NorthWestern’s ‘core change team’ drives successful transition

Peggy Lowney’s boss lives in Minneapolis, but commutes to Sioux Falls, S.D.

A fellow manager, with whom Lowney regularly consults, lives in Denver.

Meanwhile, Lowney works out of Butte.

By Leslie McCartney of The Montana Standard

These are examples of changes and challenges experienced by Butte-based NorthWestern Energy employees who were on the fore front of the marriage of the old Montana Power Co. and South Dakota-based NorthWestern one year ago.

“ It’s been busy,” Lowney said.

Busy is an understatement, since her department has under taken the payroll process for the entire company — 1,300 people — and also helps with other aspects of human resources.

“ It’s been a good learning opportunity,” she said.

Instead of walking down the hall at the old Montana Power building to talk to colleagues, employees may now have to pick up a phone, dash off an e-mail or talk via a videoconferencing screen. On rarer occasions, Butte employees have boarded a jet, winging their way to South Dakota for face-to-face meetings.

More than 500 employees are centered in Butte, and they — along with the entire company — have wrestled several projects to fruition, according to NorthWestern’s spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch. And those successes have continued despite somber headlines about the company’s financial woes.

“ Despite all the uncertainty still out there, we’re doing what we need to do,” Rapkoch said.

Consider these accomplish ments the company feels it has achieved since Feb. 14, 2002:

# NorthWestern changed both Montana Power’s name and image.

# Despite the problems with the company’s cash flow, the Montana operations continue to deliver strong earnings

# Bill printing and cash processing have been consolidated in Butte

# Butte-based company services like communications, information technology, finance, human resources and safety pro vide help to the entire company in a several-state area.

# Last June, the company successfully rolled out a computer software system — which Montana Power had already been using — to the entire corporation. The com puter program, called SAP, handles many business aspects of the utility.

It’s hard to learn, said John Brown, who runs the SAP Competency Center and is one of the principal players involved in making sure the entire company is using the same language.

The company, he said, “ takes a lot of tutoring.”

Also, ensuring the consolidated company speaks the same lan guage is a process initiated by a “ core change team.” Approximately 20 employees — 10 from Butte — were involved in the project.

Gas pipeline engineer Jay Waterman said the project was unlike others in which he has been involved during his long career with Montana Power.

“ It was quite a bit different, but it was an interesting process for me,” Waterman said.

The process started with a sur vey of employees throughout the utility to gauge their perceptions, opinions and company image.

In tangent with the core change team, 25 “ integrators” from Montana were given the task of providing informal communication to questioning employees or those needing clarification or explana tion of issues. Having rank-andfile communication helps take the intimidation out of asking questions.

The company also sponsored a leadership conference and then helped draft a vision and strategy based on months of work. The list includes priorities and the devel opment of solutions to problems.

Waterman said that the task was made somewhat easier because Montana Power and NorthWestern already shared many of the same priorities: both companies are rural, western and pride themselves on their service records.

“ The cultures were very similar,” Waterman said.

Rapkoch added that while resis tance to change is “ normal and natural,” employees came through.

“ The achievements have been real since the sale closed. We wouldn’t have gotten here if people refused,” she said.

The change process also made it easier to help identify the best ways of doing things. For example, the SAP program was coveted by NorthWestern, although Montana Power had been using it earlier.

The exchange of information and settling of duties in Butte have also alleviated anxiety that NorthWestern would choose to do all of its work from South Dakota.

In fact, the call center on Harrison Avenue takes calls for South Dakota and Nebraska, although the majority of calls still come from Montana. The call cen ter can take 2,500 to 3,000 calls on a busy day.

The sale of MPC to NorthWestern has also changed the duties of call center employees Shonna Burton, a quality control specialist, and Julie Becker, a training coordinator.

Both women now evaluate people in other states or even travel to South Dakota to share their training expertise.

“ I evaluate 33 people long distance,” Burton said.

Another challenge is that the women often find themselves reading tariffs from South Dakota and Nebraska. Just as Montana is overseen by a Public Service Commission, the counterparts in those states may have specific rules or laws, and the women have to know them to ensure compliance or before a policy is changed.

Approximately 100 people work at the building, including those who man a night shift. The call center itself is staffed around the clock.

The women also strive for superior customer service — whether the call comes to Montana or South Dakota.

“ People never know where they are calling,” Becker said. “ We strive for the same consistency.”

Reporter Leslie McCartney may be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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