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Talking on Water with Mike Grenier

Posted By Bonnifer J. Ballard, Wednesday, June 6, 2018


Talking on Water Episode 4 - Mike Grenier


Announcer:     Welcome to the Talking on Water Podcast, a service provided by the Michigan Section of the American Water Works Association. This podcast offers insights and useful career information for Michigan water professionals. Now here is your host, Pat Staskiewicz.

Pat:      Welcome to the fourth episode of Talking on Water. In this episode we speak to Mike Grenier from the city of Grand Rapids. Mike shares his experience operating a water plant and discusses the importance of AWWA membership to advance his career. Today, we have Mike Grenier from the city of Grand Rapids water treatment plant. He's the Lake Michigan Filtration Plant superintendent. Welcome, Mike.

Mike:   Hey there, Pat.

Pat:      Can you tell us a little bit about what got your career path in getting into the water industry?

Mike:   Well, I kind of stumbled into the water industry. I originally went to CMU and I probably drunk myself out of that place. I crawled back to my local community college in Water and Wastewater Treatment program. I bumped into a couple of guys from my high school. One had just bought a brand new shiny truck. The other one had just bought a house. I did not have enough money in my pocket for a 12-pack at that point in time, so the water treatment industry started sounding attractive. Went through the program, ended up down in Grand Rapids, followed my wife down there, and I ended up hooking up in the city of Wyoming as an operator.

Pat:      Bay de Noc was the college you went to?

Mike:   Yeah, Bay de Noc Community College.

Pat:      Can you tell a little bit about that?

Mike:   Yeah, there's been a water treatment program there since basically they started the school in the early '70s. At the time, it was like one of three or four programs in the country. It's a very, very small field but it has a lot of depth to it.

Pat:      Tell me a little bit about your experience in the city of Wyoming.

Mike:   Oh, Wyoming was good fun. Wyoming has a gigantic plant. When you operate for Wyoming, you're by yourself when I first started. You're in this 90-million-gallon-a-day water facility by yourself. The first time they do that with you it seems like a terrible idea. Nobody should leave me here by myself. Great big plant, lots of problems, lots of stuff going on, lots of things to keep an eye on. The whole trick was to figure out how to operate, was to how to stay as far ahead of the game as you could figure out how to do it. If you sniffed out a problem on the front end, you did not have to spend eight hours untangling it on the back side.

            The other thing that was always nice with Wyoming is they're always real supportive about trying -- if you wanted to work on something, you could. That's what got me in my section work. Did a lot of computer work with them. Basically they gave you free rein if you wanted to work on projects, which some I've always appreciated.

Pat:      I can imagine operating a plant can be intimidating when--

Mike:   Terrifying.

Pat:      --your product is going out the door 24/7. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Mike:   It's the one thing about what we do. Water plants aren't terribly complicated when it comes right down to it. There's only like a couple of three or four processes going on. It's just you can absolutely never be wrong. You can make mistakes and you could do things, but that final product that's going out the door, people drink that so you just plain old can't be wrong. That's got some pucker factor to it that it's a bit scary, it's a bit interesting, but it's a wonderful challenge. I love the fact that we do good and I appreciate the fact. Somebody has got to work at the poison factory, we don't. I make people's drinking water. I do good and I appreciate that.

Pat:      After Wyoming you went down to Highland then.

Mike:   I picked up my degree along the way. I ended up getting a manager's job in a maintenance shop for Highland's -- basically, anything wet in Highland that was broken was my problem. I was running maintenance on the wastewater, lift stations, pump stations in the water filtration plant. It was a very nice change and actually it helped me in my career. I was an operator. My focus was in operations. Moving to the management side on the maintenance house, I'm not a good mechanic. It forced me to trust my people and then it forced me to manage my people, not the job, which I think really served me going down the road.

Pat:      After Highland, your career path took you in Muskegon?

Mike:   Yup, I was in Highland for about seven years. A superintendent position opened up in city of Muskegon. Went up there for a couple of years and had some good fun up there with the best windmill in the entire world and it's a beautiful beach. Actually I had to close my shade in order to work it sometimes because you just stare out the window looking at the waves.

Pat:      Finally you landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Mike:   Yeah, I've been in the city of Grand Rapids' Lake Michigan Filtration Plant for a year now. It's been very good fun. A giant plant, giant facility, giant city, it's a lot of challenges, and a lot of fun.

Pat:      It's great when a plant runs good but you mentioned some potential problems when it doesn't.

