Leading by Serving

Shawn Middendorf is a go-getter, moving from entry level to local manager. His leadership and problem-solving skills have benefited the City of Nevada, Mo.
Leading by Serving

If you ask Shawn Middendorf to describe his management style, he will say he "leads as a servant." He believes that "By taking care of people, the water will take care of itself." That philosophy has taken him far, from entry-level maintenance worker to system manager of the Nevada, Mo., division for Alliance Water Resources.

He was selected for Alliance Water's first leadership development program in 2006 and found it helpful in his supervisory position. In February 2011, he began working with a team of former city employees to resolve Nevada's water issues, notably quality, odor and corrosion. While the odor problem has been resolved, Middendorf and his team continue to fine-tune the plant's operation.

His boss, Gary Johnson, Alliance division manager based in Columbia, Mo., offers praise, "Shawn is an impressive guy. He's always looking for ways to improve his knowledge and share what he learns with his staff. We're very proud of his accomplishments and the service he provides to our clients."

Transition to water

Middendorf began his career in 1997 as an entry-level maintenance employee at the O'Fallon, Mo., wastewater treatment plant. "At that time, I didn't know what I wanted to do for a career, and it was just a job," he says. "But as I got more into it and was exposed to the operations side, I found that I really liked it."

He earned his wastewater license and held a number of positions at wastewater plants, then earned his water treatment (2006), distribution (2007) and collection systems (2011) certifications. His promotion to the Nevada position was his ticket to the drinking water side.

"Interestingly, Gary Johnson, who had hired me back in 1997, was selected to oversee the Nevada plant, and he ended up interviewing me for the job I have now," Middendorf says. His biggest challenge in the transition to drinking water was learning how chemical feed rates work in the Nevada plant's reverse osmosis process, and the concept of stripping almost everything out of groundwater to make quality drinking water. Helping with the transition was plant supervisor Joe Tipper, who had worked for the city's water treatment plant for 27 years.

Middendorf's Leadership Alliance training was another plus: "I learned a lot, and I especially remember a segment on how to recognize generational differences. It was the first class of its kind, and it helped in supervising people older and younger than I am."

Solving problems

Middendorf oversees the Nevada water and wastewater facilities, water distribution system and wastewater collection system. The water system draws from four wells and operates a 1.4 mgd RO treatment plant (Hydranautics). Before Middendorf started as system manager, the plant lacked regular maintenance and documentation. "Over the years, the plant had adopted a reactive approach that allowed it to just get by," Middendorf says.

For example, the two-stage odor scrubber system (Harrington Industrial Plastics) had not been operated according to design, and maintenance had slipped. "The first stage is designed to remove in the upper 90 percent range, and the second stage removes the rest," says Middendorf. "But that wasn't happening." Residents for a radius of several blocks were complaining about a sulfur odor.

Operators and maintenance staff began studying the system's operations manual and checked the system to make sure everything was working. They found that the chemical spray nozzles were clogged, and they cleaned them. Then they monitored the end product and adjusted chlorine and caustic soda addition to achieve the best results. Two months later, the plant achieved 100 percent odor removal for the first time.

Battling scale

Scaling and corrosion was another issue. Water customers complained that high-efficiency water heaters were failing while still under warranty. Operators started distribution-system sampling during all three shifts. Based on Langelier Saturation Index (LSI) tests, they found that the water was corrosive. "Now, we take pH, temperature and chlorine residual samples in the field, and we run lab tests for TDS, calcium hardness, alkalinity, total hardness and chlorine," Middendorf says.

Middendorf put together a water-quality study group that included some area businesses and explained the corrosive water problem. "We asked the businesses for input, and based on what they told us, we are making changes in the treatment process to produce more stable water," he says. "We will do this by blending more groundwater into the RO product water." Once the water is more stable, end users will be better able to adjust any post-treatment equipment they have to get the results they want.

Recordkeeping at the plant has greatly improved. "We've trained employees on how to document, what to test for and why," Middendorf says. "Now, employees understand the importance of records. As one of the instructors at a Department of Natural Resources class said, 'If you didn't document it, it didn't happen.'"

Diverse team

Three supervisors for the water, wastewater and sewer collection/water distribution facilities report to Middendorf. Besides Tipper, the water plant team includes operators Marty Xiong (two years experience) and Bill Renne (one year), along with operator/maintenance mechanics Max Frakes (four years), Tina Taylor (four years), and Allen Pierce (one year).

