New PUD general manager coming back to his roots


Dave Ward says he may have spent a 25-year stint in Tacoma, but he’s an Aberdeen High School graduate and the Harbor has always held a special place for him.

Ward is the new general manager for the Grays Harbor PUD and he says he’ll be moving to the Harbor in the coming weeks. He started the job on June 20, but says he plans to take it slow to orient himself to the position.

“Our main job will be to ensure the customer experience,” Ward said. “I want to make sure that all of our employees understand that and every one of our interactions provides an opportunity to delight that customer. We really have to strive for that because we’re really there to serve them. We need to keep bills down and keep rates reasonable because what is important to customers is what their power bill says. We have to find ways to make sure it’s reasonable and there’s a lot of ways we can do that. That’s one of the things I focused on my whole career and it’s not going to be any different with the Grays Harbor PUD.”

He hasn’t settled on a home yet — PUD Commissioner and proud Hoquiamite Russ Skolrood is lobbying for Hoquiam, while Montesano City Councilman and PUD Chief Financial Officer Doug Streeter is lobbying for Montesano — but he says he plans to take a bit of time before settling in, likely living in a local hotel for a few weeks as he makes the transition. He and his wife, Robin, have a home together in Gig Harbor.

“And the Harbor really is what’s drawing me back here,” Ward says. “It was great growing up in Aberdeen. I have very, very fond memories.”

Ward, 52, grew up on the southside of Aberdeen in a modest 1950s-style home where his dad was a woodworker at various mills and his mother worked at the Nordic Inn as a maid for several years before she retired.

“It was a great childhood,” he said. “Back in those days, it was a time when most kids felt very safe and we ran around the neighborhood and played all day. And there were no video games and we had a few channels on a black and white TV. And if it was a nice day we were outside playing and when it was raining we’d put the raincoats on and the boots on and still go outside and play.”

He says his mother and father both died and he doesn’t have much of the way of family in the area.

“My dad was an only child and I’m an only child. Mom had a big family but all those aunts and uncles are gone,” he said. “I have cousins kind of spread across the country. I have a couple of cousins that still live in Aberdeen and I’m looking forward to making a re-connection with them. But, for me, I’m just coming back to my old home town. That’s what’s drawing me back. I’ve never forgotten where my roots were at. I’ve heard so many Aberdeen rain jokes during my years up here in Tacoma and I’ve had fun with that, too. I love the Harbor. It’s created that foundation of who I am. I don’t know any other way to describe it. I’m not coming home for family.”

Ward said he saw the job opening of the general manager position and realized his whole career had been building up to that job.

HARBOR EDUCATION

Ward graduated from Aberdeen High School in 1979. He said it turns out he actually knows Commissioner Skolrood from their high school days. Skolrood graduated from Hoquiam High School, also in 1979.

He went on to attend Grays Harbor College and to graduate from Washington State University in 1984 with a bachelor’s of science in electrical engineering.

During the summers and whenever he could, however, he would work at Swanson’s. He credited Tom Shay with keeping a job available to him and letting him work enough hours “so I could come out with no debt from college. I was pretty blessed there.”

Recently, he said, he connected with Tom’s son, Brian Shay, who is the city administrator of Hoquiam.

“All of these connections from my past have just been amazing,” Ward said. “I’ve actually seen some of the people I graduated with at Aberdeen High School, who are now working for the PUD.”

Ward was hired by Tacoma Power in 1985 as an electrical engineer and then took a job with the Grays Harbor PUD from 1990 to 1992 before leaving for a supervisory position back at Tacoma Power. He began serving as the assistant transmission and distribution manager in 1997 and was appointed transmission and distribution manager in 2007.

“As the transmission and distribution manager, my role was to manage the whole electrical network on the transmission and distribution side, including the overhead lines, the underground lines, the substations, metering and communications infrastructure at one point. The whole fleet and warehouse was under the transmission distribution side because we are the big users and manage the fleet for all of Tacoma Public Utilities including rail service and water.”

As a manager, Ward said that he believes in treating “people like people no matter where they’re at in the organization. We need to treat people like human beings. I acknowledge them and they felt valued. We’re all there to work on a common cause and when you treat people well and you treat them like they’re valued and you can demonstrate that and be very sincere on that, it gets employees engaged on where they’re going. So many managers try to use scare tactics and that’s just a wrong and an unhealthy way to manage the organization.”

Ward’s wife, Robin, was the key person who needed to be convinced to let him take the job in Aberdeen. An Olympia native, she works at Tacoma Public Utilities as a key account executive and is on special assignment management and implementation of customer service projects.

