Over the hill? Hardly! Hill Canyon’s Plant Manager Chuck Rogers has some great advice and strong viewpoints to share after 31 years as a wastewater professional. He recently stepped down as Plant Manager of this award winning facility and is heading into retirement. The facility is generating its own electricity from solar and biogas energy projects installed under his watch and producing high quality recycled water.
We sat down with him at the City of Thousand Oaks’ beautiful Hill Canyon Treatment Plant recently to get his thoughts before he rode down the canyon road one last time in his Prius. Oh – and you really should call this place “Hill Canyon Inc.,” read on to learn why…
1. How did you get into the wastewater profession?
I was living in Michigan and my wife and I were asking ourselves – why live in Michigan? It really hit home one night when my wife and I were driving home on a cold night and we hit a snow drift. The car was dead. So as we’re walking the 1 mile back to the house– I told my wife about a flyer from the USC Fine Arts Department advertising their Masters Program. In short time, we found ourselves in sunny and warm Southern California.
I became a high school teacher but couldn’t see myself doing that for years. I was looking for work – and I was unemployed with a house payment, and in no position to wait for the perfect job, so when a neighbor told me about a job with a company that sent Vactor trucks out to storm drains in the LA Basin – I said sign me up.
Having developed a lifetime appreciation for all those who operate collection systems, I moved to municipal treatment plants – and I happened to work at some facilities that were not so good back in those days. That really taught me how to make things better.
I learned to be a dedicated public servant and that we really can make a difference. I also had some great mentors back then. Art Custer, Kelly Polk, so many more. As a young OIT I really focused on optimization – how can I make this system better? I found out I loved working with technology.
What helped me was the organization where I worked could be hired and fired from running the treatment plants. That certainly helped me to understand the importance of customer service. I grew up in an organization that provided service at the most economical price. We had to get clients and keep them – that was a great learning experience.
2. What advice do you give young professionals about leadership?
First and foremost be a great employee, listen and learn. You try to get better every day.
Today you have to be tech savvy, if you’re not, then this is not the career path for you.
I really think we’re looking at a future with fewer people at our facilities and more technology. We’re going to see more control technicians and a different set of skills necessary to operate the facility.
Our work is not just about clean water, it’s far more complicated than that.
The real focus of the future will be plant optimization, energy generation and hiring and developing great employees. Clean water is not what I have to worry about today – that happens reliably. Focus on optimizing the plant where you work. Never get satisfied. Want an example of a modern leader doing great things in our field: Logan Olds (GM at Victor Valley Water Reclamation Authority).
You shouldn’t get into this career if you don’t want to be on the path to a lifetime of learning.
3. How has the General Manager’s job changed over the years?
A lot can be said about building a great team – a talented group of professionals doing the right thing.
I believe it’s important to take the time to hire the right people and I try to be as supportive and direct as I can in leading those employees and empowering them to be great. If you surround yourself with top notch people you’re going to achieve great things together. I believe that’s what’s important.
My job today requires me to be a business manager. My technical skills are important to have, but business skills are critical. This is after all a production facility – right – a green factory. We should have people with business skills running these facilities.
By insisting our people have a set level of Operator certification, we’re closing the door on a much larger pool of talented candidates. I think all Operator certifications should be voluntary in nature just like other CWEA certifications. Nothing in my opinion guarantees success by hiring certified Operators. A treatment plant owner, whether a City or private owners is never going to give up the responsibility of meeting permit conditions, it will just have the freedom to figure out the best way to do it.
Why not a business savvy MBA running a multi-million dollar organization? Can’t they learn what we as facility operators know? By insisting on having a prescribed certified Operator level managing the facility, I think we’re closing the doors on a much larger pool of candidates. We simply are not looking at the widest variety of talented people we can employ.
It always comes down to the bottom line – are we optimizing the facility and does it make business sense? We need to give the best deal we can to the public. I think that requires a new set of business and optimization skills. If we’re thinking about ourselves instead of those we are paid to serve, I think we’ve lost the focus of being what a public servant should be.
4. What do you see as the future of the wastewater profession?
You know we call this place Hill Canyon, Inc. That’s because we’re focused on optimizing our operations. We have several businesses – we sell clean water to farmers, we accept FOG and other waste for a fee, we rent out our nearby land to farmers and we rent out portions of the plant to film crews. We did our homework – we devised business plans that made sense. It has to make financial sense or we’re not going to do it. We see HCTP as one big opportunity to do great things and keep rates low for our customers.
We generate all of our electrical power needs onsite, and that just didn’t happen over night. If we can do it, others can too.
Like many facility leaders, I’m wondering when we’ll move to direct potable reuse.
Finally, our future is going to require all skilled employees of a wastewater plant to improve our efforts. Be better business people, optimizers, control technicians, operators, electricians, lab, mechanics, admin staff.
I have great faith in an industry I’ve seen grow so dramatically during my career. I’ve met so many wonderful people who share my passion for service and our environment. And the joy we get from operating our beloved wastewater treatment plants.
I wish all of you the best. Do great things!