Mike:   Most of what we do is boring. I've never met anybody that says, "Oh, gee, I get to fill out a giant stack of regulatory paperwork." The fun part and the terrifying part comes when you have your problems. We dumped electricity three months into my job at Grand Rapids. Blew up an incoming bus. We have two lines that feed the facility. We blew the gear that services that up. No big deal. I've got two lines. We had a bad day. Get back up. Hey, look at that. We're great. Probably have a hundred-mile-an-hour windstorm. Takes out the electricity on the other side. Okay, great. I've got generators and we're having another bad day. Generators all proceed to crap out. Now we're basically faking making water watching the tanks run dry in town, waiting for a service rep to show up. It's the part that makes your stomach grind, but it's also the fun part watching your team come together trying to figure out the problem. Everybody working together is the fun part and the terrifying part all at the same time. We mostly strive for long consecutive boring days all strung together but every once in a while they're not.


Pat:      Can you give me an example of one of those long boring days?

Mike:   This morning. I came in to work, quick read my emails, checked with the staff, sat in a commission meeting to approve my repairs that we're required to do on our filters or otherwise we don't operate. So this really isn't even a question about whether we should fix this or not. If you want to make water this summer, we get to repair the filters so there were no questions for. For the commission, I got to sit there and smile for 45 minutes followed by a longer, significantly longer, meeting about one of the documents that we're required to produce as a CCR, Consumer Confidence Report, and going over the commas. And is the required language in the CCR? Should we put additional required language in the CCR? Is there any danger involved with that? It's immensely boring. I'm a big fan of about ten-minute meetings. Once you get past the hour and a half version of the program, I'm done.

Pat:      Communication is a big part of your job, I'm assuming. Can you explain to me some of the aspects you bring in?

Mike:   For me and my style, it's almost all communications. As an upper manager now, I don't actually do anything. I don't push the buttons to make the pumps go, I don't turn wrenches, I don't even know their parts anymore. So everything I'm doing is talking to my operators. "Hey, how are things going?" Get a feel from them. Is the plant doing what it's supposed to be? Are they confident on where we're supposed to be? Checking with my maintenance staff. "Hey, guys, you're stuck on a project. Is there something I can unstick for you?" Talking to my managers, setting direction on where we need to be. Listening to my upper managers on where they'd like us to go because basically my job is to take the plant to where upper management wants me to bring it.

Pat:      Tell me a little bit about your work with Michigan Section and other organizations and how you may have used your networking through them. 

Mike:   The section has been fantastic. When I started with Wyoming, they've always been very big in Michigan Section and you were encouraged to get involved. As an operator, it's had some challenges in its own right because we worked off shifts. I work shift work for 17 years. To go to a conference, to go to a meeting, I'm not sleeping sometimes. There are some challenges there, but the reward was huge. I ended up with my own committee, ran a youth ed. That's another tip or something I could give for folks is find something your boss hates doing. I had two bosses and they all hated doing tours and so I volunteered to do tours. I like talking to kids anyways. I handled tours, which got me to the youth education committee which got me into meeting people from all over the state, various degrees of expertise, which really pays off in the role I'm at now. I've got people all over the state to call. If I've got a problem, I pick up the phone. I call Amy over in Cadillac or wherever she is now and say, "Hey, what do you think about this lab thing?" I can call people over and say [0:07:58] [Indiscernible], "Hey, we're working on this. Didn't you guys mess with this last year?" and that's absolutely huge. I take those calls as well. Any help any of us can give each other, I mean, people are always happy to take or give a call.

Pat:      The section in American Water Works Association tried to help provide the tools for operators so that you can run the plant and not have the plant run you. Can you explain a little bit more about some of those resources?

Mike:   The training you can get -- we're at Operators Day right now. We've got people getting trained right from where we're sitting, a couple of hundred feet from where we're sitting. The training that was provided, well, I got all the nuts and bolts of school when I went to Bay de Noc. It was that continual training you're getting, what's new, what do you need to watch for. In my opinion, that's probably the biggest one that the section gives right now is the heads up "Hey, lead's a big deal. Let's have a meeting. Get everybody together in the same room and talk about that. That way we're all coming at it from the same angle." I find terribly helpful.

Pat:      Are there any particular opportunities you see in the future working at Grand Rapids that you're excited about?

