Plugged In & Out: Christine Hallquist, Vermont Electric Coop

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Plugged In & Out: Christine Hallquist, Vermont Electric Coop

Sun, 08/06/2017 - 8:46am -- tim

Christine Hallquist, CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, Inc, is off and running to her next appointment. Photo by Randolph T Holhut.

by Joyce Marcel Vermont Business Magazine “My passion is to solve climate change with the electric grid,” says Christine Hallquist, the visionary head of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, Inc and — in another in a long line of Vermont firsts — the first CEO in America to transition openly from male (David) to female (Christine). One year, he was the moderator at the Hyde Park Town Meeting; the next year she was. 

Hallquist, 61, who is married with three adult children, came out publicly in 2015 and became an instant media star with stories on WCAX and in the newspapers. But she has known she was a girl in a boy’s body while she was still a child. Not even the nuns in her Catholic school could beat it out of her, although they tried, she said. Really tried.

Hallquist’s son, Derek Hallquist, made a film about his father’s transition and hooked it to the issue of climate change. It’s called, unsurprisingly, “Denial,” and it can be streamed on Amazon. When it was shown in Los Angeles, one review called Hallquist “One of America’s most revolutionary and fearless public figures.”

In person, Hallquist does not give off “revolutionary” or “fearless” vibes. The first word I would use to describe her is “hilarious.” The second is “accessible.”

During our interview, which lasted for an hour and a half, we laughed more than we talked (and I have the recordings to prove it). She has an impish sense of humor as well as an eager, almost childlike openness and energy about her that makes the transgendered issue as well as the climate change one take a back seat to the enjoyment of conversation and human connection.

She’s less a newborn stunner than what she’s always been: something of a geek. She admits that even she sometimes has trouble with the pronouns now.

Hallquist, who is an electrical engineer by training, took over the head job at VEC — a member-owned electric distribution utility — in 2005, when it was floundering financially. She has since turned it into a company with an A+-with-stable-outlook rating from Standard & Poor's.

VEC serves approximately 32,000 members living in 75 Vermont communities. The Johnson-based company has 107 employees and annual revenues of $77 million. It covers much of the state’s rural north.

In addition to running the company, Hallquist has long cultivated a voice on the national stage. She is the chair of the strategies and technical advisory committees of the National Rural Electric Co-op Association, president of the Northeast Association of Electric Co-ops and also a lobbyist for that organization. 

“So I get the opportunity to lobby in Washington for the Northeast,” Hallquist said. “Primarily, the rest of the country is made up of red states, so I have the advantage being the radical there as well,” she said with her trademark impish grin.

What is Hallquist lobbying for?

In her expert opinion, the world has the technology in place right now to fix the climate change problem. The key, she believes, is electricity.

“VEC’s electric footprint is 95% carbon free,” Hallquist said. “If you look at the two main sources of carbon from Vermont, half comes from transportation and about 1/3 comes from heating and cooling. We can solve climate change by converting transportation, heating and cooling to electricity. If you are a VEC member, we will give you incentives — credits on your bill — for the purchase of electric vehicles, air source hot water heaters and mini-split heating and cooling systems. We currently have a deal where you can get $10K off on a Nissan Leaf as a VEC member. So the more we can move these other energy sources to electricity, the smaller the overall carbon footprint will be.”

Currently, VEC gets about 57 percent of its power from Hydro Quebec, 13 percent from wind, 3 percent from solar — although that number is always changing — 18 percent from the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire and smaller percentages from a variety of other sources such as natural gas, farm methane, landfill methane, etc. 

Vermont is a small state with one dominant power company, Green Mountain Power, which is itself an amalgam of several earlier power systems. There are also 16 small utilities. VEC is the largest of the small systems and works closely with GMP. 

VEC, for example, partnered with GMP to build the controversial Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell. Hallquist, who was then still Dave, played a major and public part in getting the project completed. 

“We pay for 14 percent of the project and get 14 percent of the output,” Hallquist said. “VEC agreed to be the ‘face’ of the project as it was entirely in our territory and it was our job to garner support from our membership. We did put it to a member vote and it was supported by 80% of our membership. I spent about one year meeting weekly with groups and individuals in Lowell, Irasburg and Albany. I actually attended protest events twice to hear and understand the opposition’s views.”

GMP’s CEO Mary Powell, whose homestead makes her — ironically — a VEC customer, has high praise for Hallquist.

“I am a huge fan of Christine and am grateful to work with such an authentic and caring leader in the energy space,” Powell said. “Christine has been a steadfast leader who cares deeply about each and every person on the VEC team and is passionate about her members of the Co-op. My husband Mark and I have been customers of VEC for a very long time and the culture of caring shows.”

