BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — DANVERS — Coleen O’Brien, the outgoing utility director of Danvers Electric Division, emphasized safety and training in her 18 years working in Danvers.
She has not had an accident on her watch, not in her three years as director of engineering and operations or in the 15 years she has served as the utility director, she said.
O’Brien is taking her expertise to Reading Municipal Light Department later this month, where she has been appointed general manager.
A party was held for O’Brien last week, during which she received a framed letter of commendation from the Danvers Municipal Light Board for “making significant strides in system reliability, employee safety and training and financial stability.”
O’Brien said leaving Danvers is “bittersweet,” as she will miss employees and town staff whom she considers family. She is also leaving behind a system she helped modernize and a community she has come to know.
In Reading, O’Brien will be the general manager of a highly rated municipal electric system, twice as large as Danvers’, with 25,000 customers covering four communities: Reading, North Reading, Wilmington and Lynnfield center. Her last day in Danvers is July 12.
“I am leaving the Danvers system with extremely competent and qualified employees, one of the most reliable systems in the state, and in some aspects, the country, with the rewards we have received,” O’Brien said.
Town Manager Wayne Marquis said it will take a few months to find a replacement for O’Brien.
“She has certainly done an exceptional job,” said Marquis, who is the general manager of Danvers Electric. He hires the utility director and has oversight of the system. Reading’s system is autonomous from town government.
O’Brien, who has a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Northeastern University, started her career as an associate engineer with Stone and Webster Engineering in Boston. Growing up, she could wire people’s car stereos and figure out how things worked, which attracted her to the engineering field. Later in her career, she learned she had a knack for managing people and large projects.
“I have a good perspective in seeing how things work, both the mechanics and people,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien was recruited to work for Dominion Resources, the largest utility in Virginia and North Carolina, as a project manager.
When O’Brien returned to New England, she felt her talents would best be put to use at a public electric utility, where evidence of her work would be more tangible than at a big company.
She was the only female director among the 40 municipal electric utilities in the state when she became director, Marquis said.
“To her credit, she stepped into a job that was not easy on many fronts,” Marquis said.
When she arrived 18 years ago, the system was poorly maintained and “barely functional,” she said. There had been an accident shortly before she arrived, and there was a lack of policies, planning and financial stability.
“Not a lot of people would sign up for that,” O’Brien said. She created a 20-year strategic plan, which included new substations and upgrades, done in such a way so that people did not lose power while the work was being done.
She took a gradual approach in rebuilding the pieces of the system, with each improvement building on the next. She won funding for multimillion-dollar capital projects that included the replacement of entire substations, like the $3.5 million Cabot Road and $4.1 million Wood electric substations. The system is now putting in place a smart-grid system to better manage power use.
“It wasn’t easy; it was a lot of work, and no one gave me anything for free. Everything had to be done systematically and methodically,” O’Brien said.
Safety was a priority for O’Brien. Training was key to making sure employees were safe and felt competent to do the job.
“Your engineers and your linemen here have live electricity in their hand all day long,” O’Brien said. “It’s like a loaded gun all day long, protecting themselves and the public from the potentials of that type of hazard.”
One of the other things O’Brien will miss in Danvers is being dressed in a giant light bulb costume named Volta. For the past 18 years, O’Brien became Volta for school electric safety programs and town open houses.
The Saugus native has three daughters: Lauren, 20, who is a photojournalist in the Air Force; Ayla, a sophomore at Masconomet Regional High; and Megan, a freshman at Masco.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.