Basin Electric's Paul Sukut retires after 38 years at the cooperative

When Paul Sukut stepped into position as the fifth CEO and general manager of Basin Electric in 2014, he was the first in the cooperative’s history to do so as a current employee.

He says it was an advantage that helped him get to work immediately.

“The first thing I put on my priority list was to get out to the plants on the electric side and at DGC (Dakota Gasification Company, Basin Electric’s largest subsidiary). I concentrated on the plants because there was some discord with some of the things that had gone on the previous two years,” Sukut says. “John Jacobs was brought down from Antelope Valley Station to run Operations as senior vice president. John had been here a long, long time and he knew the plants well, he knew the mentality, he knew what needed to be done.”

Paul Sukut
Paul Sukut, retired Basin Electric CEO and general manager

Sukut says the cooperative had lost good employees in the years prior to him taking over. “You can have all the technology in the world, you can have all the great equipment in the world, but if you don’t have good people like our people are, it’s meaningless. You can’t get anywhere,” he says. “So I tried to concentrate on maintaining our workforce.”

He says his next order of business was negotiating a deal regarding a lawsuit with BNSF Railway over rates for hauling coal at Laramie River Station, which was settled favorably for the cooperative.

The very next year, in 2015, Basin Electric bought out of Rural Utilities Service, and also entered into the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) regional transmission market. “Joining SPP could have been the biggest change ever in how we conduct business at Basin Electric,” Sukut says.

In 2018, a urea production facility was completed and began producing fertilizer at the Great Plains Synfuels Plant. The urea facility was the largest completed project at the Synfuels Plant since initial construction of the plant in 1984, a major milestone in the pivot to fertilizer production at the Synfuels Plant.

“When you’re CEO, it takes a long time to see fruition for a project, but once you get there, it’s very satisfying,” he says.

While Sukut’s time as CEO features several flashy milestones, the decades he spent previously at Basin Electric are what shaped his time working for the membership.

Sukut worked for Eide Helmeke (now Eide Bailly) as an auditor for several years before joining Basin Electric in 1983 as an internal auditor. Because Basin Electric was Eide Helmeke’s largest client, Sukut says he spent half a year each year inside the cooperative’s walls before he ever worked here as an employee.

“The purchase of the Synfuels Plant (in 1988) defined my career, because then I spent 13 years across the street (in the J&L Building, a Basin Electric location across the street from the Headquarters building) with the Synfuels Plant, and I learned a lot,” he says.

Mentors and lifelong friends

Sukut credits several former co-workers with coaching him through skills he would go on to use throughout his career.

He mentions Howard Easton (manager of marketing and member services), Rich Fockler (manager of operations and engineering), and Kent Janssen (chief operating officer of Dakota Gas, and later deputy general manager). “Those three guys, as much as anyone, laid the groundwork for Basin Electric. They built Leland Olds Station, they built Antelope Valley, they built Laramie River Station, and so they really set the standard for many of our successes,” he says.

Sukut says working with Janssen at Dakota Gas for 11 years also gave him an education in negotiating. “Kent was the master negotiator. I’ll never forget it. We were settling the gas contracts, and Mark Foss and I (Foss is now Basin Electric’s general counsel) would go back with Kent and we’d make an offer, and they’d say, ‘Well, we’ll have to come back.” And they’d come back and say, “Well, if you do a little —“ and Kent would say, “Nope, that offer’s off the table, you should’ve taken the offer we had yesterday.’ I saw him at work,” he says.

He says Clifton “Buzz” Hudgins, former chief financial officer, “is the one guy I never reported to, but I listened to for 25 years because he was very helpful to me. Kent and Buzz are probably the most influential as far as being mentors.”

He also credits Ron Harper, former chief executive officer and general manager, with giving him the experience he needed to step into the role of CEO. “Ron made me his deputy general manager. He taught me a lot of things, and in particular, had confidence in me and in turn gave me opportunity to learn many areas of the cooperative. Ron also gave me good advice about reporting to a board,” Sukut says, because Harper had worked for a board as a distribution cooperative general manager for much of his career.

“We’ve got an excellent board. I really can’t say enough,” he says. “I know sometimes they think, ‘What’s this little German doing? What in the world?’ But they were so patient. They asked me tough questions, I’m not going to tell you they didn’t. But they were always fair. The biggest thing was they were always supportive.”

Both directors and employees are what made it tough to retire. “I’m going to miss the people. We have such good people here. Some of my closest friends – board and employees – I’ve met here,” he says.

Paul Sukut
Sukut testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in support of the bipartisan Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies, or USE IT Act, in February 2019.

Life skills learned on the job

While the people around Sukut provided mentorship and friendship, circumstances at work supplied him with the tools he needed later, too.

Working with Dakota Gas and the risk associated with commodity prices at the Synfuels Plant “transformed me into someone who knew what it meant to run a business that was very high risk,” he says. “It was a commodity play, we had to work so hard for everything we had. We had to save where we could, and we were always on the leading-edge technologically. It gave me confidence. It gave me confidence that we can do things.”

Sukut says the potential for the Synfuels Plant surprises him even today. “It really is a chemistry set on the prairie. It’s amazing to me sitting here 30-some years later how people are still coming to us and saying, ‘Well, let’s try this at the plant. Let’s make jet fuel, let’s make sulfur-free diesel, let’s try some other things,’” he says. “It really opened my eyes to see some of the things you need to do. It really proves without taking a risk, there is no reward.”

Later in his career, he moved from the deputy general manager role into the chief financial officer position. “When I was given the opportunity to be CFO because it was right in my wheelhouse, Ron [Harper] gave me the opportunity to move over from the deputy general manager job. At that time, I felt I would just finish my career here,” he says. “But I am forever grateful to the board for giving me the opportunity to become CEO.”

Working for the members

Sukut continues on at Basin Electric in a consultant role, and takes opportunities to remind employees about the purpose of Basin Electric.

“Never forget why you are here. We are here for our member systems, we are here for the people who own us. Our mission in life is to deliver the best product at the least possible cost,” he says. “We work hard here to come up with and make good business decisions, decisions that are beneficial to the membership.”

He says the decisions he made at his desk, and those that came to the board table, were never easy, but the cooperative business model and principles give both staff and directors a solid foundation to lean on. “One thing you have to learn about a cooperative like ours is it’s so big that sometimes you benefit and somebody else doesn’t, and the next time the one that didn’t benefit does, and this one doesn’t,” he says. “It is a constant give and take.”

He is quick to mention, the job of the board of directors is also difficult. “If a decision is made and they take it home, it may not always be viewed as positive within their district. They do a very good job doing it,” Sukut says. “They get along well, and they’re able to work through many difficult problems and decisions and they do it for the overall benefit of Basin Electric and its members. … I’m still a big believer this cooperative business model really works.”