Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative’s own Austin J. “Joe” Slater Jr. received an early retirement gift Monday in Hughesville as Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) bestowed the 2014 CEO of the Year recipient with a plaque and special citation for showing commitment to the community through sponsorships, community service, charitable giving and civic engagement.

The award, which Franchot specifically calls the Cornerstone Award for Local Business Excellence, recognizes businesses that are part of the fabric of their communities and those that have adapted to economic challenges, having also evolved to meet customer demands. From raising money for local nonprofits through annual bike rids and honoring STEM educators to awarding scholarships to local students, SMECO is deeply involved in the community as the largest customer-owned utility in the nation, according to a press release from Franchot’s office.

“I couldn’t think of a better CEO than you,” Franchot said before presenting the award to Slater in front of colleagues and Del. Elizabeth “Susie” Proctor’s (D-Charles, Prince George’s) chief of staff, Mark Hamilton. “This award celebrates small and not so small businesses that defines Maryland’s local business community. These business that we honor have demonstrated time and time again that they can adapt to economic challenges while still prioritizing a commitment to their community.”

Franchot said the average family income in Maryland, which happens to be the richest state in the country according to the Wall Street Journal, is $80,764. However, 70% of the state’s GDP comes from small and medium-sized businesses.

Slater’s leadership has not only helped to “strengthen Maryland’s economy by generating jobs and tax revenue,” Franchot said, but also resulted in new ideas that better serve SMECO’s consumers.

“These businesses fuel the engine of our state’s economy, contributing many immeasurable ways to the growth and success of our local communities,” Franchot said.

As an “unapologetic champion for small businesses,” Franchot said he “couldn’t be prouder of a company like SMECO” that operates with only one goal in mind — to “serve the customer.”

“You don’t artificially inflate prices or prioritize your profit margins over your members,” said Franchot. “You promote responsible, reliable and resourceful service.”

A cooperative organization like SMECO is so vital to Maryland’s economy, according to Franchot, because it drives economic growth without leaving others behind. “Decades ago when rural Southern Maryland was being left behind by commercial energy companies that didn’t see the value in expanding down here,” Franchot said, “a group of dedicated citizens saw the need and came together to build a community-centered organization that not only helped modernize Southern Maryland, but didn’t leave the community behind in the process.”

One of SMECO’s “exciting enterprises,” Slater said, is the installation of approximately 60 charging stations for electrical vehicles at public sites including courthouses, county offices, schools and other places.

More importantly, Slater said SMECO sticks to the basics with reliability being key. That metric has been extremely high over the last couple of years while rates have declined, an accomplishment which received kudos from the Maryland Public Service Commission.

“SMECO being part of our district really makes us proud,” Hamilton said. “You guys have been doing great service so it’s my honor to be here.”

In addition to completing the Southern Maryland Reliability Project, SMECO has installed smart meters throughout its service area, built a new engineering and operations facility and invested in technological upgrades that benefit all of its members. The company even aims to reduce energy consumption in the state each year through its EmPOWER Maryland initiative and other programs designed for making homes and businesses more energy efficient, according to a recent article from SMECO’s website.

“I love the fact that you’re putting up electric vehicle charging stations throughout your area,” Franchot said. “I hope that this leads the way for other energy companies in Maryland.”

Slater, who submitted his retirement letter to SMECO’s board of directors last week during its monthly meeting, recounted the past 17 years of being president and CEO as rewarding. He said it is impossible to imagine his life without the time devoted, professional relationships and accomplishments experienced at SMECO as well as within the Southern Maryland community.

“It’s a great honor. We’ve had a great rapport with Comptroller Franchot over the years so to receive this award is very special for us,” said Slater. “I’m proud just to be a part of this organization. It’s an exemplary organization with 500 colleagues that are all laser focused on our customers’ welfare. We work hard to meet their expectations in terms of reliability and efficient pricing.”

Franchot ended his visit to Southern Maryland on Monday in the Dunkirk area of Calvert County, where he presented the cornerstone award to a veteran-owned, service-disabled contractor called Patriot followed by a proclamation to the Dunkirk Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad.

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