Steele-Waseca Cooperative Electric Office Division Manager Darla DeVries retired Friday, May 13, after a 37-year career with the co-op.
Darla started her career with Steele-Waseca May 1, 1985, as a data entry/computer operator.
“Back when I started at SWCE, a browser was a casual shopper, a cookie was something you had with milk, and tweeting was the sounds birds made,” stated Darla. “The computer room had sound proofing insulation on the walls and ceiling to help cut down on the noise made from the large Burroughs mainframe computer, and printer that filled the large room. The room was always hot and noisy because the mainframe created so much heat.
“Years later when we got rid of the large computer, OPU (Owatonna Public Utilities) called us wondering what we did to cause our electric usage to go way down. It was because the large computer was no longer running and the air conditioner no longer needed to constantly run to keep the computer room cool.”
In 1992, Darla was named director of data processing. “I remember the process of moving all the computers, printers, phones, paper, forms, etc., from our Rose Street building to our current Bridge Street location in 1994,” stated DeVries. “The process of moving all our phones and disassembling all the computers, moving them from one location to the other, and setting them back up, all the while still keeping the day to day business of the co-op running was quite the undertaking.”
Darla was promoted to manager of data processing in 1995, before promoted to her position of office division manager on July 1, 1999.
“I remember when the year was switching from 1999 to 2000 and it thought that the ‘Y2K bug’ would cause computers and the electric grid to crash,” reflected Darla. “While all the employees were on call that night to help if anything went wrong, it was satisfying when everything kept running as normal, and the new year could be celebrated with family and friends.”
Darla recalled when Steele-Waseca’s first website was created. “There were many discussions on if our customers would really go to our website, and what information they would want to see,” stated Darla. “It was also a big deal when in 2001, dot co-op (.coop) was approved as a new domain name extension and only true cooperative businesses could use. Nationwide, cooperatives were proud to have their own domain name extension, and to be recognized as the special type of organization we are.”
In looking back on her career, she recalled the formation of Touchstone Energy in 1998, the start of Great River Energy with the merger of Cooperative Power Association and United Power Association, and the creation of Southern Minnesota Energy Cooperative (SMEC) when Alliant Energy sold its Minnesota energy distribution business to Minnesota cooperatives in 2015.
“I think one of the underrated technological advancements for both employees and customers was when we went with an AMR (automatic meter reading) system,” stated Darla. “Prior to that a great deal of time was spent manually keying the readings onto keypunch cards each day after the mail was delivered to the office. The struggle of having to read everyone’s handwriting and having customer readings from different days of the month made double checking for accurate readings a time consuming job. Customers would have to manually read their meter each month no matter what the weather was or how busy they were. If meter readings were not mailed to the office, the meter reading had to be estimated, sometimes causing inaccurate usage.”
Darla said while things have changed, the goal of providing safe, reliable, and affordable electricity has been the “main goal” of Steele-Waseca employees, managers, and directors. “Sometimes I think young people shy away from electric cooperatives for a career because they think it’s an old, boring business model—nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a constantly changing industry with a lot of opportunities for all.”
Steele-Waseca congratulates Darla for her years of dedicated service and wishes her a rewarding retirement.