Powell’s estimation grew when Hallquist transitioned.

“Christine was always a strong role model for good leadership in this business, but when she decided a number of years ago to embrace her true self and transition from Dave to Christine, it brought my admiration of her to an entirely different level,” Powell said. “She embarked on a journey of opening her heart and her authentic self up to the world, starting one on one and then asking for time on a more formal level, like in board meetings, to talk about what was going on, to show pictures of Christine and to introduce this change in the most thoughtful and beautiful way. I will be forever touched by knowing Christine.”

Other colleagues and friends also praised Hallquist. For example, Dan Carswell, the president of the VEC board, has known her since she began working at VEC in 1996. He described her as “energetic, technology-oriented — which has been a great asset, quite open and transparent, and focused on member service and reliability.”

“Through her entire tenure, there has been significant improvement of the financial status,” Carswell said. “And the senior management team that has been developed by Christine is quite effective and impressive. The financial results and the team building results have proven her effective leadership. The transition from Dave to Christine was really seamless. There were some eyebrows raised in the beginning, but as far as the board was concerned, there was no reaction whatsoever.”

“Christine is an incredible CEO” said Andrea Cohen, who was recruited by Hallquist from her job as executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility to be VEC’s manager for government affairs and member relations. 

“I had the privilege of being part of her community through the transition,” continued Cohen. “I really admired her courage. When you’re going through any kind of significant life event, you hope you have the support of your work community. But I felt like her courageous journey was supporting me.”

It was risky for Hallquist to transition so openly, Cohen said. 

“She handled it with respect for the whole organization,” Cohen said. “Nobody left. Under her leadership, VEC employees are a pretty incredible community of people. Whether or not they understood it or were surprised, I have to say the whole community did their very best to support Christine because they have a lot of respect for her personally and professionally.”

Hallquist's transition gave her employees the opportunity to experience something unusual and, perhaps, a little frightening, Cohen said.

“It was an incredible experience as a community of employees to respond and act in a productive way and work through it,” Cohen said. “We have a culture of good communication and supportive employees, so, frankly, I’m not surprised that it was a very positive experience.”

The outside world isn’t as friendly to transgendered people as Vermont may be. Approximately 1.4 million people identify as transgender in the United States, a number which has produced panic, police violence, gun violence, vehicular violence, other kinds of violence, insecurity and very strange bathroom laws in less progressive states.

According to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law dedicated to conducting “rigorous, independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy,” in Vermont 3,000 people over the age of 18 identify as transgender.

One of the people most in tune with this population is Clare McCaffee, who has been selling wigs and makeup to the transgendered community for almost 19 years. Her store is in Montpelier and her web site is tgnorth.com. 

“Back in the day the fear was all about sexual deviancy,” McCaffee said. “But I’ve never seen that in close to a thousand people I’ve seen over the course of the years. There’s still so much shame around it for a lot of people. A lot of married folks who come here, their wives don’t know. And it’s unfortunate. The softness makes them great husbands and fathers.”

Hallquist came to McCaffee for help with her transition.

“I met Christine when she came in to get a makeover and a wig,” McCaffee said.

“She needed to have more of a feminine appearance. At that point, she never in a million years dreamed that she would transition openly. She’s an incredible human being. She’s very approachable and kind. Easy to talk to, no pretentiousness. Very funny — greatest sense of humor. Humble for who she is. Sometimes there are people in this world in higher positions in big companies who tend to be a little pretentious. She’s always been so approachable. And I said this to her once: She did it right. If Caitlyn Jenner did it that way, people would have a better taste in their mouth about transgender.”

Jenner — whom in another life was former Olympic gold medal winner Bruce Jenner — came out very publicly in 2015 with a Vanity Fair cover and a sexualized appearance.

“She had boobs under her chin,” McCaffee said. “What 53-year-old woman would do that? (Caitlyn Jenner will be 68 in October) Christine did it classy, not ass-y. She always came in clothing that was appropriate for her body type and her age. Very cool and well done but not like a teenager. A cute skirt and a top that matched well and her shoes looked great. She told me about sitting at a board meeting in a man’s suit once, bidding under the table on a size 16 skirt on eBay. She has beautiful eyes and a gorgeous smile. I contoured her face and worked on her wig. She walked in last time and looked fabulous.”

For McCaffee, the job is making her clients look real.

