Citizen of the Year
Young engineer had vision, desire to push co-op into diversification
By William Maxwell, The Taos News
Luis Reyes Jr. doesn't sound like a rural electric co-op manager. He doesn't act like a rural electric co-op manager.
With the help of a progressive board and staff, he has, over the last eight-and-a-half years, turned Kit Carson from a sleepy back-country co-op into a modern business empire, with one important difference from Microsoft or General Electric: It is entirely owned by its customers.
Luis A. Reyes Jr.'s office is located at the center of the co-op's busy, somewhat cramped headquarters building, kitty-corner from the receptionist and the cashiers.
Reyes, 40, is not the type of executive who hides behind a secretary and a mahogany door. His office is almost always open, even when he is meeting with people. While the building is being overhauled, everyone who has business at the co-op walks by his open door when coming and going.
He has supplemented his official-looking desk with a long, functional table strewn with documents -- check requests, paperwork from Leadership New Mexico, and spreadsheets. Sitting at the table across from Reyes, one has the feeling of being treated like a colleague rather than a supplicating minion.
Reyes' employees say he is accessible and caring.
"He's a good manager -- 100 percent," said mechanic Tommy Ocaña, who was working on a Kit Carson pickup hoisted up in the garage at headquarters on a recent afternoon. "Just do your job, and he'll treat you good. If you got a problem or something, he's real understanding. Go to him, and he'll listen to you."
Meter reader Gary Martinez said Reyes has the employees' best interest at heart.
Reyes' colleagues say they appreciate his professionalism, intelligence and drive.
"He had a lot of vision for the co-op and he's proven that," Trustee Juan Valdez of El Prado said. "He taught us how to be professional people. You don't always have to agree, but you have to respect each other."
Valdez said Reyes is good at carrying out orders. "If we assign him a task, he will totally commit himself to it, if it's his favorite or the board's favorite."
Valdez, a friend of Reyes who goes biking with him, describes him as a competitive man who is physically fit and likes to play basketball and lift weights.
Carmella Suazo has been Reyes' secretary for eight-and-a-half years. She said the two have developed a close working relationship.
"He is very understanding. I can talk to him about anything, and he offers advice and support," Suazo said. "There's not an issue I don't feel comfortable discussing with him on a personal and professional level."
She said Reyes is a careful planner.
"He thinks everything over before moving on to the next step. He is a goal-setter. He is not satisfied until the goal is accomplished. His expectations from employees are high. He expects them to be devoted to the co-op."
"He is a forward thinker," Kit Carson Manager of Human Resources and Public Relations Martin Martinez said. "He is strategic. He lives for the co-op. He wants to take us to the next level."
Corporate Attorney Jack McCarthy said Reyes "is more communicative than many managers might be."
Into the 21st century
Reyes, an engineer by training, worked with the board to turn the co-op into a company that offers a variety of economical, competitive services and which is a machine for economic development.
Kit Carson now offers low-cost propane and Internet services. For those who do not have Internet because they do not have a computer, the co-op finances the purchase of computers.
When the Questa schools complained that U.S. West was unable, or unwilling, to provide them with sufficient telephone and data services, Reyes suggested going wireless.
In 1999, Kit Carson installed and now maintains a comprehensive wireless telecommunication system for Questa School District facilities in Questa, Costilla and Red River.
Seeing a need for white-collar jobs in Taos, the co-op built a new building at its headquarters on Cruz Alta to house a call center. Penncro, a Pennsylvania-based collections agency, has signed a 15-year lease for the building. The Taos operation will hire hundreds of local residents.
In a recent Board of Trustees election, one candidate was happy enough about the co-op's diversification that he suggested a venture into a field in which many local consumers are begging for relief -- open a gas station and sell low-priced gasoline!
Ocaña, the mechanic, lauded the co-op's new ventures, including Internet, propane and the call center. "More work for the people, more employment," he said.
Gary Martinez agrees. "He's done a lot for the company. He's moving it in the right direction to keep up with the times."
The brainy self-described homebody and family man has not founded any hospitals or universities. He has not saved any puppies out of raging torrents, or cured any cripples.
But he has quietly, over the last five years, led a member-owned company down a path that now provides low-priced essential services to cash-strapped Taoseños and has created a good-size number of job opportunities.
