bill is too high one month you can view your electric use by day and by hour through our website. Need information about our programs and services? Most members don’t call the office like they once did, they go to our website. The good news is, when you call the office a real person still answers your call.”
After beginning his adult working career in the newspaper business – first in production and then in management – Pendergast transitioned into the cooperative world when he accepted a communications position in the Member Services department at Stearns Electric Association in central Minnesota. There he wrote newsletters, promoted and worked with load management, coordinated the annual meeting, member advisory committee and handled high energy use issues.
By 1988 when he became manager of Stearns Electric’s newly-opened district office in St. Cloud, Minn., Pendergast was working to complete his Bachelor of Science degree in management and eventually an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University. The next step in his career took him (and his wife Teri and their two daughters, Allison and Andrea) to Webster, South Dakota where he was General Manager of Lake Region Electric Association.
“I was always willing to personally do what I needed to do to achieve my career goals,” Pendergast said. “We lived in three states, and I worked for three cooperatives. I never regretted moving our family.”
The final move for the family – and Pendergast’s career – came in November 1992 when he became General Manager at SCEC. His hiring concluded a 25-month shared management agreement with Pierce-Pepin Cooperative Services after a merger proposal in April 1990 failed to gain the two-thirds majority required to approve the plan. (Out of 806 total votes there were 436 in favor, 370 against.) Pendergast’s predecessor Don Somsen retired in July 1990 after 35 years with the co-op, the final 25 as general manager.
“I really value through my career the people who I met and worked with who had really hard jobs in the 40’s and 50’s without the benefit of modern equipment, and technology,” Pendergast said. “The tools they had to work with, the commitment they had to serving the members, in talking with the linemen back then … just appreciating the industry today and how things have gotten easier better for us and the members.”
As president/CEO Pendergast oversees the general management of the Cooperative and is responsible for economic and business development, assisting its for-profit subsidiary and overseeing the right-of-way maintenance program. He reports directly to the Co-op’s Board of Directors.
“All the years here the directors have been very good about letting us run the business day-to-day,” Pendergast said. “They want information, they want to be kept up-to-date, but they really focus on policies, finances and making sure what needs to get done to serve the members is being done.”
The feeling appears to be mutual – at least as far as District 7 Director Fran Klatt is concerned. Klatt is one of two incumbent directors who sat on the board in 1992 when Pendergast was hired. (The other is District 9 Director George Yates.)
“Mark doesn’t get enough credit for all the things he’s done,” Klatt said. “Mark has always been ahead of things enough to know what our next move should be.”
Among those moves was a literal move: In 1996, SCEC purchased 40 acres in Hammond and formed St. Croix Services, a for-profit subsidiary for non-electric business services and business development. In 1997 the Co-op relocated its office from Baldwin to Hammond. Development of the land included the addition of other commercial businesses – including what is now Russ Davis Wholesale, the co-op’s largest energy consumer – and the development of the Hammond-St. Croix Business Center and a TIF district. Another 40 acres was later purchased, half of which was developed for the 88th Army Reserve Command (Wisconsin). Currently, 21 acres are labeled “Gold Shovel Ready” for development as Hammond-St. Croix Business Center II.
Under Pendergast’s leadership, SCEC is one-seventh owner of BUCS, the company retained for mechanical tree trimming/removing, spraying and mowing services around overhead power lines. SCEC was also a founding member of the Cooperative Resource Center (CRC), Inc., which handles all after-hours and high-volume calls, primarily during outages, and monitors FirstCall Medical Monitoring units.
As time and technology progressed, Pendergast was an active player in the creation of Wisconsin’s first fully subscribed, member-supported community solar array, Sunflower 1. The 103-kW array is located on the north edge of Co-op’s office property and was energized on July 8, 2014. There are 120 member subscribers to the array’s 206 500-watt units.
“With all the different things the co-op has been involved with – St. Croix Services, property development, L.P. gas business, internet and more – my excess energy was focused on moving these initiatives forward with the help of dedicated staff,” Pendergast said.
Within the local community, he has been active in the Rotary Club of New Richmond, served on the board of the St. Croix Economic Development Corporation and as a member of the New Richmond Board of Education. He was also a member of a St. Croix County zoning ordinance review committee and has attended multiple board meetings of towns, villages and the county as he advocated for the Co-op. And of course he has met many St. Croix County neighbors through the course of his career.
“It’s remarkable how those of us who have worked here for a period of time reference member locations by who used to live there or by some event that happened,” he said. “We come in contact with so many members over the years. They remember us, we remember them. It’s kind of neat that we look after them all these years and they return the courtesy at times, thanking us, appreciating the linemen who are out there so quick and get things done.”
Pendergast, who lives near Deer Park and is a Polk Burnett Electric Cooperative member, said he has no plans to move out of the area after retirement: “When you have a zip code of 54007, where else would you want to live?”