Beloved CEO Barry Hart reflects on 42 years with Missouri Association of Electric Co-ops

BRANSON, Mo. – After working 42 years, full-time, for the electric cooperatives of Missouri and Kansas, CEO Barry Hart says he is “leaving with a good feeling in my belly that AMEC and the Co-Ops are going to get even stronger with Caleb’s leadership.”

Caleb Jones will take the reins in January.

Gov. Mike Parson

“Caleb has got some big shoes to fill. There is not anybody who has worked harder for the Co-Ops in the state of Missouri than what Barry Hart has in his career in Jeff City,” Governor Mike Parson said. “I consider you a true friend for what you have done here and I thank you for that.”

Since 2004, Hart has served as the fifth CEO for AMEC and will officially retire in January. He said that he spent 46 years total in the Electric Co-Op Program counting the summers he worked for his local Electric Co-Op in Kearney, Mo., while attending college at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Mo.

“That’s actually where my co-op education and career started,” Hart said. “My dad was a school superintendent in Platte City, Mo. At the time, that’s where the co-op was headquartered. The manager of the co-op there, Howard Alexander, asked my dad if I would be interested in summer employment, my dad said yeah. I knew that any money that I could make in the summer would help me because my dad was a superintendent and I had two older sisters that were going to the University of Missouri in Columbia, so he was paying for their education and didn’t have a lot of funding to help me out.”

Hart said that Alexander was the original co-op manager, a long time leader, not only in the state but in the country. Alexander was a cattleman and very involved in community development, quality of life issues.

Hart said that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the rural electrification administration (REA), Alexander was one of those guys who saw the opportunity for his rural area of the state to sign people up to become members up and then go, if they got enough people signed up, to the REA and get a loan to start building the co-ops.

“He was one of the original incorporators and the person that made it all happen,” Hart said.

For those four summers, Hart said that he did underground construction, underground electric lining construction, overhead construction and worked with the Brush Control Crew, clearing brush out from under the co-ops line to make the system more reliable. He also worked on a coal inspection, the Treating Crew, where they checked the poles and if they were rotten, they would mark them and the linemen at the Co-Op, when they weren’t busy doing other things, would replace the bad poles on the system, another thing to help with the reliability.

“What happened to me doing those four summers I was working with the original manager, the original line superintendent, and all the original linemen that came to work there after WWII,” Hart said. “They actually were the people who built all the original lines in my co-op. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those early pioneers in the electric co-op program were pounding co-op philosophy in my head about who owns the co-op, the people getting electricity from the co-op, how it’s governed, they elect fellow consumers to represent them, and elect to serve on a board and then the board members who are consumers, that own the co-op are trusted with setting policy for their co-op and hiring the manager or firing the manager whatever the case may be. I learned all that from the people that did it.”

Hart graduated in December 1976 with a Bachelor’s in Business Management. While visiting his local co-op on his way to visit home, he went by Alexander’s office. Hart didn’t have a job lined up yet and Alexander told him to send his resume so Alexander could send it to the statewide association in Jefferson City in case the rural offices had an entry-level opening for a college graduate.

“I did that,” Hart said. “I sent it down there and I continued to interview. JCPenney offered me a job in Kansas City as a management trainee and I took it.”

Before officially starting work, Hart went out to Montana with his college buddies to snow ski and relax before they all started their new jobs.

“When I got back from Montana after two weeks of relaxation and fun,” Hart said. “I went by my parent’s house and they said that some guy by the name of Frank Stork called me from Jefferson City about a job.

At that time, Stork was the CEO of AMEC. He worked for the association for almost 35 years and he was one of the top leaders in the electric co-op program and the country.

“[Stork] had built up a really strong statewide association,” Hart said. “They wanted to talk to me about an entry-level position for Statewide Administrative Assistant. I’d be working on the 4-H programs, FFA, Youth Tour to Washington D.C., Director and Management Training, Safety Training for our employees and then if I had time, they wanted to see if I’d be interested in lobbying at the state capitol.”

Hart told Stork that he had already accepted a position and they offered him $750 a year more than JCPenney. Hart took the job and started in January 1977.

“I worked there for ten years on all of those programs,” Hart said. “I started another level of cooperative education. I was working under Stork, who’s one of the top co-op pioneers in the country. I learned about not only the local co-op problems that they worked on at my local co-op, but I was learning about the fights that co-ops had with other entities through existence and access to funding. Not only at the state level, but the federal level.”

