During the major overhaul on Unit 1 during the spring of 1994 in retrospect, there were signs that something similar to the downsizing at the Oklahoma Electric company that had happened in 1988 was coming around again. The reason the company had to downsize was a little hard to swallow, but they were real. We had painted ourselves into a corner. The punishment was a downsizing (D-Day). The reason was that we had been very successful. The outcome was ironic.
I will save the details of the 1994 downsizing for a post in a few weeks. In this post, I want to talk about the Power Plant Men, and how we all played an important part in bringing the demise of 50% of our own workforce. I will also mention some of the True Power Plant Men that were let go because of the tremendous accomplishments achieved by those very same men.
Let me give you the rundown on the downsizing first before I list those Power Plant Men and Women who were “let go”.
At some point during the major overhaul we were led into the main break room and it was explained to us that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission had decided to lower the electric rates for our customers. At that time, we were selling electricity just about as cheap as anyone in the mid-west. It was explained to us that the Corporation Commission had studied our operation costs (using outdated data) and had decided that we no longer required the 5 cents per kilowatthour we were charging our customers and we would only be able to charge 4 cents from now on (I’m rounding I think). This was a 20 percent reduction in our revenue.
The majority of our costs were fuel and taxes. We couldn’t really reduce these costs (except for the obvious reduction in taxes that result from a lower revenue). The only place we really could cut costs was in personnel. It was a drop in the bucket compared to our other costs, but in order to produce electricity, we couldn’t really do without things like fuel, and transmission costs, etc. and the government wasn’t going to lower our taxes.
An early retirement package was presented to anyone 50 years old and older by a certain date. They could leave with full retirement benefits. The rest? Well, we had to wait our fate which was to take place on August 1, 1994 (or more precisely, the previous Friday, July 29).
This was the major overhaul where the man had been engulfed in ash in the precipitator hopper (see the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting“) and I had to meet with the man from OSHA (see the post: “The OSHA Man Cometh“). The meeting in the break room took place about two weeks after our meeting with the Department of Labor in Oklahoma City (see the post: “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“).
So, why do you think that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission thought that we were able to reduce our cost so drastically all of the sudden? We were guaranteed by law a 10% profit as we could not set the cost for our own electricity. This was controlled by the government. We just presented to them our operating costs and they figured out the rest. So, why did they think we could suddenly produce electricity cheaper than any other electric company in the country? Were we really that good?
I could point out that there was an election coming up for one of the members on the Corporation Commission, and this would be something under his belt that he could use to win re-election, but that would only be speculation. The truth was, we couldn’t maintain a 10% profit for our shareholders if we could only charge our customers 4 cents per kilowatthour.
Just as an example, in 1993, the electric company had made $2.72 per share for the shareholders, while by May 1994, we had only made $2.60 Though revenue had gone up by $29 million. This was only a 7% profit based on the revenue. The quarter after the first rate reduction (yeah, there were two) lowered the shareholder return to $2.12.
A year before the downsizing was announced the company had attempted to change their culture so that we could compete in a world where we didn’t have protected areas where we were guaranteed customers. We had instituted the “Quality Process”. I explained this in the post: “A Change for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. One of the major goals for this change in “attitude” was to make us more competitive with other electric companies. Well, even though we didn’t really like that the cost reduction was coming before we were ready, one way or the other, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission was going to hold us to that goal.
When describing some of the events that took place during this time, and discuss some of those Power Plant Men that were lost from our view, I feel like I should have some appropriate music playing in the background to express some sorrow for our own loss. So, take a few minutes and listen to this song before proceeding, because, it sets the mood for what I am about to say:
For those who can’t view the youtube link, here is a direct link: “Always On My Mind”
As could be expected, all the Power Plant Men were on edge since we were getting ready for another downsizing. We didn’t know how far down we were downsizing at the time, so we thought that by early retiring everyone 50 years and older, that this would take care of our plant. After all, we had a lot of old fogies wandering around. In the electric shop alone we had four who took the early retirement package (Mike Rose, Bill Ennis, Ted Riddle and O.D. McGaha). Bill Bennett, our A foreman and Tom Gibson our Electric Supervisor were also retiring. So, we were already losing 6 of the 16 people in our department. I’m sure each group was doing their own calculations.
As I mentioned above, I will not dwell so much on the actual downsizing here other than to mention that it became clear that every attempt to help the company out by reducing cost through the quality process was not going to be applied to our bottom line. It was going straight into the customer’s pocket, and maybe it should. This did lower the incentive to be efficient if our company didn’t see a direct Return On Investment, but at this point, it was a matter of surviving.
I wasn’t so concerned about my friends that were taking the early retirement package. Even though their long term plans were suddenly changed, they still were not left empty handed. It was those Power Plant Men that were let go that were too young to retire that I missed the most. I will list some here. I regret that I don’t have their pictures, because, well, this was just at the start of the World Wide Web, and people didn’t take digital pictures back then.
