Ohio Operator Brings Heart to Management Style

Karen Hawkins’ caring-approach management includes drive and thoroughness combined with strong mentoring and people skills.
Ohio Operator Brings Heart to Management Style
Karen Hawkins, utilities superintendent for the Division of Water and Sewer in Fairborn, Ohio.

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Caring. Karen Hawkins and co-workers use that word a lot. As superintendent of Fairborn (Ohio) Utilities, Hawkins has made concern for employees and customers a cornerstone of a 29-year career.

Since 2005, Hawkins has headed operations in Fairborn, a city of 32,000 near Dayton and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. She’s responsible for a 6 mgd wastewater treatment plant, a 6.5 mgd water plant and a state-certified chemical/bacteriological laboratory. Her team also takes care of a 150-mile sanitary sewer system; a water distribution system with 11 wells, three booster stations and four water towers; and the stormwater network of inlets, pipes and drainage ditches.

Such a big job would be overwhelming if not for Hawkins’ laser focus on skills development and a commitment to providing the best water and wastewater services for more than 13,000 customers. Over three decades, she has earned Class IV Water Supply, Class I Wastewater and Class II Collections certifications.

She has also instilled a growth ethic in the 33 people she supervises, including seven operators at the wastewater plant, five at the water facility and 21 others in collection and distribution.

Her collaborative leadership style helped her win the 2014 Operator Meritorious Award from the Ohio Section AWWA for outstanding contributions to water treatment plant operations. In 2010, Hawkins, the first woman chair of the Southwest District of the Ohio Section as well as a past chair at the state level, received the Richard F. Melick Award for contributions to water plant personnel education and training.

Lance Livesay, water plant manager, calls Hawkins’ style “a great mix of the collaborative and authoritarian. She engages all her managers, especially when it comes to decisions about the plants. When the need arises, she’ll say, ‘Here’s what we have to do,’ but we know she’ll always support us.”

Hawkins observes, “You can’t get awards like these without great support. That includes people in my personal life like my husband, our son and daughter, supervisors and colleagues in my work life, and those in AWWA and the Ohio Water Environment Association. I appreciate that they think I’m worthy.”

The right moves

Hawkins’ career is a story of determination, mentoring and self-made breaks. An “Air Force brat” (her father was a lieutenant colonel) who lived all over the United States and in England, she started out as a police dispatcher in Fairborn. Then, looking to get off shift work, she jumped at a secretarial job at the Division of Water and Sewer. Encouraged by former superintendents Moe Jennings and Bob Sowers, whom she calls “two great mentors,” she took water treatment classes through the Operator Training Committee of Ohio (OTCO) and the OAWWA section, learning all aspects of the business while preparing for the next step up the ladder.

In 1991, Hawkins became a project coordinator, working in water treatment, distribution and collection. One of her first tasks was to develop a backflow prevention program in 1992-93, even before the Ohio EPA required it. The program said every new home must have backflow devices. Hawkins trained operators in backflow prevention through OTCO and OAWWA.

Hawkins, who became an Ohio-certified backflow tester and instructor in backflow courses, calls the program “robust” and credits good communication with homeowners for its success. During her 14-year tenure, she also oversaw a range of upgrades to the water treatment and distribution systems and made employee training a top priority, even to the point of rotating crews every six months to keep everyone fresh and motivated.

“I benefited from training courses, and I want my team to do the same,” says Hawkins. “Caring is important to being a good leader. If you care, you communicate things effectively. If you care, you provide opportunities, you take care of your employees and you look out for their best interests. That’s why I try to get operators certified — so we have that next group of people ready to take over. It’s vital that we have people who care about the system.”

Making a difference

Beyond training, Hawkins as superintendent has made a powerful impact on Fairborn’s water and wastewater operations. Emphasizing renewal and redundancy, she and her staff:

  • Completed an $827,000 water plant upgrade in 2011 that increased capacity from 5.4 mgd to 6.5 mgd. The project included piping changes, pump upgrades and a new post-chlorination facility.
  • Oversaw installation of a new wellfield in 2008, a $1 million project that added a new power building and two wells.
  • Provided a booster station in 2013 that increased water pressure from 35 psi to 60 psi.
  • Completed a water tower renovation in 2013 that saw the Fairfield Park tower place fourth in the Tnemec national Tank of the Year contest. A patriotic-themed logo with a stylized eagle underscores the city’s support for the Air Force base.
  • Oversaw a 2013-14 restructuring that brought the city’s wastewater treatment plant and sanitary and storm sewer systems under her division.

