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Utility director brings energy expertise home

<i>Submitted photo</i>

Kevin Westhuis started March 4 as the new director of the River Falls Municipal Utility and said last week he's excited about the job and about moving back to his native state from Colorado.

The 47-year-old father of two moved here early this month with wife Colleen to take the job overseeing operations at RFMU.

He brings 15 years of industry expertise, having worked with the Fort Collins, Colo. municipal utility and with Wisconsin Power and Light, which is now Alliant Energy.

The couple has been married 24 years and lived in Colorado for most of that time. They have two grown children, Kayla -- now a 3rd grade teacher, and Kyle -- attending Eastern Arizona College on a baseball scholarship.

Westhuis holds a degree in public administration plus has a thorough knowledge of the realty and marketing business from years spent in private-industry ventures.

Asked last week to describe his responsibilities in 'layman's terms,' he said, "Electricity, water, wastewater, the three necessities of life," he said, "and I get the privilege of ensuring delivery of those good services to your home."

The enthusiastic director said he'll enjoy the challenge of keeping costs down while delivering quality services. He agrees that great utility service usually means people don't need to think about it much; it just works and keeps working.

However, Westhuis says he views managing problems as opportunities to interact with RFMU customers and work together to resolve the issues. He'd like to seize any opportunities the utility gets to interact with customers.

The new director thinks his private-industry experience gave him a keen appreciation for customers. It taught him that the interaction costs nothing and can lead to beneficial improvements.

Westhuis said the first few weeks on the job has entailed meeting people and putting names with faces, including using photos to help him. He learned who does what, where, and who reports to whom.

He said immediate work has included getting busy on capital-improvement project budgets and prioritizing things for the next five years. The director has been meeting with each department's superintendents, learning about projects and pressing needs.

"I ask as many questions as I can," said Westhuis.

Two books

The city's new utility director says both the Midwest and utility leadership had been on 'his radar,' when a colleague in Wisconsin told him about the River Falls job opening. He and Colleen enjoyed living in Colorado, but their two children are grown and both have family in the area -- Waupun, Chicago and Lake Elmo, Minn. -- so the opportunity intrigued them.

He fondly recalls a bicycle trip his family once took from Fort Collins to Waupun. The foursome pedaled 1,100 miles in 20 days, and says Westhuis, created lifelong memories that seem to get better every year.

He enjoys playing hockey and baseball, skiing, hunting, fishing and biking. He said he and Colleen like to be outdoors "every opportunity we get."

Westhuis said they have good memories and a "good book" in their former home state, but now it's time to start writing a new book.

He mentions maybe missing the other state's abundance of sunny weather but smiles and says, "I'm a native of Waupun, so I knew what I was getting into."

He said they sold their Colorado home in one day and were able to move to Wisconsin together. He credits good connections from a 10-year stint in real estate and says the market there is not sluggish.

After a hockey association friend talked to him one night about the realty business, he got a license and began to dabble. That gave way to a successful career and leadership in the industry.

Westhuis said when the market plunged, his former utility welcomed him back. A supervisor suggested he get on a path to directorship, so he asked for a job as a ground worker so he could experience the work.

He explained, "The reason it's called a ground worker is because we're 99% underground."

He gained and keeps a great appreciation for the safety practices and ideas of the front-line people. He grew to become the 'public face' of his former utility, saying he took and enjoyed the job of asking people: How can we work together?

He looks forward to doing that here, too, and says River Falls seems vibrant with a lot of exciting things, such as UW-River Falls, the business parks and its proximity to the Twin Cities.

Westhuis said he was excited before the move and finds that enthusiasm has grown since arriving in River Falls.