By Emily Schilling
When Ron Arnholt first ran for a local REMC board position in 1986, he thought he had it all figured out. Just 28 years old, he was vying for a seat vacated by a distant relative only because folks he knew on the nominating committee asked him to run. If he won the election, he decided, he’d complete his three-year term and not seek another.
Fast forward 30 years. Not only did Arnholt, a lifelong Columbus resident, win the election, he is still on the Bartholomew County REMC board. In fact, he’s now its longest tenured director. He’s also represented his REMC on the Indiana Electric Cooperatives (IEC) board for 20 years. Now he’s bringing his experience to the state’s top electric co-op position. Two months ago, he was elected IEC president at the service association’s annual meeting.
Arnholt’s evolution from reluctant candidate to a fully committed director took a few years, but his draw to the industry stuck. “After being on the local board, I was fascinated about how the industry works: the grid system, the complications of serving industry needs,” Arnholt said.
Arnholt, who, with wife Teresa, lives right across the road from the house where his dad was born, is a grain farmer. The youngest of six children, he started helping out at a farm owned by his dad and uncle when he was a young teenager. By the time he was 25, the Columbus East High School graduate had completely taken over the farming operations there. Shouldering such responsibilities at a young age, Arnholt learned his lessons the hard way. “I had to figure out how to do things on my own.”
To this day, Arnholt is not afraid of stepping up to meet new challenges. Though he’s held various electric co-op leadership positions in the past — including secretary-treasurer of the Bartholomew County REMC board and secretary-treasurer, vice president and executive committee member of the IEC board — he’s never been president of an organization … until now. “I’m glad I’m challenging myself,” he said, smiling. “I’m facing my fears.”
He brings an even-keeled, calm leadership style with him as he steps up to the podium. “I don’t get easily roused,” he said. “I’m open to constructive criticism. I like making sure everyone feels comfortable about making sound decisions.”
One of Arnholt’s key goals is ensuring the 38 IEC directors speak their minds about pertinent issues. “I want them to feel they can come in and talk without worrying about offending anyone with the goal of coming up with a decision,” he said.
“Unity helps make us strong,” Arnholt continued. “We may not always agree, but if we face things head on and work it out, we can come up with a solution.”
As he begins his new role, Arnholt stressed the importance of electric co-ops having a voice in the political arena. “I never wanted to get involved politically at first, but as I went on, it started intriguing me. The process, the people — you have to make contact. It’s important to be part of the conversation,” he said.
Citing a more competitive utility environment nowadays, Arnholt believes member involvement is more important now than ever. “We must be part of the community,” he stressed. “The co-ops’ focus on philanthropic and youth projects are key ways to be strong community partners,” he said.
Arnholt has a soft spot in particular for the many youth programs offered by electric co-ops. “It’s important for our future,” he noted. “Listening to kids makes you feel good about our future generation.”
Meanwhile, Arnholt is feeling good about the future in general. Looking ahead toward the coming year, he can’t wait to put his 30 years of electric cooperative experience to the test with his latest challenge.
Emily Schilling is the editor of Electric Consumer.