Staying Strong Through Two Crises

How does a cooperatively owned utility manage to stay strong while enduring not one, but two crises within the span of 18 months? Charlie Gray, CEO of Chesterfield County Rural Water Company (CCRWC), can tell you all about it.

The first disaster took place in September 2018, when Hurricane Florence ripped through South Carolina and dumped more than 23 inches of rain in less than 36 hours. In Chesterfield County, the sudden storm washed out 42 roads and the water lines alongside them. For CCRWC, a longtime provider of safe, clean water for 80% of the county’s residents, the cost of the damage added up to $1 million.

Fast forward to March 2020 when South Carolina basically shut down due to the onset of COVID-19. Mandatory curfews allowed only essential personnel to be out and about. Initially, Gray and his teammates were unsure about these government-imposed limitations. They had other questions, too, such as how to protect personnel and customers in the office and in the field, how to obtain “essential personnel” badges, what to do about customer payments and how to deal with after-hour emergencies.

CoBank has always come through for us, especially in our times of need.

– Charlie Gray, CEO, Chesterfield County Rural Water Company

“For the first week or so, we were a little disoriented and trying to figure out a game plan,” Gray said. “We had faced a lot of emergencies in the past, but I’ll admit I was not prepared specifically to deal with a pandemic. And I don’t think I was alone.”

Thanks to quick action, they soon brought operational issues under control. With the help of the drive-up window at the new office CoBank financed, customers can conduct traditional lobby business in a safer way. Also, with many customers now working from home, demand for new residential water service doubled by late 2020. This gain, offset by a loss of sales to small commercial accounts such as restaurants and schools, kept revenues neutral overall.

Reflecting on how the utility has survived and thrived, Gray cites as a main reason Chesterfield’s strong, longtime relationship with CoBank, which has “always come through” in times of need. CCRWC used its CoBank line of credit to tend to storm-related repairs immediately after Florence hit. Then, when the pandemic slowed payment flows, Gray worked closely with Julia McCusker, CoBank regional vice president, to use the line of credit and gain approval for a PPP loan, all in a matter of days.

“We estimate conservatively that because we didn’t perform cutoffs and didn’t assess late fees, that we did not collect more than $175,000 in revenue over the last seven months,” Gray said. “Had it not been for the PPP loan we received from CoBank, we would have struggled financially even more than we have.”