Episode 9: The Value of Right-Of-Way Accreditation & Prioritizing Safety w/ Iapetus’ Steve Hallmark

Trees and Lines Podcast Transcript- Episode 9

A conversation with Steve Hallmark, Principal Advisor at Iapetus Infrastructure Services


Steve Hallmark: I graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University back in 1981. It’s almost 41 and a half years now. Unfortunately, during COVID we didn’t get to have a class reunion with our 40th anniversary of graduation.

All my buddies and cohorts still plan on doing that. I spent my first five years working for what was then Gulf State Utilities, which is now part of the Entergy Organization.  From there I’d left for a short time. I call it my sabbatical to the private sector, working for one of the large line clearance contractors.

But decided my heart was working for the utilities and in this industry. So, I was hired by John Goodfellow up at Puget Sound Energy. Back then it was actually Puget Sound Power and Light. So moved there in 1989.  And under John’s tutelage I did a crash course. I think it kicked me into gear as to how I got really more and more
involved in the industry. Because John also throughout his career, has been such a big stalwart with what we did. So spent eight years up there. Then I got tired of the wet gray long winters of Seattle and chose to move south to California. I was hired by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, and they had never had a professional manager running their program.  They’d always been kind of brought people up from within, but no one that had really spent time with managing a turnkey type of program, which is what they wanted because of a lot of the legislation changes that were going on in the state of California.

I was brought down to help them set up their program and did that and many other things while I was there in Sacramento. But like I said, my kickoff to really getting more involved in the industry and different organizations and associations was working for John.

And then obviously moving on from that and developing myself professionally. After I retired in 2018, I went into doing some private consulting, was hired by a firm working for the California State Governor’s Office, overseeing PG&E wildfire mitigation plan implementation.

That was very rewarding because I already knew a lot of the people that I was working with at PG&E, but really got to see the inside of how an investor-owned utility, because SMU being a municipal we operate under different requirements, so I got to spend a lot of time understanding the IOU side, what their challenges are with dealing with the wildfire threats there in California and all the requirements they have to do now. So, and then someone kept knocking at my door and in July I came over and joined Phil and, and Tej at Iapetus.

Phil Charlton: Steve at SMUD was one of the very first utilities be recognized as a right-of-way steward and the only municipal utility.

Steve Hallmark: Yeah, I used to think preparing for NERC audits were going to be a challenge. But preparing for and getting going through the right-of-way stewardship accreditation, it’s even a higher level. And I think once a utility has made that effort, it there to be greatly commended because it’s not a walk in the park.  You just don’t get anointed. You don’t get to write your check and get the plaque to hang on your wall. You’ve got to prove yourself.


Tej Singh: What was the decision by you and the SMU leadership to pursue that right away stewardship, that accreditation?

Steve Hallmark: Well, it really was my decision. To me the cost was not this, it was pretty insignificant as far as what it was more of the intensity of dedicating the staff resources and going through the whole process of doing the accreditation.

Fortunately, SMUD is a utility that recognizes on the importance of being recognized by your peers. I mean, they’re the sixth largest municipal utility in the US so it’s not some little, small utility. They’re the second largest in California behind first being the larger one being LADWP.

So, the fortunately, my peers and my superiors really cherished especially when it is something that you have to go through a pretty good rigor to be to be accepted and acknowledged that you meet the criteria that right away stewardship does.

Tej Singh: I find that in talking with the modern-day vegetation leaders today that there are executives out there that are excited about that accreditation are discussing in terms of how to pursue it.  It definitely seems like it’s catching some moment even today.  It’s very interested to see how that kind of plays out if this becomes the industry standard and we’re going to see more than just eight utilities secure that accreditation.

Working at an Investor-Owned Utility Versus at a Municipality

Phil Charlton: Steve, you mentioned you were at Puget and then you went to SMUD. From a manager standpoint, what’s the difference between working within the IOU and the municipal environment?