“Christine has the softest sweetest smile and her heart just glows on the outside,” McCaffee said. “She’s the sister I always wanted. The things I appreciate about her the most is she’ll sit down and chat with anyone about this. And her family is amazing. Her wife has a great sense of humor. I went to the premiere of ‘Denial’ in Burlington. I laughed. I cried. I cheered. Christine actually cries on camera. You could see what she went through to get to this point.” 

Oddly enough, for Hallquist it was an aggressive and spreading Stage 3 prostate cancer that helped with her transition. For a long time, doctors could not find the cause of her disease. Then they decided she was being poisoned by her own testosterone. They suggested a bilateral orchiectomy, or the removal of both testicles. In layman’s terms, the operation is called castration. A castrated male will experience a lesser sex drive but can still achieve and maintain an erection.

After surgery, Hallquist became cancer-free. She remains that way today. “I think she looked at her cancer as a sign,” McCaffee said. 

When Hallquist decided to transition openly, she couldn’t find a role model.

“I thought I’d lose my family, lose my friends and lose my job,” Hallquist said. “But the truth was more important. So when I started to transition, I did a Google search. How do I do this? And there wasn't anything out there. There was one woman who was the transgender CEO of Sirius radio, but she was transgender when she started the company. The advice I needed wasn’t out there, so I had to pave the path. Now I get emails from all over the world. And I have coached some people. But some people continue to take this secret to their grave. There’s always a reason why they can’t come out. Yet I run one of the most macho businesses in the world and I was able to pull it off. But we’re in Vermont, Other places are not as generous.”

One of Hallquist’s closest friends, David Palumbo, the owner of a B&B in Hyde Park and a semiretired solar salesman and installer, has known her since their children played together.

“David was on our school board here in Hyde Park and his children and our children are about the same age,” Palumbo said. “I coached both his daughters in basketball. It’s a small town and I’ve known Christine for over 20 years.”

Palumbo described Hallquist as “very intelligent,” “lots of fun,” “likes to laugh” and “a solid person.”

“She really has a good vision for what the future is going to be in energy,” Palumbo said. “Also, what is unusual for us in renewables, that’s not her role. She’s very pragmatic about what works for the Co-op and the customers. Even though part of her vision is that we’re going to do more renewable energy, we can only do that so quickly and you have to keep in mind cost because of the Co-op members. She’s very good at sticking to that. She has no problem with telling folks from the renewable energy community, who want to see it go all to renewables at once, that she has to look at it from all sides.”

Palumbo was surprised when Hallquist told him about Christine.

“I learned about four or five years ago, before the general public but after her wife,” Palumbo said. “I felt OK with it. I’ve seen a lot of things in my life and I don’t get too worked up about what other people are doing. Dave hid it very well as a transgendered person living as a man. But I guess, what Christine told me later on, there were some clues I missed. We would fish together sometimes and there were her painted toenails and things like that. But the transition hasn’t changed anything for me. We still get together and have a good time.”

Early Years

Hallquist grew up in Baldwinsville, New York, about 20 miles north of Syracuse. Her father was an electrical engineer. Her mother trained as a nurse but after having seven children opted to become a stay-at-home mom.

Hallquist is the third of those seven children.

“It was a good spot,” she said. “I watched the mistakes my older brothers made and decided not to make those mistakes. I was kind of the peacemaker in the family. I fall within that traditional middle-child role.”

Hallquist was very close to her father, 

“I spent all my time with him,” she said. “My brothers were the rebels. They were rebelling against dad and mom. But I used to go to work with him when I was in high school. He was a great engineer and I learned a lot. He had a night job designing what’s now the kind of the technology behind our cell phones. So I would go to work with him at night and use all this equipment. I was making circuit boards in high school for fun.”

She started working for money when she turned 16.

“My first job was fixing televisions,” she said. “I became very good at fixing electronics. Back then televisions and radios had to be repaired. We didn’t just throw them away. That kept me busy for about a year and a half, and then I went to work with Radio Shack and started interacting with the public. It was great. If you’re just working in some back room somewhere fixing electronics, you don’t develop those human interactive skills that are so important. What’s nice is that my senior year at high school and my first two years of college all were with Radio Shack. At one point I was an 18-year-old making more money than any salesperson in New York State. They had a commission program and I very much enjoyed selling things. So I had a great time. It was a lot of fun.”

School was just the opposite of fun.

