‘To leave things better than I found them’

CEO shares her approach to leadership and running a utility company

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With 18 years in the business, Kimberly Schlichting was named president and CEO of the Delaware Municipal Electric Corporation (DEMEC) in October 2021. She took time to share her vision for serving the community, as the leader not-for-profit utility.

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: After being Smyrna’s assistant town manager, what attracted you to DEMEC to become company vice president and later, COO?

My bait was to come learn new things! Education is important to me … I fell in love with it, and it’s been challenging, it’s ever changing, evolving, and you never get bored. There’s always something new.

There are three basic models for electric service: investor-owned, the member-owned cooperative and DEMEC, which focuses on the municipal utilities for eight municipalities. If they aggregate together, then DEMEC can advocate for better prices.

There is a lot of juggling, for the unique needs of each community. While they are alike, they may approach things a bit differently, depending on their needs. For example, we have a state renewable portfolio in place, and there’s a minimum state target that we hit each year. If there’s community that wants to exceed that target, we would help them reach that. Or some communities might want to deploy more electric vehicle charging stations, and we can help that. It varies.

Q: How has the industry changed, and what keeps you interested in it?

Over the 18 years, I have enjoyed growing the company to what it is today. When I first started, we focused primarily on power supply. We’ve grown the different services for our members, from training to mutual aid to representation on different state committees.

I am passionate about public power, and it’s exciting to be part of this organization. I’ve had the unique opportunity to see what similar business models are doing across the country and learn from those best practices to bring back home.

Q: What are some challenges and growing moments that you’ve helped deal with?

Growing moments include responding to different state mandates or other programs our members wanted to get involved in that required us to hire more staff in — and training them to make sure we were providing value to our members.

As we evolved our power supply to be more green and reduce our carbon footprint, it’s brought in a whole new focus … evaluating when the time is right to [find new sources] while balancing the reliability of an essential service. We [as people] don’t like to see a blip in our electric. We don’t like to come home and re-set our clocks. It’s a challenge to go from a power that was one-directional and sending power to homes — to power flowing both ways in a system not originally designed for that.

Q: What excites you about the future of your workplace and of electric power?

It’s ever-changing, and I think we have an opportunity to keep improving what we do. And all these things that bring saving to our members (these cities and towns) because then they can pass the savings onto their customers and families. Everything we do is trying to bring savings and value.

Q: What is your style of leadership?

I believe in an all-hand-on approach, and I truly believe in empowering my coworkers so they can work to their full potential. I want to continue to see them expand and strengthen their knowledge because then they can continue to make even more meaningful contribution to benefit our members. I think that embracing the diversity of our workforce … allows us to consider everyone’s point of view and allows us to make better decisions. Our customer base is diverse, so the decisions we make should be based on diverse input.

Q: What do you think your employees would say about you as a leader?

I hope they would think that I’m fair and caring and have every intent to do what is best for the company — and that I’m passionate about what I do.

Q: You said you like to keep you and your employees learning. How does that fit into your life?

This industry is changing, so if we don’t keep up, attending conferences and training, we will fall behind on our knowledge and expertise, we won’t be the best resource for our members. So we are required to keep up with training. I’m excited that we will have a training yard for our line workers. I’m waiting for final approval so we can break ground. It will be a training yard so instead of travelling out-of-state, municipal apprentices can train right here, centrally located in the state, in Smyrna.

Q: That sounds like a good thing for the staff themselves.

We offer training on everything, including customer service and how to handle conflict. We offer a wide variety of training because it’s not just the linemen who keep the lights on. We must work together as a team. Each cog in the machine is important. Most times when you go turn on a light, … you never really think about what goes on behind the scenes. The goal is that [customers] don’t have to think about it.

Q: This event is called “What Women Want.” What do you want for yourself or the world?

That’s hard … I want the same for myself as I want for other people: to live life to my full potential and make sure my life fulfills the purpose that God has for me. I like to leave things better than I found them, and that kind of spills over for the company as well, looking for ways to improve it, so when it [eventually] comes time to retire or leave I can feel that I’ve truly left things even better. It betters the utilities, and we’re reducing our carbon footprint, which not only helps the state, but also bettering the world in which we live.

Q: I feel it’s unusual to hear a power utility talk about carbon savings when that’s perhaps not the cheapest option.

I think it’s our duty. … Sometimes it’s not always about what’s cheapest, it’s about finding that balance because there are costs for everything. There again, we represent our members, and there’s a lot of customers that want that greener footprint and more renewables. Our mission is not just money, but meeting the needs of our consumer base, and balancing that. It’s something that we can’t ignore, and it’s something we have to address and meet.

Q: By the way, tell us about your pup, Lily, and your service activities. 

She was a rescue dog from Puerto Rico when they had the hurricane back in 2017. We joined Paws for People, which is dogs for therapy, whether visiting libraries or hospitals. She loves doing it [although she’s on hiatus since COVID-19 became widespread].

And I’m a part of the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, helping other women navigate through the challenges of breast cancer, as a peer mentor. My mentor meant so much to me in a dark period of my life that I wanted to make myself available to others going through that.

Also exciting: DEMEC is getting ready to go back to Navajo Nation. [The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority will welcome volunteers for Light Up Navajo III, an effort with the American Public Power Association to bring electricity to families. DEMEC participated in 2019.] I’ve got three different linemen from our municipal members to go out with me in May to help bring electric to Native Americans who have never had it before. This is my passion —we’re not only bringing a good service to our customers, but to people who have never had it before. Can you imagine an essential service, like electric, and people in America who have never had it? So, I can’t wait to go out and advance the project next month. We take electricity for granted, and these people out there want it so desperately. It’s exciting to be part of that and see them turn on a light for the first time in their home.