Mike:   We had a facility that was built in 1992 that hasn't had a lot of replacements. We're either in the process of or staging to essentially rebuild that large building. We've got a big project going in to redo our settling basins, convert those all over. That will be a lot of challenges. It will be a lot of problems and a lot of fun. Out of the deal, it will be a pain in the backside and a bunch of paper work. Those are the challenges rebuilding our pumps. We've just spent last six months rebuilding our electrical systems and then laying out a framework for how that sort of thing won't happen again. The planning part of that, the big rebuild on the plant is good fun. Hiring has been the fun challenge. Bringing on new people, bring them into the industry, that's something I actually enjoy is working with the new staff.

Pat:      Can you speak a little bit about those challenges? I know we've got a soft market right now as far as hiring new people.

Mike:   Hiring is entertaining right now. For a while, we had the big crash in '08. You could just literally sort a pile of applicants and throw everybody out who didn't have a master's license or an advance degree and still have a giant pile of applicants. Particularly when I was at some of the smaller systems without a lot of pay, you're looking at an application trying to decide if I could turn you into an operator.


            I had a guy that was doing golf courses and is a part-time teacher, which I actually thought was good because golf courses have pumps and a teacher uses math and I think I can turn that into an operator. Now at a bigger city, we pay a little bit better. I'm getting a little higher pool of applicants to look at. But even at that, we struggle hiring skilled trades. Right now we're having a heck of a time getting electricians. They're just not out there and they're worth their weight in gold. You see there's some pay adjustments and some things like that that we are going to have to figure out how to get competitive with the rest of the industry or people are going to keep wandering off.

Pat:      Somebody from the outside looking in, would you recommend that trade school like Bay de Noc or a community college or do you need a college degree to get into this field?

Mike:   You don't necessarily have to have a college degree, but the one thing you do have to do is be able to do the math. That's usually the biggest wash-out point that I have with folks. I've brought people literally in off the street that have called us up say, "Hey, I'm interested in water treatment. Can you help me?" and got them set up and they're real good workers and show up every day and can't do the math, and if you can't do the math you don't get to play kind of deal. We can help you with the math. There're classes you can take. The easiest route is to pick up a trade like going through Bay de Noc, Delta College, or you get that nuts and bolts and you get somebody that can teach you the math and you could come in as an operator.

            From a straight personal level, going through a community college like that gets you to a point where if you do want to advance your career, you can go back to school, hang another two years on that, turn that into a business type degree and work your way into management. It's a little bit less true now. Not as much competition out there, but it gives you some options. You can work your way right through. You can go skilled trades, you can apprentice up, get your master's, mechanic, machinist, electrician and work your way through and around the shop.

            There are several different paths. For me my path was through the CC and then hanging a bachelor's sign up. But there are lots of different paths. The big one that I've had actually successful in my previous job with Muskegon was pulling out of the military. One, the military actually has water treatment people. I had two marines that made water all over the world. Neither of them spooked. Nobody shoots at you in Muskegon when you are making water. They've been very handy. They come pre-trained. They're not afraid and they'll learn. That's the one thing the military teaches on this is how to learn how to be confident. So I've had a lot of luck that way.

Pat:      If you could go back in time, is there anything that you'd do differently with your career path?

Mike:   There is a whole bunch of things I should have done differently with my career path. I was laughing at the question. I know Pat sent them out to us earlier. If I could go back in time, I'm too dumb and pigheaded to have even listened to myself back in time. I guess what I would tell me or anybody else listening is to listen to the guy that's whispering in your ear. Maybe you want to clean your act up a little bit. Hey, maybe you want to get back to school a little bit faster. Or if you don't have the confidence to go ahead and take another challenge so you get people keep telling you can do that, you can go ahead and listen to them. I see that a lot with the younger people I work with. They don't have the confidence that "Oh, I don't think I can do that" kind of thing. Everybody dogs in millennials right now. "Those kids are so darn smart. It just absolutely kills me how bright and hardworking they are. I'd lose out to them every darn time nowadays. They're easily smarter than I am. Most work harder than I do kind of deal. So they've got nothing to be afraid of when they try out for those new positions.

Pat:      Can you give us your contact information, please?

Mike:   My name is Mike Grenier. I'm with the city of Grand Rapids, the superintendent. People are welcome to call me actually. My number is 616-456-3927 or you can email me at I'm sincere with that. I have mentored people called off the street. If folks have questions and they would like me to help them, at least if I can't do it, I can point them to somebody who can or somebody who might be looking for somebody.

Announcer:     Thank you for listening to this episode of Talking on Water by the Michigan Section of the American Water Works Association. Please contact us at 517-292-2912 or feedback at with any comments or ideas on future shows. We'd love to hear from you. 

[0:15:00]          End of Audio

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