Steve Hallmark: With IOUs you have a little more flexibility. Anytime that you’re dealing with a utility that’s owned by either, in SMUD’s case, it was formed under California’s MUD Act, which is a municipal utility district act, not a part of the city of Sacramento. It’s its own unique district that has an elected board that oversees the utility.

So, it’s very different in that working for an IOU it’s more of a private organization, you have much more flexibility, oftentimes than some of your contracting and ability to go out and recruit and bring in new companies as an example.  With a Municipal utility, you are much more limited in those abilities, and you have pretty small, tight lanes that you have to stay within. You don’t have the ability to always just say, “Hey, I want to hire this company.” Well, if it’s going to be over so much money, you’ve got to go out for bids, and you have some

I think that was one of the biggest challenges for me from the contracting perspective. There are ways that you can always have good contracts and bring in good quality companies. You just have a lot more rigors that you have to go through in order to be able to bring in and make sure you write good specs.

That’s the one thing that I really learned: You really have to step your game up and make sure you have clear, concise specs so that you make sure that you get what you want as far as your contracting needs.

Low Bid Contractors and Safety

Phil Charlton: Was it always low bid?

Steve Hallmark: It is. And fortunately, we’re getting away. The industry’s finding that low bid is not…  I think the industry as a whole is learning that going with low bid is not necessarily the answer, it’s not just about saving money.

Because with low bid, sometimes the quality of the work can be extremely substandard. And unless you have good controls in place to make sure that those types of companies don’t come on your property and start working, low bid is not always the answer.

And fortunately, you put in good prerequisites as far as what you have to qualify to be able to bid and then performance standards that you have to meet in order to stay on the property.  And I think it’s critical in what the big shifts that I saw and say the last 10 to 15 years over the course of my career.

Phil Charlton: Yeah. You still see people struggling with the idea of getting sourcing on board with that concept? They still like low bid.

Steve Hallmark: Oh yeah, they do. But I’m finding too that more and more utilities are learning that that low bid isn’t necessarily the right answer. You’ve got to put in some quality control. And sometimes you’re going to pay a premium, but the end product is going to be superior to what you can accomplish by going with just the guy that can do the work for the cheapest.

Especially on the safety side of it, because oftentimes at the low bid, unfortunately, what we’ve seen, or I saw the course of my career, was that safety was one of the things that probably suffered when you dealt with contractors that were trying to cut corners to make money or even break even on the projects.

Phil Charlton: Well, it’s good to see that more and more utilities are refusing to give on the safety side.

Steve Hallmark: Yes. Well, and that’s a huge piece for me.  At the beginning of my career, it was like there was really no focus on the safety by the contractors. It was like “make sure you got the bodies to staff, the crews.” We didn’t care if they got hurt or not. And I say that honestly and I think a lot of my contemporaries could probably say the same thing that they saw back in the early part of their careers.  But over the course of my career, I saw a steady increase.  One of the big places I first saw it was working at Puget and the emphasis that we placed on how safely the contractors worked; we would shut contractors down if they weren’t safe. You know, we would just have to say, you have no place on this property if you can’t perform in the safety arena.

There’s another way that you’ve got to put good controls when you bring a new company in to understand how their safety performance is going to affect their work once they’re on your property.

Career Choices: Working at a Utility Versus the Private Side

Tej Singh: How would you advise folks who are kind of in the prime of their utility careers and are considering leaving the utility and moving to the private side?

What is some guidance that you would offer them given that you’ve actually lived on both sides of the fence?

Steve Hallmark: Over the course of my career, as I got moved on and up within an organization, what became more apparent to me was the need to develop relationships and have people that I could turn to in confidence to guide me.  People that I looked up to and how they performed and how they were being successful and how to guide my career.  I think about this too: The old saying about the Peter principle. Someone promotes, promotes, promotes, promotes until they get to a point where they think this person has no business to be in this role because they are way over their head.

