Kolb graduates Water University
Neal Kolb, general manager of the Lake Como Sanitary District, on the job.
November 02, 2011 | 09:20 AMGENEVA — Only three years in as general manager of the Lake Como Sanitary District and Neal Kolb has already made a name for himself.
Kolb, 28, is the only general manager of a utility in Wisconsin to graduate from Water University, a program supported by the Wisconsin Rural Water Association.
"It goes through three different areas of utility management, areas which are crucial to being a manager and to running an effective utility," Kolb said. "Water University is something that is more popular in the southern portion of the country right now. It hasn't spread to the northern part too much yet. In fact, there's only 26 of us who have this certification throughout the Midwest."
And he's one of three in the state.
Kolb said the other two are association personnel, one of whom told Kolb shortly after he found out about the program online that it was a worthwhile endeavor.
Kolb said he was hungry for knowledge. Through Water University — an online program he said took about 40 hours to complete — Kolb said he learned some new ideas he hopes will help the district in the future and gained some different perspectives on the field.
"Sometimes in the public works field — well, in any field — you get stuck in a rut," he said. "It's nice to be able to continue your education (and) learn as much as you can."
Onward and upward
As Kolb talked about several different subjects — Water University, the state of the district, his role within it, general biographical information — it's hard to believe he was ever in a rut.
A polite, self-motivated man who has said more than once customer service is "extremely important" to him, Kolb came into the district in 2008 as an operator.
A few months later, he became manager.
In an April 2009 Regional News article, Commission President Don DeBaere said Kolb's job performance as well as his experience in the city of Lake Geneva Public Works Department — where he worked while running his own lawn mowing business — gave him an edge.
"I did the job of district manager for 1-1/2 years, straightening things out within the district, and I came out of retirement to do it," DeBaere said. "After Neal was on the job for about two weeks, I had felt as if he'd done the job for five years."
And to think Kolb set out working toward a different career.
After he graduated from Badger High School in 2001, Kolb moved to Madison and obtained a University of Wisconsin bachelor's degree there. He majored in zoology with a chemistry emphasis, then worked in a chem lab.
But big-city life wasn't his style. He moved back to the area a couple years later.
Now, he said he plans on bringing some of the ideas from Water University before the commission. The university concentrates on three different areas — financial, managerial and utility operations.
Kolb said the area in which his eyes opened the widest was financial.
"A lot of people come up through the industry and that area becomes just part of the background, but it's important, especially now," Kolb said.
Other topics included handling human resource issues, scheduling utility maintenance and assisting employees.
"In general, they're the ones with their boots on the ground, so to speak," Kolb said. "They know their jobs and take care of the entire facility. I'm here to help them. My people here are extremely valuable to the system."
He said participating in Web-based events and forums also provided exposure to information from other professionals within the public works field. This provided Kolb with some food for thought.
"Maybe a technique used in the Southwest is something we never thought of before and could be helpful," he said. "I found some good ideas through this. A lot of times, you can find cost-saving techniques just by contacting other people."
Ultimately, according to Kolb, what matters the most isn't whether he's the first utility manager to graduate Water University. It's what he can bring from this program to help him achieve his goal with the Lake Como Sanitary District.
"We're all just trying to do the best for the residents," Kolb said. "We're handling their utility, so they need to know we're doing the best we can for them. We're just caretakers, essentially, for their system. Our goal is to provide the highest quality service at the best value."