That is why this local boy, who grew up on Montoya Street, is The Taos News' Citizen of the Year.
"I feel like I'm just one of those locals that has had an opportunity to make it better for all of us," he said.
His mother, Olivia, told a story that exemplified Reyes' characteristic tenacity at the age of three. Smitten by the figure of cowboy hero Roy Rogers, the young Luis emulated Rogers with a cowboy-style sweater and his hobby horse, Trigger.
"He wore the sweater all the time," she said. "I had to wash it at night while he was asleep."
He liked school to the point that his father, Luis, a Taos building contractor, had to take him to the school on snow days to prove to him it was closed.
His first-grade teacher at Taos Elementary, Rae Cardenas, gushed about him, using words such as "very well-behaved," "very bright boy" and "good home background." Cardenas, now retired, said: "He was a good boy and a good student."
Cardenas said Reyes was serious, but not shy, and that he had a lot of friends.
Later, when the wiry five-foot-six Taos High School runningback was injured in a game after his face mask was ripped off, he didn't take no for an answer.
"The doctor ordered him not to play," his mother said. "He played anyway because he thought his team depended on him."
Both parents are very proud of their son's accomplishments.
None of Luis' siblings is a slacker. Brother David was recently deployed in the Middle East as a U.S. Navy sailor; his sister, Sandra Lamendola, works at People's Bank; Brother, Richard, is the food and beverage manager at Taos Ski Valley; and brother Angel is chief financial officer for Centinel Bank.
The rest is history. After receiving excellent grades at junior high and high school, Reyes attended New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell and Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz. He graduated from New Mexico State with a bachelor's in electrical engineering, and went to work as the co-op engineer two days after commencement. After eight-and-a-half years as company engineer, the Board of Trustees hired him as the co-op's general manager and CEO in 1993.
Luis Reyes today
Reyes is a member of the Taos Business Alliance for Economic Development and the Citizens for Economic Diversity. He is a former member of the Taos Historic Museum board. And he is taking part in a year-long Leadership New Mexico program to study issues of statewide importance and find solutions.
Reyes is not a big joiner. He spends a lot of time with his wife, Francine, his sons, Derek, 18, who is a college freshman, and Armando, 14, who is playing football, and his daughter, Ariana, 10, an aspiring actress.
In any case, the true story of Reyes' impact on Taos is told in his work for the co-op.
The man who works 70 hours a week has no trouble entering his office at seven every morning. His work is not a chore. And he works for the satisfaction he gets out of ventures like the installation of a 21st-century communication system in the Questa schools.
"Qwest is a big animal that decided it wouldn't serve them. Those are the things that drive me," Reyes said.
He pooh-poohs suggestions that the co-op is spreading itself too thin with the new ventures.
"We can walk and chew gum at the same time," he said, adding that the new ventures are a good safety net if the co-op loses money in a deregulated electric market.
Not to say that the new ventures are a piece of cake. The successful decades-old $25-million a year electric operation still overshadows the two-year-old $70,000 Internet business, which is just breaking even, and the one-year-old $200,000-a-year propane business, which is still in the hole.
But Reyes said economic development such as this is ever more important in a local economy that has moved away from farming and ranching to a fickle tourism cycle.
"Our whole economic structure is real fragile," he said.
The new ventures developed as a natural outgrowth of electric service. Electricity made farms and ranches more productive. "The next step was telecommunications," Reyes said.
But Reyes does not take all the credit for diversification. He said the idea had been discussed for years before he came to the co-op. "We've taken it from the idea stage to make it a reality," he said.
Nor is Reyes planning to neglect the core electric business.
"We have plans for $20 million in improvements in the electric system in the next four years," he said. Those plans include electric transmission lines to Peñasco and Ojo Caliente.
Reyes remembers the times a light rain began to sprinkle onto Montoya Street when he was a child. "Mom said, 'Kids, go get the candles because the lights are gonna go out.'"
While no new ventures are planned at this point, Reyes is not resting on his laurels. It is time to improve and build out the current divisions.
"I had a chance to come back and make a difference in this community," he said. "It's fun to see things get better."
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© Karen Mitchell