Some of the welders that I missed the most were Duane Gray, Opal Ward (previously Brien), Jim Grant, J.D. Elwood and Donnie Wood. Mike Crisp was the one Machinist that I missed the most. I don’t remember if Jerry Dale was old enough to take the retirement package.
Jerry Dale always seemed to have a positive attitude. One of the phrases I remember when thinking of Jerry was when he was driving me home when I was a summer help. Sonny Kendrick was in the truck with us. We had come upon a car that was travelling rather slow in Hwy 177. Jerry grabbed the handle to shift into a different gear and asked me if he should put it into overdrive and just drive over the car. For some reason, the look of total satisfaction when he said that has always stuck in my mind (or as Willie Nelson says, “You were always on my mind”).
Wayne Griffith was a dear friend that was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Wayne Griffith and the Power Plant Computer Club“). He was let go along with Gail Mudgett.
We lost both janitors, John Fry (a friend to everyone. I recently wrote a post about John, “Power Plant Janitor John Fry Standing Guard as Floors Dry“) and Deanna Frank. Charlotte Smith from the warehouse found a job at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.
The mechanics lost the most, because there were more of them, A few of these were able to transfer to other areas in the company but most of them were let go. Here is the list of mechanics that were gone after August 1, 1994: Two Toms, Tom Flanagan and Tom Rieman, I think they both found jobs in other areas, as did Preston Jenkins and Ken Conrad (who used to call me “Sweet Pea”) See the post “Ken Conrad Dances with a Wild Bobcat“. Mike Grayson was let go. I still remember the first day Mike arrived when I was a summer help. He was there when we were fighting the dragon (See the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past Go to Fight Dragons Today“).
Two other mechanics who were greatly missed were Martin Prigmore (because without him, we didn’t have a certified P&H crane operator… kind of overlooked that one), and Tony Talbott who was the kindest Power Plant Man from Perry, Oklahoma. Martin Prigmore was later shot to death in Morrison Oklahoma in an encounter with his wife’s former husband.
The Instrument and Controls department lost Bill Gregory and Glen Morgan.
A side story about Glen Morgan (or was it Nick Gleason? Someone can correct me). One day, someone at the plant was listening to a Tulsa Radio Station when the news came on and said that the police were looking for Glen Morgan because he had just robbed a bank in Tulsa. They said that he was from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and they described his car. Whoever heard the radio told Glen that he was wanted for robbing a bank in his red car. So, he called home and asked his wife to look in the garage to see if his car was still there. It was. So, he quickly called the Tulsa police department and let them know that they had the wrong man.
Gary Wehunt was the one electrician that was let go. He had thought he was going to be picked 7 years earlier at the first downsizing. The one accomplishment that he was most proud of when he left was that he didn’t have any sick leave left over. He always made sure to take it as soon as he had accumulated a day.
I won’t list the operators that were downsized because I couldn’t tell which ones were old enough to retire or not and who was actually let go, if any. Maybe Dave Tarver can add that as a comment below (I will discuss Gerald Ferguson’s crew in an upcoming post). — Thanks Dave (see Dave’s comment below). Jim Kanelakos (which I remembered vividly) and Jack Delaney.
I do know that this was the second downsizing that Gene Day was old enough to retire, but he never took the package. Everyone knew he was as old as dirt, but for the obvious reason that everyone wanted to have him around for comic relief, no one ever considered the Power Plant could function without him. So, he stayed around for many years.
One thing about working in the Power Plant was that people were rarely fired. When it did happen, alcohol was usually involved. Sometimes a disability, such as was the case with Yvonne Taylor and Don Hardin.
About a year and a half before the downsizing one of the welders, Randy Schultz was let go because he repeatedly showed up to work intoxicated. I don’t remember the details, but it did seem that he spent a lot of time sleeping in one of the old Brown and Root warehouses in order to sober up. The company had to special order a hardhat for Randy because his head was too big for a standard hardhat. Randy was later wounded by a gun shot in Stillwater Oklahoma during a fight in the middle of the night.
Doug Link showed up one night a couple of months before the downsizing for a “Condenser Party” (when one of the condensers is open while the unit is still online, and it is cleaned out). Doug was ordering the workers to go into the condenser before all the safety precautions had been taken. He had been drinking. This was the night that I took Ray Eberle out to the Substation to light up the fluorescent bulbs (“See the post: “Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard“).
I knew at the time that Doug was going through some hard times at home. I was sorry to see him go. He was one of the few engineers that took the time to listen to my incessant ramblings on just about any topic. I was glad to learn that after a very difficult time, Doug picked himself back up and regained his integrity.
Whether a person is laid off or fired, the results can be devastating. A person’s self-worth is suddenly shaken which throws the family into turmoil. The Power Plant Men and Women that were left at the plant after the downsizing knew this, and we were forever changed by the loss of such a large number of friends that we considered family all at once. It took us a couple of years to deal with the emotional impact. Even to this day, I do my best to keep them on “always on my mind”.