“I always knew I was different,” she said. “From as far back as I could remember, I don’t remember ever wanting to be a boy. But when I was young, in the 1960s, they would put you in mental institutions for being transgender. So you learn early on to keep your mouth shut. It was only in 2013 that the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) stopped calling it a mental illness. Keep that in mind, and here I am, a little boy growing up being different. And what’s even worse is that I was labeled as gifted. So there were these expectations. I was supposed to act like a boy and be a genius. Geek culture hadn’t developed then. So I have two things going against me, and I’m in Catholic School, so three things. By the time I got to 8th grade I would get beat up going to school, get beat up by the nuns in school, and then get beat up going home. That was my life.”

Hallquist remembers a nun beating her head against the blackboard in front of the whole class because she wouldn’t give the answer to a math equation.

“You know the answer,” the nun kept saying. And yes, Hallquist knew the answer. She was just being spiteful. “I didn’t want to give in,” she said. “I was a real pain in the ass.”

Hallquist didn’t give in because she didn’t want to “let go of myself.”

“I always thought I was a girl,” she said. “I didn’t even know what the word ‘transgender’ was until I was 44 years old. It just wasn’t part of the language. I never lost faith in God. So I remember thinking, ‘Forgive them Lord, for they not know not who I am.’ I knew their actions were fear-based and had nothing to do with God. In eighth grade, the Monsignor called my parents and said. ‘I think your son needs an exorcism.’ But my parents were awesome. They pulled us all out of Catholic School. That was an empowering moment. I knew I was loved.”

So in middle school she merely got beat up on the way to school and on the way home.

She found an interesting solution to the problem.

“When I came into high school, I wasn’t feminine,” she said. “I was just different. I was afraid my peers would kill me. I decided I had to act like a man. I was collecting women’s clothes but not wearing them. And I was attracted to women. 

“So in ninth grade I decided to start acting like a man and playing this role. I never took on any sport with a ball, but I come from a skiing family. My father was part of the US ski team and we owned part of a mountain growing up. And I knew how to run — that came with the territory. So I started acting like a man and everything got better. I got this great career, was popular, everything got better. But it was an act. And it took a lot of energy. But it worked.”

Still, she hated high school. 

“I still have PTSD from staring at the clock,” she said. “I was so bored. The hands of the clock seemed to come to a stop later in the day. That’s what I remember from high school. So I did two years at a technical school and then came here to Vermont to work for IBM.”

Coming To Vermont

The year was 1978. 

“At IBM they’d just gotten over singing company songs, but they still wore the white shifts and the blue pants,” Hallquist said. “And I wouldn’t call myself a radical kid, but I was a radical thinker and that still hasn’t changed much today.

The first thing I heard from IBM people was, ‘You get to work here for life!’ And I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to work here for life I want to do some different things.’ But the other side of my brain was saying, ‘Look, this is a great job!’ They recruited at the campuses and everybody wanted to work for IBM. I knew I was young and naive. I thought I’d stay at IBM a year and then assess. But after a year I was still itching to do something else.”

At the time, Hallquist was sharing a flat with a friend who worked for Digital Equipment Corp, a young computer company headquartered in Massachusetts.

“He said, ‘Come work for Digital,’” she said. “They were the second largest computer company. They were primarily young people. I loved Digital.” 

Within her first few months at Digital, it became apparent that she had business talent.

“I worked as a technician, but I would keep looking at these circuits and ask why did they use this part when they should have used this part,” she said. “They said, ‘How do you know all this?’ I said. ‘I worked with my father and he told me all these design rules.’ So they said, ‘We’re going to make you an engineer.’”

Digital was running an in-house program in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts.

“I got selected and trained to become an electrical engineer,” Hallquist said. “I worked just a few months as a technician and I became a supervisor. And after a year on the line as a supervisor, I became a design engineer on computer power systems. I didn’t get a degree, but I was now an engineer.”

Hallquist was soon leading a group that was working on the power systems for the new computers Digital was creating.

“We worked on some of Digital’s most popular products,” she said, “We were working on smaller computers at the time — there were five of us and we were a fun team. Each team represented a different part of the computer; we represented the power systems. We designed the MicroVax 1 and the MicroVax 2. Then, in 1986, my team approached Ken Olsen, the president of the company, and said, ’We think we could design a personal computer.’ And he said, ‘The personal computer will never be a viable market.’”

That prediction has now become a famous quote, one taught in business schools today.

Lean Manufacturing

“At that point, most of the team left the company,” Hallquist said. “I decided to go into manufacturing and became the power systems manufacturing manager. I was pretty excited. I was 29 years old and making a lot of money and having a lot of responsibilities. There were about 450 people in the power supply area. I was on the job a month when my boss told me, ‘Look we can get your power supplies for under a dollar a watt from Japan. You’re $1.89 a watt. You have a year to get the cost down or we’ll eliminate the whole division.’ So I had one month when I was feeling pretty glorious and then it was, ‘What do I do now?’”