You’ve got to be able to recognize, and sometimes someone that has taken you under their wing, they may be able to tell you, “I don’t think that might be the best job career choice for you because, sure you’re going to get that promotion, but are you going to be successful?”

That’s what you got to help people understand that as they want that job. Okay? What’s it going to look like to be successful and what if you’re not successful? Because if you’re not, that’s going to be a blemish on your career. And I’ve seen that happen more often than not.  They went for that big promotion. They get it, they fail, and they struggle after for a while if they ever recover.

Tej Singh: You obviously have had a long career in the industry, done a lot of incredible things. Is there something that you think you left on the table where you’re like, “Hey, I just, maybe I ran out of time. Or the industry wasn’t ready to adopt X, Y, or Z? Something that you wish that you could have implemented before you left the utility side of the industry?”

Legacy and Sucession Planning

Steve Hallmark: One of the things I’m glad that I did… I didn’t do it when I left Puget, because it was kind of not really a planned thing.  It is kind of just, and I always teased John about this because he had gone back to one to one of the original Trees and utilities conferences back when they were held in Nebraska at the national Arbor Day Foundation headquarters in Nebraska. And he came back from that, and he brought me this job posting, he said, “Hey, you might want to share this with some of your folks that work for you.  They might be interested in going to Sacramento.”

And I looked at it and I said, “I’ll do that.” Well, guess what?  I put in for that job and I got that job. But what I felt was important was when I left Sacramento, is that my legacy is going to be how the program continues after I leave there. And that’s why at that point in time the director that I was working for and I developed a plan and said, “I’m out here in two to three years.  Let’s make sure that we get somebody. I don’t do like me coming in here and having to learn the system. I’d rather get somebody in here that can work and understand for a few years under you, under my guidance, and then go on to ultimately run the program.”  And that’s how we ended up hiring, while I was still there, we hired Eric Brown to come in and he ultimately, after I left, he ultimately is now the manager of the program there. So, I guess that was, I think to me is critical. Sometimes at that level, when corporations don’t have a plan in place.  A succession plan.  It can’t be just a person that’s been there the longest.  I’ve seen that: “Well, they’re next in line.”  Well, that shouldn’t be the case.  You may hurt some feelings.  But you need to turn the handing off the gavel needs to be to the right person that can continue to build the program.

Because you don’t want it to go backwards. And sometimes I think programs do go backwards if they don’t have the right succession plan in place.

Advice to New Managers

Phil Charlton:  I met you in ’89 probably when you first got to Puget and have known you a long time. To be successful, you had to manage staffs at both Puget and SMUD. But I’m guessing success doesn’t come from managing your staff as much as managing your manager.

Steve Hallmark: Absolutely. But I learned this early on. Well, I had to do two things because I was hired in as just a regular division forester by John.

And then after I’d been there not quite a year, John was promoted into a different position, and I was named his replacement. So, I came in and other people that had been there much longer than I weren’t selected, whereas I was selected to replace John in his role. Fortunately, he still was at the utility, so I had him to lean on.  But that was my first big promotion where I had to learn, “I’ve got to let go of the reigns on that side of the business and let people do their job. And help them be successful.”  And I struggled with that for about the first six months.  I always wanted to go back and mess with the guy’s business that replaced me out in the field. And finally, he told me one time, “Hey, you just need to go do your job and let me do my job.  And then if I’m not doing my job, we’ll have a discussion.  Hands off!” And I said, “Oh, I understand that now.” So I think that’s the first step. You’ve got to learn how to step back and be more strategic in your thinking and how you manage and not be so operationally inclined.

But then the big thing for me, and most all of my staff—especially they were from a vegetation forester or biologist-type of a background—we foresters tend to think different than engineers and accountants. And let’s
face it: Utilities are run by engineers and accountants, and they understand numbers.  We foresters tend to be a little more abstract in our thinking and they have to have critical thinking to be able to manage ideas up to the people that they’re working for and understand how to deal with the accountants and the engineers of the corporations.  And I think the ones that do are the ones that are successful.