In 2014-15 added a 400 kW generator (KOHLER) at the water treatment plant, a 500 kW generator (KOHLER) at the primary wellfield and a 300 kW generator (KOHLER) at the booster station for standby power.

In 2014 executed a $1.2 million sewer interceptor project across the Air Force base that dramatically reduced inflow and infiltration.

On those projects, Hawkins gives the credit to the city council and Deborah McDonnell, city manager, for “understanding the importance of keeping an older system up to date and providing the redundancy we need.” But her boss, Pete Bales, public administrative services director, gives Hawkins the honors.

“To say that Karen is dedicated is a huge understatement,” says Bales. “She always has the best interest of the city and her employees in mind. Karen is a caring person, and you can see that in the way she works. You have to be caring about the city to do the superintendent’s job because it requires so much of you. I go to sleep every night not worrying a lick about the condition of our water and sewer departments because of Karen and her team.”

Praise in abundance

Her employees are equally generous in their praise for her leadership abilities. They routinely point to her dedication, thoroughness and knowledge as keys to the department’s success. Many cite her fairness, honesty and communication skills, adding a mixture of fun with serious work in supplying clean, safe water and protecting the environment.

Terry Adkins, water and sewer foreman and a Fairborn employee since 2000, calls Hawkins “a wonderful person to work for.” After four years as a maintainer, an entry-level job, he took a new role as a water department crew leader. Sent overseas on military deployment in 2007, he came back a year later. In 2014, when two foremen retired, he was promoted to foreman.

With Hawkins’ encouragement, Adkins took courses in distribution and got his Class I Distribution certification. Instead of going through the Class II Distribution program, he took an OTCO water treatment class and earned his Class I Water Treatment license. He later earned a Class II Collections certification.

Adkins observes, “Karen wants her people to succeed, whether that involves getting you the information you need to finish a project or urging you to go and get your certifications. She always wants you to better yourself as a professional and as a person.”

Marcus Lehotay, assistant superintendent of Fairborn Utilities, calls Hawkins “excellent as a manager.” Two years into the job, he deeply appreciates things she has taught him, even though he’s a 20-year water and wastewater veteran: “She’s as thorough as a human being can be when it comes to reviewing proposals for different projects, and is as fair and honest as a person can get. That’s why the crew genuinely likes her as a person and as a boss.”

Still much to do

Although she’ll be eligible to retire this year and a succession plan is in place, Hawkins is in no hurry to leave. She and the team are designing a secondary waterline (the main line crosses the Mad River to convey water 2 miles to the plant) that will provide redundancy in case something happens to the main line, and will give the city additional capacity. They’re also working on a program to identify older, problematic water and sewer lines to target for replacement or renovation. Other projects in the works include finalizing a sanitary sewer master plan, undertaking a stormwater master plan and completing an operations and maintenance manual for the water distri-bution system.

Hawkins is part of a close family: her husband, Roy, works in management for the Kroger grocery chain; her daughter, Amanda, is a fourth-year student at the University of Cincinnati Medical School; and her son, Stephen, is a sophomore student in mechanical engineering at Wright State University. Meanwhile, Hawkins continues her education by taking advanced wastewater classes. Although she didn’t finish college, she says that’s definitely on her “bucket list.”

She’s also active in OAWWA and OWEA and volunteers her time freely. That includes training future water workers through participation in the City of Dayton’s Annual Children’s Water Festival.

Looking back, Hawkins is pleased with her own and her colleagues’ accomplishments: “I’ve always been fortunate with opportunities, and I’ve tried to provide them for those who work for me. Fairborn is a good place to raise a family, and the city is a great place to work. I feel blessed every day that I have a job here.”


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