Instead of giving up, Hallquist said she bought a book called the Toyota Manufacturing Process. (TPS). It details a philosophy of continuous improvement in manufacturing designed to eliminate all waste — including waste of overproduction, waste of waiting time, inconsistency and waste of movement and stock on hand. 

“I studied the book and rolled out the process,” Hallquist said. “That changed my career, because I became known as one of the earliest adopters of what in this country is called Lean Manufacturing.”

Hallquist and her team got their manufacturing cost down to a dollar a watt, “and within a short period of time we took the lead time — how long it took to build a power supply — from 12 weeks to less than one week. The results were dramatic. There were 120,000 employees in the company, but the company took notice.”

When Digital began to go down the tubes — because, as we all know now, there happened to be a market for personal computers — they tried to downsize by offering buyouts. 

“I signed up for the first company buyout,” Hallquist said. “I was 37 at that point and still felt I could do different things. I asked for the buyout and they said I was too critical to the company. But I left the company anyway. My philosophy was that you don’t want to be the last one off the sinking ship.”

After leaving Digital, Hallquist took the job of CEO of SB Electronics, a family-owned company in Barre.

“I did that job for about three years, and frankly I wasn’t a very good leader,” Hallquist said. “I wasn’t happy with the job, and I don’t think they were happy with me. I was still young and inexperienced. I look back and I say, ‘Man, I did a lot of things wrong.’ If I had stayed in the company for 10 years, I would have had a significant ownership of the company, but they were also working with old and dying products. The combination of me not knowing what I was doing plus working with old and dying products? The writing got on the wall.”

Consultant On Process

Hallquist took her lean manufacturing skills and opened up a successful consulting company in northern Vermont. 

“I consider myself very skilled in process,” Hallquist said. “Very disciplined. My philosophy is there are no bad people, just bad process. For example, take the difference between cooks. I’m a cook who doesn’t measure anything. I kind of throw it all together and most of the time it works out, and the rest of the time I eat it anyway and everybody else at the table had better eat it and not complain. If you don’t want to make mistakes, you measure everything. You can say I’m a crappy chef because I don’t measure things. If you want a good meal, you always follow the recipe — that’s the process.”

Many companies, she found, were all over the place in terms of process.

“So many companies don’t write things down, they don’t agree on how to do things, and one person does it one way and another does it a different way,” she said. “And you, as a customer, experience inconsistency. We see that in airlines. You, the customer, blame the airline and the person behind the counter when it’s the process. I believe 95 percent of people get up in the morning and want to do good work. It‘s the processes that gets in the way. And that’s my philosophy.”

The first consulting job came through a friend working for Xerox. 

“I worked there for five weeks,” she said. “Then I landed a job to lead a team to design a model Miller’s brewery. I spent many years working in food and beverages. Keebler Cookie plants and orange juice factories. I was a fix-it person in manufacturing. I was working all across the country, but I was based in Stowe. Stowe Consulting. But by then I had a wife and three kids growing up and I wasn’t seeing them.”

The answer was to build a local base. 

“I worked with lots of local companies in the state,” Hallquist said. “I had a good reputation. But I did land a contract that lasted two and a half years to work with Honda’s R&D in America and look at the entire process of what people want in a car and how it gets manufactured. So Honda would fly me out once a month.”

Hallquist isn’t joking when she says she should have paid Honda instead of Honda paying her. Honda’s management, process, called Total Quality Management, is based on the principle that every staff member, whether janitor or CEO, must be committed to maintaining the highest standards. It became a fad with US companies in the 1990s.

“My greatest learning came from Honda,” Hallquist said. “In the US it’s become a fad, but it was in Honda’s genes. They actually did it. I was brought into many companies to teach the system. I didn’t mind making money doing a fad, but I knew they were hiring me as a fad. Boiled down simply — and we do this in VEC — it’s about continuous improvement. Constantly looking for ways to get better no matter how well you do things now. The thing that gets in the way is ego.”

At Honda, it didn’t matter if you were president of the company, you wore white overalls. 

“People all looked the same,” Hallquist said. “You didn’t know what the hierarchy was. Americans would rail against it. ‘I’m not doing that in my company,’ they say. But the concept is to have no hierarchy. It’s everybody’s job is to improve the process. How do you carry it out? The key is creating every year a strategic plan and having everybody lined up around the goals for the following year. You set a long-term vision, but then what do we do next year to get to that long-term vision?”

