Plans may go awry, but that doesn’t mean the outcome cannot be considered a success.
Russell Olson, CEO of Heartland Consumers Power District, had plans to become an attorney when he enrolled at the University of South Dakota.
Three generations of his family had owned and operated a bar in Egan, and he was seeking a different life.
Then, he encountered W.O. Farber, a political science professor who had retired in 1976 but came out of retirement to teach an honors section of American government.
“I made the mistake of doing too well,” Olson said. He got the highest score in the class. “It was by accident.”
Farber was a legend by that time, having founded the South Dakota Legislative Research Council and mentored many influential USD graduates, including Tom Brokaw, Larry Pressler and Al Neuharth.
He called Olson at 6:30 a.m. with an offer that seemed unlikely.
“He said, ‘I want to interview you for an assistantship’,” Olson said. He got off to a rough start when he couldn’t find “Farber Hall,” what many called Farber’s residence, and was late for the interview, but ended up working for the influential professor.
“He was the one who got me to concentrate on the public sector,” Olson indicated.
In 1994, he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in English and political science. He then earned a master’s degree in public administration, graduating in 1996. His first position was with the South Eastern Council of Governments. However, he moved to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in 2000.
“I really liked the way Bill [Janklow] did community work,” Olson stated.
Bill Janklow served as governor of South Dakota from 1979 to 1987 and again from 1995 to 2003.
Janklow advised Olson to apply for a position with the Lake Area Improvement Corporation, where Olson served as executive director from 2002-05. He was thinking about returning to the GOED when he was asked to consider working in economic development for Heartland Consumers Power District.
When Olson expressed confusion, unaware that Heartland was engaged in economic development, he was told, “It doesn’t exist. I want you to start it.”
While serving as Heartland’s director of economic development, Olson was elected to serve as a state representative and then as a state senator. For three years, he served as the Senate Majority Leader.
Once again, fate intervened. He imagined running for governor when he term-limited out of the Senate.
“It wasn’t my burning desire to run Heartland,” he said. However, he did interview for the position when his predecessor left. In accepting the position, he realized he would have to set aside his political aspirations.
“Heartland needed my full attention, so I resigned so I could focus on what Heartland needed to do,” Olson indicated.
He admits the first three years were rough. In order to raise the company’s cash balance and obtain an “A” rating, it was necessary to raise rates every year.
In addition, he had to change organizational dynamics. Previously, the various departments worked independently.
“I said, ‘It’s not going to work if we don’t communicate’,” Olson said. Together, his leadership team also worked for organizational efficiencies.
As a result, they have achieved financial stability, following a road map laid out by CFO Mike Malone. Olson said COO Nate Jones and Ann Hyland, chief communications officer, were also instrumental in achieving this.
USD recently announced that Olson will be recognized this year with an Alumni Achievement Award for Professional Achievement, stating, “Olson has led efforts to create economic growth and prosperity in our communities and rural areas.”
In addition to other appointments related to his work in public utilities, Olson is the chairman of the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission.
He is especially interested in maintaining habitat for wildlife because this ensures that resource will be available for future generations.
“That’s why I’m on the Game, Fish and Parks Commission; it’s for the kids,” he said.
Olson is married, having met his wife Jennie in 1988. They have four children.
Regarding the award, he said, “It’s humbling, but I haven’t peaked yet. I’m not done yet.”