BY: STEVEN FITZPATRICK, F. A. PEABODY INSURANCE
John Clark, retired general manager of the Houlton Water Company, says he is glad to be starting out his retirement knowing he has left the company in good hands with new general manager, Greg Sherman. Greg is only the fifth general manager of the company since the town of Houlton first bought it in 1902. The dedication of its employees is one of the biggest reasons the company is successful. The company’s rich history is proof of people working together to make the community better.
Houlton Water Company History
In 1887, a fire destroyed 21 buildings in Houlton, and already high fire insurance premiums skyrocketed. The town decided to build a water system to increase safety and reduce insurance costs. As a result, the Houlton Water Company was chartered in 1890. Over the next few years, the company added sewer and electric departments. In 1902, the town purchased all the stock in the company. Other towns in Maine have power, water, and sewer departments. However, Houlton Water Company is the only separate utility corporation that is owned by a town.
On each of the white boards in the meeting areas of the Houlton Water Company, John Clark has written a key company mantra on top. They are: Safety first. Quality second. Quantity third. He remembers being a young engineer at a Massachusetts power company. On one occasion, he accompanied his manager to the home of a coworker who was killed on the job to inform the widow of her loss. He determined that he never wanted to do such a thing again. So, he has made safety the top priority for himself and everyone who works with him. Staff are trained in safety through both in-house training and training by outside specialists. Because of these efforts, the Houlton Water Company has won the prestigious SHAPE (Safety and Health Award for Public Employers) award from the Maine Department of Labor every year since 2012.
Lower Than Average Rates
The Houlton Water Company boasts electric rates that are 35 percent lower than the Maine average. John and Greg attribute these low costs to several different factors. Because the company is tax exempt, it can borrow money at much lower interest rates. The company is owned by the town, so there are no stockholders and it answers only to customers. As a nonprofit organization, all savings are passed on to the customer.
In 1984, there were 33 full-time employees. Since then, supervisors and employees have taken on more responsibility. Through cross-training within their respective departments, on-the-job training, and professional development, the workforce now numbers 21 yet still provides the same reliable service at an affordable price. These efforts increase efficiency and job satisfaction, which is evidenced by the very low turnover among employees.
In addition to these factors, the management is always looking for ways to reduce overhead costs. Several key turning points in the last 30 years have had a huge impact on the company’s bottom line. In 1990, Houlton Water Company received shares in Maine Yankee, the former nuclear power plant, which reduced power costs by 10 percent per year. When Maine Yankee later closed its doors, Houlton Water Company was able to dispose of its shares and avoid litigation and environmental costs. This also saved customers money. In 1993, the company won a case with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to purchase electricity on the open market. This effort saved electric customers $8 million from 1993 to 1999 and dropped electric rates by 40 percent.
21st Century and Beyond
In 2016, the Maine Public Utilities Commission granted Houlton Water Company the right to build a 9.3-mile direct electric tie-line to New Brunswick Power in Woodstock, New Brunswick. Emera Maine sparked the idea when, with already increasing rates, it announced its plan to invest $65–$70 million in rebuilds in the Northern Maine structure. These costs would then be passed down to Houlton Water Company customers. By building this new tie-line, Houlton Water Company will save money. In addition, Emera Maine will no longer need to make the upgrades, saving money as well. The project is a win-win for all of Aroostook County. The new project is now in its planning stages. Houlton Water Company is obtaining all the necessary permits and environmental studies with the hopes of completing the project in 2019.
All of this hard work and dedication has given the Houlton Water Company a reputation for fair prices and reliable service. John credits much of this success to the board of directors which has always “written a blank check for safety.” He and Greg are thankful for the local business people who have served on the board over the years and who have always had the best interests of the company and the community at heart. The company serves the community in many different ways. They offer a customer appreciation day every summer. They also offer an education day for local fifth graders to come and tour the facilities and learn about the business.
The Houlton Water Company is prepared to bring power to the community for generations to come, thanks to innovation, longevity, and community service,