Electricity

One of Hallquist’s consulting clients had been the Burlington Electric Department, so she had some experience with Vermont utilities. Then the Vermont Electric Cooperative hired a new CEO named Kelly Enright to take them out of bankruptcy. She called Hallquist and asked her to look over the company.

“Vermont Electric was like walking into a Rip Van Winkle company,” Hallquist said. “No technology. Pretty backwards. So I spent two years consulting and then Kelly asked me to come on and be their engineering and operations manager. That was in 2000. I seized the moment. I realized the utilities were probably 20 or 30 years behind the computer companies in terms of technology. When I came to work at VEC, the first thing I started doing was leading the company to new technology platforms. That’s why today we’re recognized as one of the most innovative small utilities in the country.”

Hallquist called Enright “quite the visionary.” He describes himself as a bit more conservative. (Even Joyce didn’t always get the pronouns straight – ED.)

“We just came out of bankruptcy in December of 1999,” Hallquist said, “As soon as I started working there, Kelly wanted to buy Citizen’s Utility. And I’m thinking, ‘What? Are you crazy? We just got out of bankruptcy and you want to buy a utility that’s half again larger than we are?’ But she was obsessed. I didn’t believe she could pull that off, but I worked for her and I was certainly willing to support her.”

Hallquist’s assignment was to develop the processes that would join the two companies. She spent a year working on it.

“It was 2003 when we started meeting with Citizen’s employees,” she said. “It was detail, detail, detail. Where do you connect the systems together? In 2004 we closed. And Kelly didn’t follow any of the process. By the middle of 2005, the company was in big trouble and the board had lost faith. They started a search for a CEO. Kelly left. It was a mutual understanding.”

Hallquist didn’t think the CEO job was right for her, and so she didn’t apply for it.

“I was pretty depressed,” she said. “I thought, ‘I could take this job but I’m a process expert and I only give myself 10 percent chance of success.’ The company was in tough shape. The state was ready to pull it’s certificate of public good. But then again, I thought, ‘I have a lot invested in the company, like the rest of the employees, and I may not like the new boss who comes in. So maybe I should apply for the job?’”

She did and got the job on October 25, 2005. 

“The board made me the offer and I walked out into the worst storm in VEC’s history,” she said. “Maybe it was a sign. I spent the next seven days at work sleeping in my office and managing the storm. When we got out of the storm we had 110 complaints filed with the Department of Public Service. Our members hated us.”

They had reason. From 1985 to 2005, the years VEC was in financial trouble, customer service had gone down the drain.

“That’s 20 years,” Hallquist said. “The company didn’t invest in its right-of-way clearing, so we had many outages. It was cutting short its investments in capital. It was in really tough shape. I took the job and my first meeting with the employees? Well, you know when you read all those professional advice books about inspiring your employees? This was the worst speech anyone ever gave. I got the employees together and said, ‘Look, we’re in terrible shape. I have a lot of business experience but I only give myself 10 percent chance of success.’ It was the ‘We’re screwed!’ speech. But I said, ‘Look, the only way we’re going to make this successful is if we all pull together.’ And we did, and that’s the story of VEC. We’ve all been pulling together ever since. So today, we’re an A+ rated company.”

Hallquist gives the Department of Public Service, and especially its commissioner at the time, David J O’Brien, a lot of credit for helping to save the company.

“When I first met with him, VEC had to get a rate increase,” Hallquist said, “This was somewhere in the middle of November. He didn’t know me. I didn’t know him. Our attorney and head engineering and operation manager were there and he starts telling us how bad we are. He has a long list. So he goes through the list and stops and says, ‘Do you have anything to say?’ I said, ‘I want you to finish’. He finally finishes and I said, ‘David, I have a list that’s three times as long as yours. We are a mess. I’m not here to defend our company. In fact, I’ve got about 120 problems on my list and I’ll email you the list when I get back to the office. Yes, of course we’ve screwed up and I don’t blame you at all for wanting to put us out of business. And of course you should not trust me. Why would you trust me? We don’t know each other.’”

Then Hallquist told O’Brien that despite its many well-known problems, VEC needed a rate increase in order to recapitalize the company.

“I said, ‘We have a dilemma on our hands. If you put us out of business I wouldn’t blame you’,” she said. “Then I continued. ‘But then you’ll spend the next five years with attorneys fighting our board of directors and the company, because that’s what we’ll do. Your chances of winning are good, but you’ll spend five years and a lot of money doing it. Or you could support the rate increase and we’ll work together.’ I was making a commitment right then to be completely honest and transparent with every single problem we had. And if he doesn’t see that happening, he should start the process to put us out of business. And I will give David O’Brien credit to this day, because he agreed. It was a handshake of faith, one of those beautiful examples of humanity. All the data in the world said the department had the right to put us out of business, but we worked in an honest exchange and they’re proud of the work they did as well.”

