Problem Solver

Former electrician Randy Mather brings a can-do attitude and a customer-service mindset to the wastewater collection program in Olathe, Kan.
Problem Solver
Randy Mather, wastewater collection program manager. (Photography by Steve Puppe)

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Randy Mather once had a journeyman’s card that said he was an electrician. His job title now is wastewater collection program manager in Olathe, Kan.

But Mather (pronounced MAY-thur) has a different way of describing his work: He’s a problem-solver. It has been that way throughout his career in public works — a career that’s taken him from maintenance technician at the city’s wastewater treatment plant, through stints in design and rehabilitation of streets and stormwater systems for the city, and a job as project manager for water distribution and wastewater collection system design and rehabilitation.

“When I was doing streets and storms, it was to give better roadways to the public and solve their drainage problems,” Mather says. “When I was doing the water and sewer rehab, it was to help alleviate disruptions in our public service and to have better lines in our system to help our employees who deal with those systems seven days a week, so they don’t have as many problems they have to work on around the clock to fix.”

And so it is today, now that he oversees the city’s wastewater collection operation. City residents depend on the system to operate cleanly, efficiently, and economically. When trouble occurs, Mather says, “Solving their problems gives me some gratification.”

In September 2011, Mather was inducted into the Kansas Golden Manhole Society, an honor conferred by the Kansas Water Environment Association (KWEA), in recognition of his long history of service to Olathe.

“You won’t find a more dedicated public servant than Randy in his efforts to provide quality customer service and protect the environment,” says his boss, Dave Bries, utilities maintenance superintendent for Olathe. “He has not only energy, but a vision, and he leads his staff to accomplish that vision.”


Model operation

Olathe is an outer-ring southwest suburb of Kansas City, Kan. Its wastewater collection system consists of 455 miles of line with 22 lift stations (Smith & Loveless) covering a 40-square-mile area. It serves about 90,000 of the city’s 125,000 residents (the rest are served by Johnson County Wastewater).

Keeping that system up is hard work. “Anything that has to do with infrastructure is an ongoing battle,” Mather says. “As we age, so do the pipes in our system. Things do happen.”

But Olathe’s operation has long been recognized as a model. The collection system has won statewide recognition from the KWEA as the best in its size category for eight of the last 10 years. “The only reason we weren’t in the running those other two years is the state of Kansas only lets you win it three times in a row,” Mather says.

The operation has an ethic of continuous improvement. The current focus, says Bries, is reducing inflow and infiltration (I&I). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Olathe took what Bries calls a “shot-in-the-arm” approach, fixing immediate problems.

“We’re trying to develop a sustainable program, where we can invest in that infrastructure and continue to support the maintenance and repairs, so it’s not something that every 10 or 15 years we have to go to the governing body and justify the funding and the plan,” says Bries. In a consultant’s annual survey that asks residents in communities around the country about their satisfaction with public services, “For the last seven or eight years we have always had the top position in the Kansas City metro area,” Bries adds.


Long journey

Mather is hundreds of miles from where he started, and light-years away from where he imagined he might be when he entered the workforce. He grew up in western Kansas, graduating from high school in the mid-1970s. After becoming an electrician, he worked in commercial and industrial construction in his hometown for some 15 years.

But hard times in farming, the area’s backbone, rippled throughout the rest of the economy. “I was starting to starve to death,” Mather says. So in 1990 he moved his family east to Olathe in search of municipal work and its stability. There, he took a job with the city’s wastewater treatment plant as a maintenance technician.

He was always restless, though, looking for new opportunities and challenges. “My wife always called me a wandering soul,” Mather says. “I get bored with stuff.” Not content to just do electrical repairs, he learned how to run the treatment plant and moved up to plant operator. Then he became a project inspector. Along the way, he earned an associate degree in engineering at Johnson County Community College and went to work as an engineering technician in the Olathe streets and stormwater department.

In 2002, when the city’s public works operations were reorganized, Mather moved over to water distribution and wastewater collection operations. In 2008, he was named manager for the wastewater collection program. While he may have been lured by the stability of working for the city, that wasn’t his sole reward. Increasingly, he found satisfaction in “trying to provide a better service for the community.”

That, and always looking for ways to make things better. “I like trying new innovations, showcasing them, and networking with other cities to develop better practices,” Mather says.


Backup-free year

Within a few years after taking his current position, Mather led the wastewater collection department to a goal it had set years before: to get through an entire year with no sewer backups.

