Power switch happens at Midwest
By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
Earnie Lehman knew he would have to look far and wide to find someone to take Bob Helm's place, and he was right.
Midwest Energy Inc. in Hays brought in its new manager of corporate communications from overseas.
Mike Morley, who began work at Midwest Energy in June, is a native Kansan who spent the past three years in Singapore, working as a senior public affairs manager for 12 southeast Asian countries for the U.S. Navy. And he worked in Spain for three years prior to that.
Morley's first day alone on the job in Hays was Tuesday after spending the last four weeks learning the ropes from Helm, who is retiring after nearly 27 years in the position. Helm's last day on the job was Monday.
"Bob has been an incredibly valuable asset to Midwest Energy and the community for the last 27 years," said Lehman, president and general manager of Midwest Energy. "And we certainly will miss him.
"I must say, though, we were very pleased -- and surprised -- with Mike's caliber and quality."
Helm brought with him a wealth of experience in December 1985 when tough economic times forced the company for which he worked, RDF Associates, to downsize.
RDF, a small advertising agency in Hays, had two employees, and Helm was No. 2.
So eliminating a position meant Helm was looking for work.
"I was within two weeks of being out of a job (back in late 1985)," said Helm, who also had radio experience in both broadcasting and sales.
He heard about the opening at Midwest Energy and the rest, as they say, is history.
From his start in a basement office on 11th Street to the new, sprawling two-story building at 1330 Canterbury, Helm has seen many changes during the four decades working at Midwest Energy, including technology upgrades in every line of his work.
"Our offices weren't all in the same building, and we had to go outside to go make a photocopy or to go to a meeting," said Helm, who was responsible for all aspects of media relations for Midwest Energy, ranging from advertisements and commercials to annual reports, from writing speeches and newsletters to photography.
"A lot of things have changed," he added, "been a lot of evolution over the years."
Through it all, Helm was able to enjoy job security.
"That's one thing about being a utility," he said. "This industry is relatively insulated from the economy. Sure, you can lose customers, but overall, folks need energy. And because it's an electric cooperative, all the members are also owners."
Morley a good fit
Morley was set to retire from the military following a 23-year stint with the Navy when he and his wife, Rena, started looking for opportunities "around the I-35 corridor, from Dallas to Minneapolis (Minn.)"
"But, truly," Morley said, "we wanted to be in Kansas."
The Midwest Energy job popped up on a job board as a Wichita job because it had been advertised in the Wichita Eagle.
Morley grew up in Topeka, and the job in Hays intrigued him.
He said he had been to Hays only once before, when he flew from Spain in 2008 for a meeting with professors when he was working on a master's degree online from Fort Hays State University.
Morley didn't get to see much of Hays on that trip but liked what he saw when he flew here to interview this past spring.
The feeling was mutual. Midwest Energy also liked what they saw in Morley, who has extensive experience in writing, crisis communications, social media and community relations, ranging from a Navy television reporter and anchor in Japan to managing media and community relations programs in Europe and West Africa.
"Besides being well-qualified, (Morley) is engaging and open and reaches out to people," Lehman said. "He is very genuine -- which is one of Bob's great qualities."
Morley said he has been made to feel welcome in Hays and he hopes for the same for his family, which arrived Monday.
"Bob has taken me around to meet people, and he knows hundreds and hundreds of people," Morley said. "Everyone seems so welcoming, so accommodating. One thing I've learned is that Bob is universally liked. I saw how involved he was (in the community). It's quite impressive."
Morley said the time spent with Helm has been invaluable.
"He's crafted a very successful communications program here and has a tremendous credibility program in place," Morley said. "That can be both a blessing and a curse. It's a big legacy to follow, one that's going to be hard to live up to. But I'm looking forward to getting into a good routine with the requirements for the position."
Impressed with Hays
Morley and his wife -- a veterinarian technician -- have three children, ages 9 to 14, and when he was in town to interview at Midwest Energy, he drove by Hays High School and decided to go in and check it out.
"I was impressed with the principal (Mike Hester) and impressed with the way the kids treat the school building," said Morley, whose oldest son, Ben, will be a freshman in high school this fall. "And they have a very good offering of academic classes."
Morley had a job offer in Wichita as well.
"Between Hays and Wichita," Morley said, "the Hays schools sold me."
Helm had three children graduate from Hays High. Now grown with families of their own, the Helm siblings can look forward to spending more time with their parents. Helm's wife, Marilyn, retired in January from her position as pharmacy technician at Dillon Stores.
"We have grandkids in Denver and grandkids in Olathe, so we're right in the middle (in Hays)," he said. "We'll be spending a lot of time traveling to and from their places."
But the Helms still plan to call Hays home.
"We're going to keep in touch with Bob," Lehman said. "It's nice knowing that he will be sticking around and still will be serving the community."