By 2007 VEC had developed a 10-year capital plan that it is just finishing now. With that first rate increase the company began building trust with its regulators and its customers. 

“It’s a long road to building trust,” Hallquist said. “I feel honored and fortunate that I’ve had the time to see it through. I really felt we got there in 2010. It took five years.”

And the Total Quality program?

“We successfully did that at Vermont Electric Co-op,” she said. “We do a survey every two years, the Dennison Culture Survey? Thousands of companies do that across the world, and one of the things you see is we score almost a perfect score in the alignment of all the employees about why we’re here. With all our chaos as humans, if we’re all pulling together we can do pretty miraculous things.”

Renewables

Vermont has become a leader in switching from coal and oil to renewables.

“People don’t realize in Vermont how good we have it,” Hallquist said. “Look at the utilities, the Legislature and the regulators. We’re pretty much all pulling together towards the same goals. I would say that doesn’t happen in the rest of the country. I consider myself lucky to be working in this state.”

To further the state’s goals, VEC is looking to increasing battery storage at the utility scale level, the commercial-industrial level and the residential level.

“We’re finalizing some deals now, but we already have an experiment going on the commercial/industrial,” Hallquist said. 

In addition, in futuristic fashion, VEC has secured a $1.2 million grant from Carnegie Mellon to develop the technology that allows devices in the home to communicate with the grid. 

This means that down the road, our refrigerators and our television sets may be discussing our power usage with our utility company. If this sounds too science fiction-y, appliances are already having these kinds of conversation in Denmark. 

Then there’s solar. VEC has one large-scale solar power system already in place with more on the drawing board.

“No matter how far out you look, utilities are always going to be able to do solar and storage at less than half the price of doing it at home,” Hallquist said. “We have advantage of economies of scale. So if we’re doing a responsible job, we’ll be doing a lot of community solar. We have a 1 megawatt project that came on-line in December of 2016 in Alburgh and which is enough to power 150 homes. A 5 megawatt project just got approved in Grand Isle. And there’s a 1.6 megawatt project in Hinesburg. We’re also going to do the same with building utility-scale storage. In order to be relevant in the future, we’ve got to continue to invest in the larger projects.”

There’s only one coal plant in New England today and it is about to go off-line. But Hallquist is nothing if not practical when it comes to securing power for her customers. 

“My job is to buy the electricity that our consumers and our state want,” Hallquist said. “It’s not for me to care where it comes from. So if someone wants me to build a 25 megawatt nuke plant, I’m gonna build it. If someone wants me to build a coal plant, I’m gonna build it. We are the experts at generation and integration. We are part of the public policy process. We are given a territory to operate under as a regulated utility with the understanding that we’re going to work with the Legislature and the state to enact its public policies. It’s not really about what I believe. If we’re doing our job right, we’re helping the state achieve its goals.”

That being said, Hallquist respects her industry peers who are still burning coal.

“These are very capable people I respect highly,” she said. “Why? They’re doing their job. They may personally not like doing it, but if they don’t, they should get another job. I’m here for my members and the state of Vermont. It just so happens that I’ve kept my personal ethics and my professional ethics pretty well aligned. But my first responsibility is to the membership.”

Coming Clean

No matter how successful she was in the energy field, on the personal front Hallquist was still hiding her proclivity for women’s clothing. 

“My wife discovered six years into the marriage about this women’s clothing thing, and we decided I’d keep this secret to my grave,” Hallquist said. “But I got to my late 40s and started feeling really bad. I started having suicidal thoughts. I have three wonderful children who grew up with this image of their dad that wasn’t true.”

Even though the idea of coming out as a transgendered woman was far in the future, Hallquist’s suicidal thoughts were an indication that all was not well in her life. 

“Coming clean gets very difficult,” Hallquist said. “Especially when I became CEO. It took many years of planning. I transitioned on December 2, 2015. Five years prior to that I met with a transgender counselor.

I was asked, ‘What are your goals?’ I said, ‘David is a very strong, good leader. But Christine, the person I am inside, is full of shame. She’s weak. I can’t transition until I’m strong.’ It took five years and then I did it. People are carrying all sorts of secret burdens. I hope I’ve made it easier for transgender people in the future, or others who are in varying degrees of being inauthentic. For me, finding full joy was being honest and authentic with who I am.”