The plant is staffed around the clock and operates 15 hours a day in winter and 22 hours a day in summer. During a typical day, operators do a plant walk-through to visually inspect the equipment and "listen for something that doesn't sound right," says Middendorf. They conduct routine lab testing five times during an eight-hour shift.

They spend the rest of the time on equipment maintenance, grounds work, painting and cleaning. Before leaving for the day, they enter the day's completed tasks in an operators' log book. "What makes the water team special is that they are open-minded enough to learn new things, and they use individual strengths to benefit the good of the team," Middendorf says.

For example, all operators pitched in to clean 10,000 plastic media balls when the water plant's odor scrubber system media support grate broke. "The grate became brittle and needed to be replaced, so the operators removed the media balls, and Allen built a cage to hold them in place while they were cleaned," Middendorf recalls. They worked on all shifts to pressure-wash all media balls before placing them back on the new grate.

Each operator brings specific expertise to the job. Tipper is an outstanding water plant operator, according to Middendorf, and as a supervisor he shares his knowledge with others. Taylor is an up-and-coming operator with excellent organizational skills who stays on top of replenishing the chemicals inventory.

Frakes is skilled with mechanical and electrical equipment, Pierce has a construction background and excels at running water lines, and Renne brings experience in surface water treatment. Xiong came from water and wastewater school, and is now learning the "real world of water treatment," says Middendorf.

Providing assistance

Middendorf meets three times a week with the supervisors to discuss the week's events and to brainstorm. After the staff meeting, he may attend a meeting with city staff and department heads. "We're all one big team," he says. "We help them, they help us."

In the afternoon, one of the supervisors may ask Middendorf to look at something at a plant or in the field. Then, he's back in the office checking emails before quitting time.

The most satisfying part of Middendorf's job is helping his supervisors by getting them the answers and resources they need. Once when a water main broke, he was there until 2 a.m. with the rest of the crew. "Working alongside your staff is company policy that starts at the top," he says. "No one is too good to do a certain job."

Middendorf enjoys "seeing the beauty" of how the operations and maintenance sides work together: "You can't operate the plant if the equipment doesn't work." He cites chemical dosing as the most challenging aspect of plant operation: "This is basically a manually operated plant with very minimal automation. So, operators have to be on their toes to catch issues before they become serious problems."

Tipper is a big help with the chemical treatment, and his operators call him "the mad scientist."

"We're still fine-tuning this operation," says Middendorf. "We will continue to make small steps forward as all employees become better at producing the best water possible. I think I will always continue to learn, to achieve excellence."

Future plans

Middendorf is implementing a maintenance-tracking program using Antero Maintenance Data Management software (AllMax Software). The program will allow the staff to schedule maintenance according to manufacturers' specifications. The team also plans to add a SCADA system and continue in-house and external safety and operations training.

Another goal is continuing to improve water taste and odor. "The current city manager J.D. Kehrman's philosophy is to reject mediocrity," says Middendorf, "and that is how we feel about the water we produce. Let's make it the best we can with what is available to us."

Middendorf recently purchased a knife from Buck Knives, family owned and operated for years, and in the box was a quote from the CEO: "The quality of our knives should reflect the integrity of management." Says Middendorf, "I liked that quote so much that I revised it for my personal mission statement: 'The clean-water end product should reflect the integrity of management.' "

More schooling

Someday, Middendorf wants to earn an environmental or civil engineering degree: "I think getting a degree, combined with my real life experience, will help me communicate with engineers at their educational level, bridging the gap between people who design systems with no practical experience and those who operate the end-product every day."

In the meantime, he offers this advice for those interested in entering the water treatment field: "A strong work ethic will allow you to go as far as you want. I've seen this with Gary and others at Alliance who have moved up. They've worked hard."

Persistence in solving problems helps, too. Middendorf calls this his "weed eater" philosophy: "My wife wanted to do some weeding at home, and since our old weed eater had issues, we bought a new one. She went outside with the new machine, and came back in the house a little while later and declared that she was not going to weed anymore but would hire someone to do it.

"The new weed eater had quit working. So I said that weeders, like all machines, have a personality and sometimes you have to fight through something to really understand how it works."


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