One Minnesota electric cooperative employee rose to the top of more than 160 nominations submitted from co-ops across the country to be included in the 2023 class of Rising Stars chosen by a panel of judges representing the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
John Pantzke, business development representative and energy service supervisor for Stearns Electric Association, was selected for his contributions to the cooperative’s energy management programs and economic development efforts.
Pantzke shares the spotlight with 19 other “smart, creative, humble and multifaceted professionals” helping to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that co-ops respond well to the many challenges they face and continue to thrive into the future.
Erin Sparks, economic development lead at Great River Energy, was involved in the nomination of Pantzke, noting his enthusiasm about the work he does as well as his focus on the success and satisfaction of Stearns Electric’s member-owners.
“John brings energy and enthusiasm to the table,” Sparks said. “He is motivated to try new things, form new partnerships and pursue big wins for the co-op. Though John has already accumulated an impressive list of accomplishments, I believe his best is yet to come.”
Offering members ‘the ultimate experience’
Pantzke, a licensed master electrician, joined Stearns Electric only a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic, but he turned the difficulties of the pandemic into opportunity.
“I prefer engaging face-to-face with people so when everything was being locked down, it was a very difficult time for me,” he said.
During that time, he rolled out the co-op’s first license energy service team to offer members “the ultimate experience. Now, when the guys are on site, they can promote and explain our other products — devices that qualify for our load management programs and help them lower energy bills. The team I’ve been able to put together so far is second to none.”
Over the last few years, Pantzke also turned the co-ops interruptible generator program into an asset.
“Members were extremely frustrated by program requirements and the costs associated with failing to control equipment during load control periods,” said Whitney Ditlevson, the co-op’s communications supervisor. “He visited every single participant (over 90 different accounts) to go over the program and listen to their frustrations.”
Not only did he win over their trust, but enrollment has gone up to nearly 130 today.
On the economic development front — one of the tasks he was originally hired for — Pantzke secured two $1.5 million federal pass-through loans, a co-op record. Sparks notes these funds will facilitate the expansion of two established businesses, add nearly 50,000 square feet of new commercial/industrial space and will help create nearly 15 new jobs in rural parts of Stearns Electric’s service territory.
Pantzke has also revamped the cooperative’s economic development lending program by creating new marketing materials, establishing partnerships with local lenders and overseeing the origination of numerous revolving loans in support of business development activities.
“I really feel like I helped bring a very successful co-op up another level,” he said. “When I go home at night, I’m very exhausted, but I’m satisfied.”