Name: Sarah Smith
Title: Plant accountant
Started at CCEC: 2007
“I track all of the plant” may be an unfamiliar and strange phrase to those outside the power industry. In this case, it means knowing the exact number of power poles, the total feet of wire, the valuation of the whole system, and essentially the numerical side of the whole grid, which is all information at the fingertips of plant accountant Sarah Smith.
Smith’s background prepared her to work with data at Cass County Electric Cooperative (CCEC). She took on her first numbers job at the suggestion of her accounting teacher in her junior year of high school, working as a part-time teller at State Bank of West Fargo. Smith graduated from North Dakota State University in 2003 with a degree in business. She kept her position at the bank into college and expected to continue working in banking, but it happened that a neighbor who was a CEO at a Wisconsin cooperative encouraged her to look into the co-op world. She watched for openings, and when the plant accountant position became available in 2007, her neighbor insisted she apply. She almost didn’t complete the long application, but she did in the end, and the next 15 years are history.
As the plant accountant, Smith’s day-to-day work generally entails monitoring and processing work orders for the engineering department, first opened by the design construction supervisors, with whom she works closely to process billing and reconcile materials. On average, she handles about 1,000 work orders each year. Once a month, she collects all the work orders ready to close, meaning they have had all their costs posted, and runs the monthly closing, ranging from 30 to 200 work orders per month. Smith also handles billing for installing and upgrading services, plant damages, and material purchases through the warehouse. It is her responsibility to make sure what’s on the paperwork accurately reflects what is in service in the field.
Plant accounting is a kind of specialized accounting, “but I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details,” she laughs. Smith appreciates the opportunity to discuss the work she does with other plant accountants at other co-ops who understand the unusual system and lingo. She is the only plant accountant at CCEC, so she networks with her counterparts at in-person trainings and they reach out to bounce ideas off of each other and ask questions. There is ongoing software training available, but no specific training for a new plant accountant, so they have all learned as they went.
Smith has been integral to the tech revolution at CCEC. Her predecessor in the position was a wizard with spreadsheets and data. Now, the tracking of plant damages is hosted online on a cloud software called SafetyAMP. The beauty of this system is its efficiency – every member of the team involved in the incident has access, from line crews to design to vice presidents, and can access the same information from the office, the road, or the field. From a phone or iPad, they can enter real-time data and upload photos. With the previous system, Smith would have to track down each individual to get their relevant information on a specific case, but now everyone’s notes are digitally collected in one place and visible to the whole team.
She is proud of this improvement to the co-op’s plant damage workflow.
“Your job evolves, you adapt, and you pick up the parts you enjoy,” she added, noting that the efficiency has saved enough time to allow her to add additional tasks and duties to her plate.
Being a woman in the power industry can come with many obstacles.
“Working primarily with men can be challenging,” Smith said. “I have worked hard to explain the purpose of processes and such so that I have earned respect. A lot of times explaining the ‘why’ to something goes a long way. There are only about five women on the engineering side, which is intimidating at first, because you feel like you have to prove yourself.” Smith says that, early on, she pushed to get past the fear and became more comfortable in her job.
In a similar way, Smith says the hardest part of her job has been dealing with insurance companies, which are sometimes reluctant to pay for damages and scrutinize charges strictly. Over the years, she has become more experienced with these interactions and with negotiations, as she has become the subject matter expert in all things damage report-related. Each year, they receive 80 to 120 damage reports, everything from contractor errors to a farmer backing into a power pole, and each one crosses her desk.
Her favorite parts of her job are the variety, as no two days are the same and she touches on many different tasks and areas in every work day, and her colleagues.
“I have a great rapport with my coworkers, and we work together really well for the co-op,” she said.
She also reflected, “I would never have thought it would be my life to work in a co-op. I must talk about it a lot, though, because my kids talk about it.” She recalled once, after her children pointed out something unusual on a road trip, her mother said to her, “Only your kids would notice something was wrong with the power lines!”
Outside of work, Smith is an active mom who can be seen at her teens’ sporting and artistic events. She gets a bit of both worlds with a theatrical and musical 15-year-old daughter and a sports-driven 12-year-old son.
“We’re at the stage where the kids’ schedules really dictate what we’re doing most of the time. But we’re not going to wish it away, it goes too fast.” When not cheering at baseball or applauding for a violin recital, Smith and her husband (who also works in electricity, for CCEC supplier Border States Electric) can be found relaxing at the lake.