CO-OP Careers: Mary Jo Thomas
President and Chief Executive Officer
Whitewater Valley REMC
The day Mary Jo Thomas took the open accounting position at Whitewater Valley REMC in 1996, she began working her way up the career ladder. In 2013, she became president and CEO of the cooperative that provides electricity to consumers in several counties along the Indiana/Ohio state line around Richmond.
After providing a reference for the person who originally applied for the accounting job, she learned he turned it down because it included a typical cooperative “wearing-of-many-hats” role,” which included answering the telephone and backing up the utility’s front counter during the lunch hour. So, Thomas applied.
“I didn’t have any problem with that,” she said. “And that’s really been my work ethic: to help out wherever I can. That’s how you build trust in the workplace – by working shoulder to shoulder. I did not set out to be CEO. If you think you’re better than anybody else and shouldn’t have to do something, that’s not a good way to build teamwork.”
When she became CEO, she was the only female chief executive of a cooperative in Indiana and only the second in the 85-plus year history of Indiana’s REMCs. In more recent years, two other women have become CEOs at Indiana electric cooperatives and a third has become the CEO at a power generation and transmission cooperative.
As Thomas was promoted, she began working closely with a new CEO who joined the cooperative in the early 2000s. In her, he saw his successor; he began mentoring her. Thomas accompanied him to meetings around the state and was exposed to all elements of the industry outside her local cooperative. When it came time for his retirement, he and the Whitewater Valley board of directors thought the succession was in place to go smoothly. Only, Thomas wasn’t sure.
“I teetered back and forth,” she recalled. “I wasn’t sure I could do it.” But the retiring CEO assured her, “You’re doing it now.”
Thomas stepped into the role she realized she’d been doing. What made the decision easier, she noted, was she knew the team she’d have behind her. “The staff I have, and that I knew I had going in, make my job easy,” she said. “We’re a team. It’s a group effort for sure.
“You have in the back of your mind that you have to know it all. But when you have good people around you, you don’t have to know it all. I don’t have to have the answer to every question. I might need to know how to find the answer, but I know who to ask to get all the information to make a decision.”
Career Summary: Mary Jo Thomas didn’t set out to be CEO, but others saw her leadership skills in how she worked as a team player as she rose to the top. Now she is in her eighth year as CEO of an Indiana electric cooperative.
August 1996 – Hired at Whitewater Valley REMC as Accountant/Computer Specialist: The only accountant on staff; prepared all financials and helped set up the mainframe computer and PCs in the office.
January 2001 – Promoted to Director of Customer Service: Oversaw the customer service representatives and managed all accounting and financials. Managed the IT department. Also installed, maintained and supported the co-op's computer systems, storage, network and security appliances.
July 2005 – Promoted to Director of Administrative Services and Corporate Development: New position with restructuring; handled all accounting duties along with additional HR duties, corporate development, and working with operations.
April 2012 – Promoted to Chief Operating Officer: Focused on gaining an in-depth knowledge of the co-op's operations.
March 2013 – Named President and CEO of Whitewater Valley REMC: Oversees the cooperative with 25 full-time employees and serves approximately 9,800 consumers in Randolph, Wayne, Union, Fayette, Franklin and Dearborn counties, and maintains over 1,800 miles of line.