Stork was chairman of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Legislative Committee and all of the federal policy was through the committee. Hart said that just by working side by side with Stork, he learned all of it.

“We were involved with some legislative fights in the state capitol at the time,” Hart said. “Some of it was related to service territory on who is going to serve in different areas of the state and what happens when the electric co-op service area gets annexed by the city – does the co-op continue to be able to serve that area or do they lose their investment? Does it become a stranded investment and therefore the rest of the co-op members have to have rate increases to pay for the investment they lost? It was a very important issue.”

Hart did that for ten years and during that time got married and started raising a family with two boys.

“I found that because the job I had took so many hours out of the day,” Hart said. “When I’d leave in the morning my kids had not gotten out of bed yet and when I came home at night they were back in bed. I missed their whole day. As I looked at that, I decided that I didn’t want to miss my sons growing up.”

Hart found an opening at his local co-op for director of economic development. He talked to the people at his co-op that he knew about the position and decided that it was something he was interested in.

“If I took that job and moved back home,” Hart said. “Then my sons would grow up with their great-grandparents and grandparents on my side of the family and my wife’s side of the family. I left a really good position in Jefferson City to go back home.”

Hart did economic development for about 14 years.

“It was a very gratifying position because I was helping communities either develop industrial parks, market their community for commercial and job growth or even helping communities with tourism or infrastructure development,” Hart said. “I actually helped one community get state funding for their first sewer plant ever. When you get things like that done where you know, the health of the community is going to be better, because now they have a sewer plant, it makes you feel really good.”

Hart said he enjoyed those years and during his time he was able to attract some businesses to the community and create more jobs.

After a while, Hart tried to do something completely different from Electric Cooperative. He went to work for a cable company negotiating franchises and then worked for the city as the Assistant City Manager. He didn’t take a liking to either of the positions.

“It wasn’t like the Co-Op,” Hart said. “It wasn’t like the rural people that I had worked with at the Electric Co-Ops. I liked the governance where consumers actually have ownership and decide what their rates are going to be and decide what they are going to do with the profits or margins that are generated on an annual basis. I kept getting pulled back into the Electric Cooperative Program.”

In 2000, after 23 years of working, Hart applied for statewide manager of the association in Kansas for the Electric Co-Ops, headquartered in Topeka, KS. Hart said that he was the only candidate interviewed that had previous experience working in the association.

“I was pleasantly surprised when they offered me the position after the second round of interviews,” Hart said. “I just didn’t think as competitive as Missouri and Kansas are in athletics, that Kansas would ever hire someone from Missouri. But they did, they offered me the job.”

Hart moved his family to Topeka and his kids graduated from the high school there. The oldest son went to Fort Hays State University with a wrestling scholarship and youngest got an academic scholarship to attend Truman State University.

Another career path change happened 3 ½ years later for Hart when Stork decided he wanted to retire from Missouri as the CEO of AMEC.

“The co-op leaders in Missouri started calling me, trying to recruit me to come back home,” Hart said. “They went through a selection process, they offered me the job.”

Hart became the 5th CEO of AMEC in 2004, replacing his mentor who hired him out of college.

Caleb Jones

“Barry Hart is one of those people you meet once in a lifetime,” Jones said. “His ability to take a complex situation and find out what the core issue is what makes him one of the great leaders in Missouri. He has done more for electric cooperatives and rural Missouri than anyone else I know.”

Hart said that the last 15 years of his career have been the most enjoyable.

“The Missouri Association of Electric Cooperatives is kind of known in the country as one of the top statewide associations,” Hart said. “They have more programs, more employees and more resources for the electric co-ops than any other state. To come back home and lead one of the top electric co-op associations in the country was really a treat for me.”

Hart said that they have worked on a lot of items since he returned to Missouri. One of the major things that they have done is getting Electric Cooperative members, they now have 1.5 million people in the state of Missouri that get electricity from co-ops.

“We felt like if we could ever energize and engage our co-op members at the end of the line on issues that affect their cost of electricity and reliability of their electricity, if we could ever get them engaged where they understood the issues facing their co-op that they would get involved, either on legislative issues or regulatory issues. If we could ever accomplish that, we could get a lot done.”

