Anne Marie Axworthy has spent most of her life in Spokane and most of her working life at Avista Utilities, although she started there when it was still called Washington Water Power.
As director of consumer affairs, she’s one of the most public faces of the region’s biggest electric and gas utility. She’s also well-known for her roles in many community organizations, including the United Way, YWCA, Mobius and the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.
She recently reflected on her career and living and working in the Inland Northwest.
S-R: When did you join Avista?
Axworthy: I worked here as a summer student while I was going to WSU. I actually started out in an interesting place for a summer student, in the line office, where all the line crews were. I started posting maps.
S-R: What were these maps?
Axworthy: Drawers and drawers and drawers of maps of our entire service territory. So you might have a map with a couple neighborhoods on it, literally you were drawing with colored pencils circles where there were transformers. Those were used (by) folks that would go out in the field and decide where a new gas line would run, a new distribution line. They would draw that up in a plan, then that piece of paper went to the crew. (Then it) would come back and we would update the maps.
S-R: What were you doing when you joined the company permanently in 1979?
Axworthy: I started in an administrative assistant position. I was — even though it was a great place to be — a little hesitant about doing that because at the time, there weren’t a lot of women in professional positions. I was fortunate after a couple years. … I moved into a professional position called an office services analyst. It was literally in the basement of the building. All of the support services from the mailroom to graphics to records management. From there I became the supervisor for that department; that really started my transition into leadership roles here.
S-R: Your current title is director of consumer affairs – what does that entail?
Axworthy: It really is about our community outreach. In the last 10, 12, 15 years, (there’s been) more of a focus on the impact of our energy prices on our low-income customers and more vulnerable customers like seniors and the disabled. So we looked at ways to help support our customers who were struggling.
S-R: How long have you been involved in all these outside organizations?
Axworthy: I got involved quite early in my career, back in the Washington Water Power days. It was clear when I started here as a new employee — as clear then as it is today — about the commitment that we have to the communities we serve. It was also clear if you were interested in a leadership role at Avista, you became involved in the community.
S-R: You were involved with raising money for a statue for (NASA astronaut) Michael Anderson – what was the connection there?
Axworthy: Right after the (Space Shuttle) Columbia disaster, I think a lot of us here at Avista discovered that Michael’s dad, Bobbie “Andy” Anderson, worked here with all of us, had worked here for almost 20 years. It was essentially his second career after a career in the Air Force. He was just a very quiet, unassuming person, friend to all, who worked in our facilities area. What happened was a conversation in the community. … We said we need to honor a hero like Michael Anderson and make sure his story is told for generations to come. Now there is a replica of that statue at the Museum of Flight in Seattle (and) one of the exhibits in the space section of the Mobius Science Center is dedicated to Michael Anderson.
S-R: You are a loaned executive to Greater Spokane Inc. working on the Academic Health Science Center; what still needs to be done for that project?
Axworthy: We’re at 20 students right now; this first group of students who can do a full four years (of medical education) will start in the fall of 2012. But the vision is to go from 20 students to 120 students. When you look at the economic impact of this project, it really has to do with growing our own physicians and having them stay here.
S-R: When you look back on your 33 years at Avista, do you see a missed opportunity in the community?
Axworthy: I will call it the three-bear syndrome; we’re not too large, we’re not too small, we’re just right in terms of size to get things done and the collaborative spirit to get things done. (But) sometimes things move along more slowly. If there were a missed opportunity I think it’s that we don’t stay the course. I think we have to be patient and flexible and innovative and tenacious and keep at it. That is why Mobius Science Center just opened — a lot of the same people who were around a board table 10 years ago are still committed to the project now. They probably never dreamed it would take 10 years.
S-R: Avista takes a fair amount of flak; what do you think is the biggest misconception about the company?
Axworthy: I think the misconception is, do we care about our customers, do we care about the communities we serve? We absolutely do. We do everything we can to keep our costs as low as possible (and) help further the betterment of the communities we serve.
S-R: Think back on your career; what has been the most challenging time for you?
Axworthy: The energy crisis, which was ’98, ’99, 2000, 2001. I think for all of us that was a wake-up call that the industry we knew well had new rules. We had a tremendously challenging time from a financial perspective, but it was more challenging to the impact on our prices moving forward. Having to recover from that crisis and then seeing the volatility in pricing that had not been there before; how do you plan for that, how do you live with that, how do you adjust to the impact it has on your customers?
S-R: Is that when you implemented new programs for the low-income?
Axworthy: That’s when LIRAP (Low-Income Rate Assistance Program) was formed. We simply needed more tools than just federal energy assistance to help support our low-income customers dealing with the pricing situation.
S-R: Do you ever feel like your department, especially, is in the eye of the storm at Avista?
Axworthy: You could say that. That’s why the consumer affairs name fit a little bit better (the department used to be called community development). We really are there as an advocate for our customers.
S-R: Do you have kids?
Axworthy: I have three sons. None of them live in Spokane.
S-R: Is there something you think this region is still lacking? If you could wave a magic wand and say, I wish we had this here, what would that be?
Axworthy: I have three wonderful children who are not working here. I would love … that there would be greater career opportunities here. I think we have a lot of great things in place that are moving us to that … but there needs to be more. I just want them to have the choice to be here.