“But, really, the way she was treated by the PUD commissioners, the flowers, the hugs, she looked at me and she said she felt so welcome that even though she’s not from the area, it sealed the deal that this was the right place for us to be,” Ward said. The Wards have two children — Jennifer, a Utah State University graduate now studying advanced culinary science, and Aaron, who attends Utah State University and plays hockey for the school.

PUBLIC POWER

Ward says he always wanted to be involved in engineering, even as a young man. He says he was always fascinated with the way things are built and how to improve them.

As an electrical engineer at the start of his career, he helped build designs for the way the electrical grid gets its electricity. He worked with linemen as they did the construction work and would try to make sure his design models would work in the field.

“A lot of times when you’re out in the field, things can’t be built the way you thought they could be built on paper so there’s a lot of collaboration and coordination that needs to go on,” he said. “You learn a lot from the folks on the field. I sure did. They taught me a lot.”

A lot of those lessons have helped him during his career as, he puts it, his employment “morphed” from being the design guy to being the big-picture guy.

“It’s really good to have that background knowledge, you can talk tech, you can talk about the system and the way it used to be and how it got built a certain way and why,” he said. “You have that institutional knowledge like you build up over 25 years like I had; it’s nice to just share that with others. You become one of the old dogs in the office.”

Tacoma Power is under the umbrella of the City of Tacoma. Although it’s not a public utility district, it’s still considered one of the earliest forms of public power.

“It’s owned by the municipality and there is a lot of transparency in what goes on at Tacoma Power,” Ward said. “My heart is very much in alignment with public power specifically because of the transparency, the openness. You’re working for your ratepayers and not for some shareholders that could be anywhere in the world. You’re very much ingrained in the community and there are a lot of things I just love about public power.”

Ward said he knows that Grays Harbor PUD has had a tumultuous relationship with the Bonneville Power Administration, including lawsuits and rate hikes linked to the rates BPA has done.

“The issues with Bonneville are one of those items that we’ll have to address,” Ward said. “That’s one of the first things I’m going to be working on when I get in there to figure out what are the key issues and things I need to get up to speed on? What’s the desired direction to go? Have you thought about something different, perhaps?”

Ward says he’s worked with Bonneville before since Tacoma Power has a lot of connections with the federal utility. Together, Tacoma Power and Bonneville replaced a 6,000-foot crossing over the Tacoma Narrows Waterway and put in a $25 million switching station in the Graham area.

“For a while, I worked in power management as a cross-training type for over six months and got involved in Bonneville’s rate making process,” he said.

“Here’s my thoughts on BPA and the Grays Harbor PUD: I feel like I can bring a fresh perspective and ask the right questions. I feel pretty optimistic we can move forward on some things. When you find yourself in situations — and I’ve had to step in to a few of those — and try to smooth things over and move things forward, somehow, someway, you need to find a way to work together. That’s the bottom line. You can’t ignore one another. You have to find that common ground and that’s the way I’ve operated my whole career. And I’ve been pretty successful at that. I keep an open mind and sometimes when you have those open conversations you have a better solution for both of you if you’re just open about it.”

Ward said he also hopes to provide input to potential changes in Initiative 937, which was approved in 2006 and set multiple renewable energy standards and hasn’t seen many legislative changes to it over the years despite years of protests from public utilities. Implementing the initiative has led directly to rate hikes for customers at Grays Harbor PUD.

“Nothing has been changed,” Ward said. “The bottom line is it’s the law. Whenever legislation is introduced to change the initiative, everything just gets piled on until the point where there are so many people against the legislation that it doesn’t go anywhere. Maybe we as public power need to take some baby steps here just to make a little progress on it? Because, right now, no progress has been made on it. Let’s find that common ground that everyone can agree to and then work on more the next session. With no progress being made, I don’t know, it just seems crazy. And, hopefully, I can add that perspective and ask that question.”

Ward said he recently had his “last day” party at Tacoma Power and an old boss of his came in and wished him well.

“I don’t remember this conversation, but he did with perfect clarity, that on one of my performance evaluations years and years ago, he asked what I wanted to do eventually. And my answer was to be a general manager at a small public utility. It’s amazing. I hadn’t really thought about that and yet I always felt that way. He succinctly remembered the conversation. …

“I’m really looking forward to this experience,” Ward said. “I think there’s a lot of good opportunities here to help customers, to help employees and to really get some good things done for everybody.”