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CEO Sawatzke leaves a legacy of Excellence at Energy Northwest

Feature Story

​​Brad Sawatzke started his career in nuclear power as an outage laborer at Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant in Minnesota.

He was in between taking college classes and looking to make money for school. His future father-in-law helped him get a laborer card and land a job doing janitorial work at the plant. 

Four decades later, Sawatzke is wrapping up his career with another outage.

Sawatzke will retire June 30 after a decade at Energy Northwest — seven years as chief nuclear officer and three years as CEO overseeing a diverse portfolio of carbon-free energy, including the Pacific Northwest’s only nuclear power plant, Columbia Generating Station.

In between those outages is a robust career driven by a commitment to excellence, high standards and, by his own admission, a little luck.

A chance encounter

It was strictly a matter of luck that landed him in the Maintenance department at Monticello, Sawatzke said. After joining the crew as a janitor during an outage, the manager asked him to stay on as a full-time employee.

“Those were good jobs, working for the utility, so it was an easy answer,” said Sawatzke, who had never planned for a job in energy. “Once I got started in nuclear, I really enjoyed it.”

After building up seniority, Sawatzke bid into Operations, starting as an in-plant operator and eventually becoming a reactor operator and senior reactor operator. 

“I really enjoyed being an operator and learning how to operate a nuclear plant,” he said.

In addition to Operations, Sawatzke spent time in Training and Maintenance, which led to his first leadership position as Maintenance manager.

“My time in Maintenance really helped me understand the important role every department at a nuclear plant has,” he said. “I really enjoyed my time in Maintenance, and that experience was integral to me being able to fill the plant manager role later in my career.”

Sawatzke spent nearly 30 years working at the plant in his hometown of Monticello, Minnesota, earning his bachelor’s degree in applied reactor physics from Winona State University at night. He rose to the position of plant manager before taking over as director of site operations at Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant in Red Wing, Minnesota, in 2009.

One day at Prairie Island, Sawatzke bumped into an Energy Northwest employee who was serving on an assessment team. They chatted over changes in the industry and realized that they had a common acquaintance in Mark Reddemann, who had just joined EN as CEO. 

“I told him, ‘When you get back, tell Reddemann if he ever wants a chief nuclear officer, to give me a call,’” said Sawatzke. “I was joking with him.”

That was a Thursday.

On Monday morning, his phone rang. It was Reddemann, extending the CNO job offer. 

​Leaning into Excellence

Sawatzke joined the EN team in 2010 and the executive board appointed him CEO in April 2018. It was a major time of growth for the agency, which was feeling the effects of low performance and multiple unplanned outages in 2008 and 2009.

After observing performance, the new CNO leaned back to lessons he learned at Monticello from former mentors.

“They taught me the importance of setting high standards and accountability, and recognizing that as a leadership team, managers and supervisors are the ones who are going to ultimately lead us to success by setting those standards and ensuring we are all meeting them,” Sawatzke said. “That really rang true to me as a young manager.” 

He approached Reddemann about implementing the Excellence Model, a program they were both familiar with, as a blueprint for standards and accountability.

“The Energy Northwest team really embraced the Excellence Model and it has become a big part of our culture. Being part of the EN team and improving the performance at Columbia was one of the most rewarding things I have been a part of in my career,” Sawatzke said. 

Energy Northwest will mark 10 years of using the Excellence Model this July. In that time, the Columbia team has set multiple generating records, including a breaker-to-breaker run and another generation record in 2020 with economic dispatch credit. All of this was accomplished while reducing Columbia’s cost of power.

Driving companywide growth

Sawatzke is also proud of the achievements of the Energy Services & Development team over the past several years. He credits the Excellence Model, EN’s strong performance and improved reputation with creating opportunities for new contracts for hydroelectric facilities and funding for projects like the installation of electric vehicle charging stations around the region. It also has helped build partnerships like the one that saw the completion of the Horn Rapids Solar, Storage and Training project (HRSST) last fall.

And of course, last fall’s Department of Energy’s selection of TerraPower-GE Hitachi and X-energy for its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), with EN listed as a utility partner on both applications.

“It’s all a result of the hard work the entire Energy Northwest team has done over the past decade,” Sawatzke said. “I’m very proud of what ESD has accomplished. It’s an exciting time for our company and ESD is going to be leading that growth into the future.”

Leaving on a high note 

Before taking the CEO position in 2018, Sawatzke had announced his plans to retire. When the executive board asked him to stay on, one thing that encouraged him to stay was his goal of seeing the Columbia team earn top industry rating. He also consulted with his family. They were overwhelmingly supportive.

“They told me I would always regret it if I didn’t take this opportunity and they were right, I would have,” he said. “When I joined EN, I really felt confident that in six years we could achieve industry top performance. And although we got close, there were challenges that kept us from taking that final step.” 

The Columbia team received a top rating from industry peers last fall.

“It meant a lot to finally reach that milestone. It is much easier for me to retire knowing we met that goal,” he said.

Now the challenge that lies before the agency is to maintain that momentum and continue to strive for excellence.

“As we look to the future, we should all be excited by the possibility of new nuclear, but we need to remember that our ability to build, operate and maintain new nuclear will be based on how well we operate and maintain Columbia Generating Station and all of our other generating assets,” Sawatzke said. 

It's a challenge Sawatzke feels confident the company can face. 

“I could not be more impressed with the ownership and drive for excellence the team demonstrates on a daily basis. I want to take this time to say thank you to each and every one of you for your commitment and hard work,” he said. “On a personal note, thank you for the support you have provided me in my 10 years here. My time with EN has been the most rewarding in my career and I will be forever grateful.” 

During his retirement, Brad and his wife Kim look forward to spending more time with their four children and four grandchildren at their home in Minnesota. They are also looking forward to being able to travel again as opportunities start to become available.​

From his first job at Monticello Nuclear Generating Station to his final days at Energy Northwest, retiring CEO Brad Sawatzke reflects on his 40 years in nuclear energy, and especially his 10 years at EN. Watch his video to employees to hear about the most impactful moments of the last decade, and what he is most looking forward to in his retirement. 

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