They established the Grassroots Program where they have one employee from every co-op in the state that they call a Grassroots Coordinator. The coordinators are educated on all the issues that affect the utilities and co-ops and how to organize their members when issues of importance are being debated.

“It took us about ten years to get it really developed. The highlight of our grassroots program that we developed in Missouri, which is become known as the number one grassroots political organization in the country for co-ops, was when Congress was trying to pass a cap and trade legislation that would have raised our electric rates in Missouri by 75 percent. We knew we had to get involved. We organized, we had events around the state – county festivals, co-op annual meetings, chamber of commerce meetings, just meeting people on the street we would ask them to get involved if they were a co-op member – and as a result we had over 1 million emails, cards, and letters that were sent to our congressional building, asking them to oppose the cap and trade bill.”

Kit Bond, U.S. Senator from Missouri at the time, was on the Energy and Environment Committee. The bill passed the House even though it had opposition. It headed over to the Senate and Sen. Bond asked Hart to testify in front of the committee.

“It had a major impact on people, but our consumers didn’t want this to happen,” Hart said. “The message I delivered to the U.S. Senators was on behalf of our co-op members. Now the same federal government who said we had to build our generation with coal in the 80s was telling us 25 years later to shut down our coal plants so all of the investment that had been made would have been lost, stranded. We would’ve had to raise rates to build new generating plants in Missouri.”

Hart said that it was a huge fight that they ended up winning.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt

“Barry Hart has been an invaluable resource in working with local, state and federal officials to increase opportunity and improve the quality of life in rural communities,” U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.) said. “I’ll always be grateful for his advocacy on issues rural Missourians, farmers and businesses care most about, whether it’s expanding rural broadband, keeping energy rates low or much more.”

“Now we have a different administration and they’re starting to look at the clean power plant all over again,” Hart said. “Hopefully we will come up with a fairer approach to protect the environment and give us the flexibility to help protect the environment while also keeping electricity affordable in Missouri.”

Hart said that Grassroots is the involvement of our members and is probably one of the most important things that they have done.

“Missouri is leading the way in that,” Hart said. “We’re also leading the way in safety for employees. Our employees are working on high voltage electricity and if they come in contact with an electric line, they can be killed or seriously burned. We have these programs where we teach them how to work safely with the latest in safety equipment to make sure that they don’t get harmed and go home safe. We also work on community education programs to make sure the general public understands that electric lines are dangerous and if there’s a tornado or an ice storm and you see an electric line on the ground, don’t go near it. We think that’s important, to educate our communities and members about how to use electricity safely.”

Hart explained that they also have a nationally known energy efficiency program to make sure co-op members use energy wisely and try to keep their monthly electric bills as affordable as possible. The program,m deployed about 10 years ago, is saving enough electricity to power the city of Columbia for a year and they don’t have to build another power line.

“That’s really what makes the Electric Co-Ops different and why I’ve been so proud to be a leader in the Co-Op Program is because we have to represent the member at the end of the line of electricity,” Hart said. “We don’t represent stockholders in Chicago or Los Angeles. We represent the people in the local rural communities and give them electricity from the co-op.”

Hart said that when you wake up and the morning and go to work and it makes you feel good, you’re doing something valuable and something that is really helping people.

“I’m really excited about Caleb Jones replacing me as CEO because I’ve worked with Caleb for a long time,” Hart said. “He has always been a champion for rural communities. He’s a very sharp young man, knows how to organize people, how to energize rural people.”

Hart said that through the work Jones has done as the Vice President of Government Relations, he has shown everybody that he understands the legislative process, he understands the regulatory process and he can get things done.

“I’m really excited for the statewide organization now because I know Caleb is young, he’s very talented, he knows a lot of people and he’s got a fire in his belly about rural Missouri,” Hart said. “He’s going to lead the state organization to new levels of engagement and success.”

Hart said that he is glad that Jones said yes to being the Vice President and the rest will be history. He said that Jones is a good young man and all of the co-ops in the state of Missouri are excited to see Jones take on this new position.

“I’ve been doing this for 42 years. Now, I’m going to spend more time playing with my grandkids, playing golf, flyfishing and church ministry. I leave with a good feeling in my belly that AMEC and the co-ops are going to get even stronger with Caleb’s leadership.”

FEATURED IMAGE/Caleb Jones, Frank Stork, Barry Hart PAUL NEWTON/AMEC