How Management Changed the Hillsborough, N.C. Plant

As a new plant superintendent, Jeff Mahagan wasn’t content with “the way we’ve always done things.” He patiently and successfully changed an established culture.
How Management Changed the Hillsborough, N.C. Plant
Jeff Mahagan, during a cleanup project on the Eno River.

Jeff Mahagan arrived in 2005 as superintendent at the Town of Hillsborough (North Carolina) Wastewater Treatment Plant.

He came with clear ideas on how to run the facility. He also encountered a plant where the previous management had been in place for more than 30 years. The transition to new ways of doing things was bumpy at times, but with time and patience, Mahagan made the changes he considered necessary. His challenges included leading his team through a complete plant upgrade, ending in 2014.

“The first years with Hillsborough were difficult,” Mahagan says. “It took a lot of patience and understanding by the staff to accept a new direction and management style. Change is difficult for most people. Luckily, I inherited some great staff members, and they made all the difference.”

Equipped with experience

Hillsborough is a small, progressive town, nestled between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University. It is home to numerous historical sites and includes a riverwalk along the Eno River that is part of the North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail.  

The wastewater treatment plant (3.0 mgd design flow, 0.950 mgd average) has a two-stage activated sludge process followed by tertiary treatment. It serves a population of nearly 12,000 and discharges to the Eno River. The plant employs six full-time staff members, down from 10 through transfers and retirements over the past several years.

Mahagan came to Hillsborough from his hometown wastewater treatment facility in Castle Rock, Colorado, where he had worked for 18 years, making constant modifications and upgrades and learning how to keep an aging facility in operation while building a new one. His experience gave him the skills to lead and develop the Hillsborough staff.  

Change is good

The Hillsborough employees were unsure of their new leader’s expectations, but Mahagan had come prepared with a plan to promote a team atmosphere while fostering personal growth. He included the new team on his first project: developing a plant mission statement, vision statement and objectives.

“Everyone had a voice in the process,” says Mahagan. “They committed to its ownership. The document gives a clear picture of the expected ethics and goals that we as a staff want to achieve.” The plant’s mission is: To protect, preserve and enhance the Eno River by managing the wastewater treatment processes in an efficient and economical manner. 

Mahagan then turned to team-building and employee growth and development. He instituted performance reviews, established daily responsibilities and set expectations for certification. “Providing a clear and written path for individual growth is important,” he says. The annual performance reviews clearly communicate each person’s strengths and specify areas for improvement, along with suggested actions.

Employee development

To ensure that the team atmosphere fosters growth, Mahagan provides ongoing internal training. He also advocates external training, promotes staff communication and challenges team members to excel.

The plant offers several forms of internal safety training, but the staff members prefer online safety training they can complete at their own pace. All training counts toward continued education units needed to maintain certifications. During semimonthly meetings, Mahagan encourages team members to come up with the topics for future discussion, sometimes inspired by certification exams or equipment issues.

Mahagan made it a goal to improve the operators’ skills and knowledge in their daily duties and to prepare them for certification exams. Since 2005, employee certification levels have increased greatly. Hillsborough now has four operators certified Grade IV (highest), one Grade 3 and one Grade 1. Team members have also earned certifications including wastewater laboratory analyst, biosolids land application, maintenance technologist and collections system. 

“We offer cross-training and include staff as part of the decision-making process,” says Mahagan. “This gives staff the opportunity to grow and develop their skills.” Recent internal promotions include Shawn Maines to chief operator and Benjamin Bani to laboratory supervisor.

Better communication

Mahagan also improved communication by encouraging his staff to gather each morning. “I want my staff to come together for 15 to 30 minutes and talk,” he says. “Most of the time they discuss projects and tasks for the day, so I call that a meeting. Sometimes they talk about family and personal issues, so then I call it team-building.”

The benefits of morning coffee are not always tangible, but Mahagan finds it encourages staff members to communicate and care about each other. “One morning an employee came in, obviously not feeling well,” he says. “Within 10 minutes, the sick employee was heading back home. The team had all of his scheduled duties covered, and I didn’t have to say a word.”

Mahagan also promotes involvement with organizations outside work — with local and state entities that monitor and protect the region’s water, soil and air. Maines is on the town Wellness Committee and attends North Carolina Professional Wastewater Operators Committee (NCPWOC) meetings when possible. Operator Mike Lane serves on the town Safety Committee.

Mahagan serves on the North Carolina Wastewater Board of Education and Examiners and is a past chairman of the NCPWOC. He is a member of and volunteer for the Eno River Association, where he works on stream monitoring of macroinvertebrates, and is an active member of Trout Unlimited.

Improving the plant

Teamwork has come strongly into play in improving the performance of the plant, built in the 1970s. In 2006, the team evaluated all processes for efficiency. Knowing that a major plant upgrade would be years away, the team set out to improve the two-stage activated sludge process. With a tight budget, they eliminated the need for alkalinity control, reduced effluent total nitrogen from 15 mg/L to 6 mg/L, reduced chemical feed for phosphorus removal by 41 percent and reduced electricity usage by 6.22 percent.

The staff’s commitment was evident during the 2014 upgrade, focused on technology to meet extremely low future nutrient limits. Nearly every part of the plant was modified or replaced, and the project team included engineers, construction contractors and regulatory agencies. “Maintaining positive communication with everyone was extremely important,” says Mahagan.

Whiteboards helped communicate project updates. Maines observes, “Everyone knew exactly what was going on. There were daily changes and reroutes, so we had to be flexible. It’s also important to have a superintendent who stays on top of these items.”

Team members’ input helped shape the outcome. During construction, for example, they identified several locations needing safety handrails not included in the original scope. A change order to install the additional railings was denied due to the high cost.

Knowing the handrails were necessary, the staff came up with an innovative design that met safety criteria while allowing easy access to equipment for repairs and maintenance. “The solution ultimately saved considerable money versus having the contractor install the handrails,” says Mahagan.  

Looking ahead 

The Hillsborough plant has changed significantly since Mahagan’s arrival. His staff sees the changes as beneficial. “Jeff encouraged us to go from reactive to proactive, to take chances and to be flexible,” says Maines.

Mahagan’s vision is simple: to see continued growth and improvements. “I know change is inevitable,” he says. “Several of my staff have or will have the skills and knowledge to become superintendents and will most likely leave to continue their careers at other plants. We will just have to continue on and begin developing the next generation of wastewater leaders.”   


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