The face of Wisconsin Public Service in the Northwoods
Leah Van Zile spends her share of time in the Northwoods media spotlight, but it soon becomes apparent when talking with her that her focus is squarely on others.
Van Zile is one of five community relations leaders at Wisconsin Public Service. The utility serves more than 445,000 electric service customers and some 323,000 natural gas customers in northeast and central Wisconsin, and in part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For 14 years, she has been the link between WPS and its customers in Rhinelander, Minocqua, Tomahawk, Crandon, Eagle River, Elcho and the surrounding areas.
In essence, she’s the face of WPS in this area, and it’s a position with which Van Zile is quite comfortable. Raised in Crandon, she began her career with WPS 22 years ago as an intern in the organization’s Eagle River office. After she graduated from UW-Oshkosh, she returned to Eagle River to work for the company full-time in customer service. That was followed by a stint working at the WPS customer call center in Green Bay and training other employees in customer service. After that, a job opening for a community relations leader in 1997 seemed tailor-made for Van Zile, who enjoys public speaking, educating others and being involved in her community. “For me with my background, it was the perfect opportunity,” she recalls.
As community relations leader, her territory doesn’t encompass the most densely populated part of the WPS area, but she has a lot on her plate all the same. She’s active in several community organizations and, because she’s responsible for immediately disseminating information to the public, she’s basically on call around the clock.
She also knows that she is an integral part of a two-way connection between the utility and its customers. “We are our customers’ only choice for electricity and natural gas, and we take that responsibility seriously,” she says, noting that, for that reason, the company practices good corporate citizenship by getting involved in communities and donating to charitable organizations.
“I’m the liaison from our company to our community, but I also see myself as the liaison from the community back to the company,” she says. “I think a lot of big companies miss out when not involved in their communities. Being involved, being a good corporate citizen, I feel, is important.” That applies to smaller companies too, she notes. “It can make a big impact on their business.”
While much of Van Zile’s work is done in the public eye, she also does a lot behind the scenes. As the link between WPS and the community, she’s involved with safety education, sits on several nonprofit boards and for the last three years has been the lead on the WPS Energy Challenge for nonprofit organizations, a program that provides education and incentives, such as grants, for nonprofits to save energy themselves and to help others do the same.
Her responsibilities aren’t limited to putting out information about power outages and WPS initiatives. As the community relations leader for this area, Van Zile also builds bridges between her employer, the public and various nonprofit organizations. “Our company is pipes and wires in the ground,” she says. “We can’t just pick up and go. We’re here, so we’re invested in the community. We want our community to be vibrant, strong and growing. We know it’s important to be good neighbors.”
Van Zile is involved with several community organizations, sitting on several nonprofit boards of directors, among them Rhinelander Partners in Education and the Northwoods Children’s Museum in Eagle River. She is also a member of the advisory council for Trees for Tomorrow, also in Eagle River. “WPS has supported Trees for Tomorrow and student workshops for over 65 years,” she notes. On a personal level, she serves as president of the Rhinelander Basketball Association, is on the board of directors for the Rhinelander Soccer Club and volunteers to help with special events at Nativity Catholic School.
How does the wife and mother of three do all of this and still find time for her family and herself?
“I’ve found that really having a sense of your identity, knowing who you are and that you have choices helps,” she says.
“It’s just a matter of knowing when to say ‘no’ and knowing when you’ve reached your limit,” she adds, explaining that having a great support group – family, her employer, friends – helps. When it comes to certain projects, “Getting my family involved makes it easier.
“I surround myself with people who are positive,” she continues, “with people who share my passion and my commitment to the community. That keeps me energized. It’s so important for the energy in any kind of nonprofit organization.”
She is quick to acknowledge the part that others have played in her career. “I’ve been fortunate to have been mentored by some really great people in the company and in the community,” she says. “I’ve been very blessed to have great people I’ve been associated with.”
Knowing herself and how to avoid overcommitting helps Van Zile meet the challenges that inevitably come with her multiple roles. One of the biggest hurdles: “Not having enough time to do everything that would have an impact for our community and our company,” she says. “There aren’t enough time, people and resources to go around.”
Even with so much on her plate and after so many years, it’s clear that Van Zile continues to enjoy her job. “The variety is what I love most,” she says, adding that when it comes to her responsibilities at work, education and safety are her passions. “Safety is my top priority.”
She gets the chance to indulge that passion for safety education when she goes to schools to present safety and energy related programs for WPS. Each winter, the company offers free safety programs that focus on the potential hazards of underground and overhead electric lines, and the properties of natural gas. The Electric Safety: Path-to-Ground presentation is “a show stopper,” Van Zile says, amazing students and adults alike.
Inspiring that sense of awe in people and helping make their lives safer is one of the most rewarding aspects of her job.
“It’s cool because you know you’re making a difference. Kids can be such an influence on their parents’ behaviors,” she says. “If we can save one life, it’s worth it.”