“We had set that goal a number of years ago, before Randy was promoted into that position,” says Bries. “He carried on that goal, and we accomplished it in 2010.”

To be sure, the city was already close, logging fewer than five backups a year in the last decade, Bries says. The secret was a strong, proactive maintenance program that includes regular inspection of lines, crunching inspection data to identify lines at risk for backups, and cleaning and repairing them promptly.

Mather is modest about the milestone: “That goal couldn’t have been accomplished without the staff that work with and for me, and the pride and ownership they have in the entire system.” He credits the cleaning program to Bries and to his own predecessor as wastewater manager, Rusty Shadoin. Since he has been on the job, the city has embarked on a program of identifying and removing roots that work their way into the sewer lines.

With his electrician’s background, Mather also led a new approach to lift station breakdowns in stormy weather. The city had been relying on generators in a few locations to kick in if the power went out, but that was expensive and didn’t directly address the more common problem of stations simply being overwhelmed during storms.

Mather directed the installation of a permanent backup pump on site at one lift station. “That pump has saved the day about five times since we put it in,” he says. In addition, at the other 21 lift stations, the city has installed Bauer connections along with permanent suction tubing and floats that allow the quick attachment of portable supplemental pumps. It allows a much faster startup of backup pumping in emergencies, and it’s a lot cheaper and more effective than relying solely on backup generators, Mather says.

“Dave calls it our plug-and-play emergency response,” Mather says. The solution was chosen for a presentation at a Water Environment Federation technology conference.

Mather also serves on the Collection Systems Committee of the KWEA, promoting training for municipal sewer workers across the state and the employees of private contractors who work with them. And he has been active in helping Olathe and other Kansas City metro communities implement a protocol to standardize measurement and rating systems for TV inspections under the NASSCO Manhole Assessment and Certification Program (MACP) and Pipeline Assessment and Certification Program (PACP).


Leading by example

With 15 people reporting to him, Mather has more management responsibilities than ever before in his career. He calls his approach “a combination of leading by example, trying to put the people in the right environments, and watching and listening.” And he is quick to praise the people who work for his department.

“The majority have a pretty good work ethic and a great pride in the work they do and how it affects the citizens and the system,” he says. “A lot of them don’t really take much teaching. They’ve all got a pretty good handle on how they do their job, what needs to be done.”

For those employees, managing basically consists of building teamwork and helping them plan for greater efficiency. “And then with the other ones, I’m trying to build that pride and trying to grow them as employees,” Mather says. “Quite honestly, my ultimate goal would be to have everybody working under me able to do my job.”

Bries recalls an incident in 2009 when a lift station broke down on Christmas Eve. Mather didn’t simply delegate the repairs to the crew on duty. “He was out there throughout the night, working side by side with the crews to get that problem fixed, so that everybody could enjoy their Christmas,” Bries says. The same thing happened when a sewer line failed on the eve of a July 4 holiday and many in the crew had plans. Mather stayed with the crew and helped as a new 400-foot service line was put in place.

“I don’t expect my guys to do anything that I wouldn’t do,” Mather says. It’s an attitude that may have surprised some of the folks working for him. Not long after he took over running the wastewater collection department, he stopped by one day to see if he could lend a hand to a crew fixing a valve on a force main. Some newer workers warned, “You’re going to get dirty.”

“It kind of cracked me up,” Mather says. “They didn’t really know me that well. I looked at them and said, ‘If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.’”


Pointing the way

Mather credits his boss for pointing him in the right direction and for setting an example of his own when it comes to management and encouraging innovation. One way the two are alike, Bries says, is that both know they can count on the people working for them.

“Our success is a direct result of the success and the effort of everybody who works for us,” Bries says. “As managers, we can’t be successful without their participation, without their dedication and their commitment.”

And paying attention to quality service pays off in customer satisfaction. Mather found that out firsthand in what turned out to be a pleasant surprise. “I was skeptical when I went into wastewater collections about how people would react when they had sewer backups and disruption in their service,” he says.

His earlier jobs had shown him that people don’t like having to go without street access or water or sewer service because of repairs. Yet the emphasis the city puts on quickly helping residents when trouble erupts has made a definite positive impact. “We take great pride in responding to citizens,” Mather says. “We try to be very customer-service oriented. And most people appreciate your responding quickly. They don’t get real nasty like I thought they would.

“They are thankful and appreciate that you’re out here trying to solve their problems so they don’t happen again.”


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