Adopting New Technologies

Tej Singh: What is your general sort of feel and perception of where the industry is now? Do
you feel like, There’s lots of technology now. Programs have evolved.  There are people using new innovative
approaches to how they think about vegetation management.  There are more dollars the utility is earmarking
for this type of work. Where do you think we are in the life cycle of this industry? Are we in a good place? Are we regressing? Where are we?

Steve Hallmark: I kind of get the feeling in talking with my contemporaries back out in the industry that there’s just so much technology is being thrown at them. “We’re the next best thing to help you solve all your problems.” And I think they’re just overwhelmed at times as there’s so much stuff out there and they don’t
honestly know what to believe.  And I think they’re sometimes sold bills of goods which don’t deliver, and they
become very frustrated with that.

And I think also sometimes you say, “I want this solution.” The time that it takes to actually implement that solution; it doesn’t happen overnight.

Tej Singh: I’ve heard a similar sort of narrative and maybe that’s just the iterative process. Like “It’s exciting.” People took a first bite, there was some things that were real, there was some things that were not real. And the industry’s going through its second, third iteration of figuring out what’s going to be important and what
isn’t.  I see that as well.

Well, Steve, before we get out of here, I have to ask you some questions about something I learned about you on a personal level, which I think is fascinating: Your and your wife’s passion for kind of riding horses, doing the long rides, that kind of thing.  So tell us, how in the world did you get into that and where?

Personal Sidebar on Long-Distance Horseback Riding

Steve Hallmark:  Well, my wife was already into horses when we got married. And when we moved to Washington a year after we got married. And she brought her thoroughbred that she had bred.

It was brought up later by our friends that had bred her for her. And my wife liked to fox hunt. And there is actually one of, it’s the oldest fox hunting club which is a sport involving horses chasing fox with fox hounds through the woods.

Well, the oldest recognized fox hunt in the west of the Mississippi is located just outside of Tacoma, Washington. So, she had gone to see this fox hunt. She got introduced to some people that did endurance. And we
went over to their house one night for dinner and they got a phone call. They said, “Hey, I got this horse I need to get rid of.”

And at the time I didn’t have one. They said, “He just doesn’t get along with my horses. We need to get him out of here.”  So, we went over there and looked at him that night and said, “Well, hell, we’re take him.”  Of course, I think back then, that’s when you’re kind of young and not necessarily thinking of the right things.  But, well, that was a big, it’s what’s called a spotted Appaloosa and he’s or leopard Appaloosa.  He’s white with colored spots all over him. And he and I started endurance riding. And then when we moved to California, that’s the mecca for endurance riding in the US. That’s really where the sport started. And I got involved in it doing much more endurance riding down there.  We’d done some in Washington, but then got involved in doing the famous race that starts up by Lake Tahoe and ends in Auburn, California. And it’s a hundred miles that you have to complete.
Basically, you start over the Sierras and you have 24 hours to complete it.  So I’ve got two completions on that.  I think the body’s a little too old now to keep doing that stuff. So, it’s much shorter rides now. We don’t do the hundred miles anymore.

Phil Charlton: I’m not sure about looking for cantankerous horses, a quality you look for in the first one.

Steve Hallmark: Well, I tell you what, those ones teach you a lot though.

Tej Singh: Well, Steve, it was, it was a great conversation. Great catching up with you.  I’m glad you were able to share some insights with us from your long, very successful career in this space.  So thanks for being with us today, my friend, and we’ll see you soon.

Steve Hallmark: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it. And you know, obviously, it’s been a real pleasure getting to reconnect.  Phil and I were often on the other opposite sides of the table for years. Either as a working for me or as a UAE executive director. 

Thanks for listening to another episode of Trees and Lines, sponsored by Iapetus Infrastructure Services

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