In one of the few times that a metaphor changes into a reality in front of your eyes, the cancer and subsequent surgery in 2013 helped Hallquist enormously. 

“The doctors thought I was going to die,” Hallquist said. “The cancer had left the prostate and was in my lymph nodes. They couldn’t figure out what was causing it. On March 11 of 2014, at 6:30 pm, my urologist, Dr Plante, calls me. At this point I have told the employees and the board that I might die. He says, ‘Look, I think I know what the root of your cancer is. I think your testosterone is killing you.’”

The urologist had no idea Hallquist was transitioning when he made the call. 

“I said that’s such a coincidence,” Hallquist said. “‘On Monday,’ I said, ‘I’m meeting with my medical doctors to start the hormone process to get rid of my testosterone and start with estrogen.’ I thought I’d lost him at that point. He said, ‘This is really strange. I started my career doing transgender reassignment surgery.’ Then he says, ‘Don’t start the estrogen. And you won’t need a testosterone blocker. When do you want to schedule the operation? And don’t tell the insurance company about being transgender because we don’t want to complicate things. This is really for your cancer.’ So I knew the testosterone was killing me mentally, and now I had evidence that it was killing me physically. The operation completely cured me. Now I’m cancer-free. I was back to work four days later.”

Members of Hallquist’s family have reacted to Christine in different ways. Her daughters have not made any public statements although they appear in the film. Her son, of course, filmed the whole thing. And her wife, who didn’t sign on to marry a woman, has had the toughest time of it.

“Pat and the family spent a lot of time — years — preparing to go public,” Hallquist said. “Pat was certainly not a willing participant in this journey. This was hard for everyone involved. It was especially hard for Pat. When you commit to ‘for better or for worse,’ I don't think this kind of thing is in the realm of possibilities.”

Secrets damage any marriage.

“Marriage is complicated,” Hallquist said. “I’m over the guilt, but naturally a lot of guilt came with the dishonesty. We separated for eight months after I transitioned. But we’ve been married for 37 years now, and we’re really good friends. And so even when we were separated we were spending four or five nights together. We decided not to spend the money renting two places. We moved back in together. I would call us five-star roommates now. If she found a man I’d be very happy for her. And when people ask me, ‘Are you going to date?’ I say, ‘What the hell would that even look like?’”

Life is so much easier for Hallquist now that Dave has become Christine.

“When you become authentic all the other problems become non-problems,” she said. “My personal and my business life are much less complicated. Throughout my whole life, I was an insomniac and I had panic attacks. Now that I’ve transitioned I sleep like a baby and have no anxiety.”

The Future

Mankind’s future is all about the electric grid, Hallquist said.

“The electric grid was humankind's greatest invention,” Hallquist said. “Traditionally, it has been centralized. One-way flow. And it’s pretty complex. If you look at all that goes on to keep our lights on, it’s pretty amazing. But the next challenge is 10 times as hard.”

We’re moving to “a distributed generation architecture,” Hallquist said. 

“You’ll be able to sell electricity to your neighbors,” she said. “You can disconnect from the grid. We’re electrifying the entire universe and moving away from fossil fuels. That’s happening whether the anti-climate folks like it or not. The vehicle industry is saying, ‘We’re not going to have gasoline vehicles.’ That means — as the grid — we have to prepare for that. And we have to figure out how to get all these distributable renewables to work with all this distributed load. If we don’t do it right, people will pay a fortune because we’ll have to build these huge power lines. We only use half the system right now, so my job is to optimize it and start using more of it. That’s an incredible engineering challenge and legislation challenge in terms of public policy. But the rewards will be great when we’re successful.”

That is how the world will solve climate change: with a clean electric footprint.

“We’ll be at that next level of technology and advancement as humans living in harmony with our environment,” Hallquist said. “Why am I optimistic? In 1939, humankind’s knowledge doubled every hundred years. Today it doubles every two years. By 2045 it will double every 12 hours. So we have an incredible capacity to solve these big problems and I’m excited to be part of it.”

VEC is Hallquist’s last and life-long job. 

“I’ll retire when I don’t enjoy coming to work,” she said. “And I love my job. My goal is to have every one of my employees love their job as much as I do. If I can no longer bring innovation to the company I should leave. As long as I can continue to be innovative and keep the company moving forward, I will do my job.”

Joyce Marcel is a journalist who lives in southern Vermont. She is currently writing a memoir covering six generations of her family caught in the sweep of history across the 20th Century. She is writing another book about Vermont businesses. More of her work appears at her Web site, joycemarcel.com.

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