Former Basin Electric CEO Robert L. McPhail has died

Robert McPhail
Robert "Bob" McPhail

Robert L. “Bob” McPhail, Basin Electric CEO and general manager from 1985-2000, died on Sept. 28.

McPhail’s funeral will be held on Oct. 16 in Calhoun City, Mississippi, where McPhail was born and spent his childhood. He will be buried in the McPhail Cemetery in Calhoun City.

Under McPhail’s leadership, Dakota Gasification Company, a Basin Electric subsidiary, was formed to purchase the Great Plains Synfuels Plant, in Beulah, North Dakota, in 1988, which was in danger of closing. McPhail said Basin Electric didn’t have much choice. “Buying the plant was a defensive move. At the time (1988), we had just turned the corner on controlling our costs and had started reducing wholesale rates. They had peaked in 1987 and we could see a trend developing for lower rates,” he explained. “And then here’s something (the potential closing of the Synfuels Plant) that could have added another six mills on our rate base which would have pushed our member rates over six cents … that would have been a crushing blow for us if we hadn’t gotten involved in bidding for the Synfuels Plant.”

Later, as the Synfuels Plant faced financial challenges, McPhail and his management team responded by initiating an international energy venture involving Great Plains. They secured a contract to sell carbon dioxide from the Synfuels Plant to Canadian oil fields for enhanced recovery. Today, the project has captured and sequestered 41 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

In addition to serving as CEO and general manager at Basin Electric, he also served in leadership roles in Basin Electric's subsidiaries, as general manager of Basin Cooperative Services; president and chief executive officer of Dakota Gasification Company; and president and chief executive officer of Dakota Coal Company.

He served as president of Western Fuels Association, a fuel supply cooperative for consumer-owned electric utilities when he was general manager of Basin Electric.

A registered professional engineer, McPhail graduated from the University of Mississippi with bachelor and master’s degrees in geological engineering. He bypassed acceptance into law school and got a job as a civil engineer with the federal Bureau of Reclamation. McPhail quickly worked his way up the Civil Service ranks. Within 10 years, he was appointed director of the Bureau’s Upper Missouri Region in Billings, Montana.

When Congress created the U.S. Department of Energy in 1977, McPhail was tapped to lead a taskforce that would transfer power marketing and transmission functions of the Bureau to a new federal agency, the Western Area Power Administration. By 1978, his efforts resulted in an appointment as the first administrator of Western.

In 1979, McPhail was named a charter member of the newly established Senior Executive Service by Pres. Jimmy Carter. For his achievements in organizing Western, Pres. Ronald Reagan awarded McPhail the rank of distinguished executive in the Senior Executive Service in 1983.

Robert McPhail
Robert "Bob" McPhail

When McPhail was interviewed for a story published in Basin Today magazine at his retirement, he said, “It’s just amazing when you look at what Basin Electric was when it started and where we are today…it’s a small miracle. No one thought a group of farmers and ranchers could put together a great organization like Basin Electric.”

McPhail received Basin Electric’s prestigious Cornerstone Award in 2005. He was only the third recipient to receive this award. The Cornerstone Award, Basin Electric’s highest honor, recognizes individuals whose leadership has been a “cornerstone” in the mission of the Cooperative. Basin Electric President Wayne Child presented McPhail with the award.

Child said Basin Electric has benefited in many ways from McPhail’s foresight and personal commitment. “Bob made key decisions that enabled Basin Electric to diversify and stabilize its operations. These changes were made in response to the needs of the entire membership,” Child said. “Rural electric cooperatives in the region have been reaping rewards of policies, procedures and business ventures Bob set in motion 20 years ago.”

After accepting the Cornerstone Award, McPhail said, “Working with all the great people in this room and all of the people in the cooperative movement, and the cooperative spirit that was shown in support of all the things that we did, just makes me truly appreciate the opportunity I had here. I can tell you those were the 15 best years of my life, and I appreciate your support.”

Todd Telesz, Basin Electric CEO and general manager, said the legacy McPhail has left behind speaks for itself. “Mr. Bob McPhail was a well-respected and transformational leader, both at Basin Electric and throughout the energy industry at a national level. The decisions that needed to be made and put into motion during his 15 years here as CEO and general manager were substantial, and that our cooperative became stronger following his tenure is a testament to his ability to work with our consumer-owners and to lead a team of highly talented colleagues at Basin Electric, Dakota Gas, and beyond,” Telesz said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. McPhail’s family and all Basin Electric employees who knew and worked with him.”

Former Basin Electric CEO and general manager Paul Sukut worked closely with McPhail and remembers him fondly. “Bob’s legacy was really established by the 1988 purchase of the Great Plains Synfuels Plant, Sukut says. “Bob sent three of us – Kent Janssen as chief operating officer, Mark Foss (now senior vice president and general counsel), and myself – over from Basin Electric to manage the business. Bob was always extremely supportive of us and the plant as we battled through tough economic times as well as the legal battles with the former owners. Bob’s prediction upon the purchase that the plant would be extremely beneficial to the Basin Electric membership proved to be very accurate. Bob’s keen business sense coupled with his understanding of our members at the end of line was an asset all the years that he was Basin Electric’s CEO.”

McPhail’s obituary read, in part: “Bob left this world as a very loved man. He was always a man in service of his fellow men. Education was something so extremely important to him - and through his generous heart, he helped so many receive their degrees. Bob was a man of unshakable conviction. He was a man of integrity and honor. His faith was strong and built on a firm foundation. While his successes as a manager and business man are endless, he will most be remembered as an amazing husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and a devoted son of our Almighty God. His love for his family was unwavering and unconditional. He spent his entire life to ensure that his family never struggled with the poverty he experienced as a child. He always enjoyed going to work and felt that he was making a difference in the lives of others, as well as in his country. He went from serving his country to protecting and serving his family and community.”

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to your favorite Alzheimer's charity.