When Jim Beeler first heard about the impending growth spurt at Clay Electric Cooperative, he was a part-timer at the co-op earning some money until his military papers came through.
That was in early February 1966. Beeler, then 20, was fresh out of junior college and awaiting induction into the U.S. Navy. He took a job at Clay Electric because the co-op was based in his hometown of Keystone Heights, Florida.
“Things were changing slowly back in the ‘60s. We all saw it, and we went through it together,” said Beeler.
Now, 52 years later, he is district manager of the co-op’s Salt Springs/Palatka offices in Marion and Putnam counties, respectively. Marion County, the once-sleepy rural county known for horse farms, cattle operations, peanut patches and citrus groves, still has 3,500 farms and ranches, but during Beeler’s co-op career, the population has increased by more than 700 percent to over 355,000 people.
“I was hired as a temporary pole inspector trainee, but the job was really treating poles,” Beeler recalled. “I got a year’s military deferment and stayed on with Clay working full time. When I entered the service I became a loadmaster working on Navy cargo aircraft. I served for two years and did three tours in Vietnam.”
Returning home in October 1968, Beeler worked supply in the co-op’s Gainesville district warehouse and became an engineering trainee in Meadowbrook a year later.
“There were new subdivisions being built in the area, then they opened the mall and growth really took off,” Beeler recalled. “That led to shopping centers and car dealerships, and we started building a lot of underground service to get power to new members.”
Since then, he has filled various engineering, member services and operations roles, becoming district line supervisor at Salt Springs in 1996 and district manager of the office in 2008.
Over the years, he learned that every co-op position has the same essential goal: taking care of the members.
“Our members are the owners of the cooperative, and they deserve every good thing we can do,” said Beeler. “It’s our goal to try and regularly exceed their expectations.”
For him, that means keeping the needs of members first. When problems arise, if a member can’t visit a co-op office, Beeler or another member of his senior staff will make house calls.
“We talk to them and try to determine what the problem is so we can help resolve it,” said Beeler. “I always make plenty of time available to sit and listen to them and come up with a solution. Making sure members know they are most important helps to keep them happy.”
As district manager, Beeler sees his job as a combination of coach and cheerleader, offering motivation and giving his staff regular opportunities to develop new skills and expand their roles.
“I want people to come in looking forward to work each day,” said Beeler. “I tell them that I came from the very bottom all the way up to district manager, so even today people can do whatever they want if they work hard enough.”
Beeler was in Vietnam when the old Salt Springs office, then known as Lake Kerr, opened in 1967. When planning for a new office began in 2016, he knew that members’ expectations were changing. Some prefer to do most co-op business by phone or computer, while others still enjoy face-to-face counter help from member services representatives.
“We’re still trying every day to give the members what they want and what they need,” he said, recalling advice he received from an older staffer early in his co-op career.
“If you work hard and come in ready to help members and coworkers every day, Clay Electric will give you tremendous career opportunities,” said Beeler. “I still stress that with all of my people, because that’s one thing that’s never changed.”
Derrill Holly is a staff writer at NRECA.