“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.