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This year marked the 18th year of operational excellence for Magnolia River in the natural gas utility landscape. Launched as a pipeline inspection provider for Alabama Gas Company (now Spire, Inc.) by CEO Ronald S. Hoff, Jr., Magnolia River has evolved to meet the needs of the changing natural gas utility landscape by adding several feathers to its cap over the last 18 years.
At its core, Magnolia River is a natural gas utility consultant that operates by comprehending the different challenges their clients face from an operational standpoint. Historically the natural gas industry has been slower to adopt new technology standards as compared to other utilities, but, in the past five years, the paradigm has shifted. The natural gas sector began adopting technology at an astonishing rate to meet the new regulatory and safety needs of the industry. This transformation has led to exciting opportunities for technology companies who not only understand software development, but understand the needs of the worker in the field..
Magnolia River has grown through meeting the needs of their clients by adding new disciplines and meeting the challenges their client experience on a daily basis. Under the experience and vision of Mr. Hoff and the leadership team, the company has developed multiple software applications to enhance the other services they offer such as GIS, inspection and engineering. CIO held a conversation with Hayden Strickland, the Chief Technology Officer of Magnolia River to understand how the company has set itself apart as the premier provider of engineering, inspection, and GIS solutions for utility infrastructure and operations.
Which utilities form Magnolia River's primary client base?
We primarily work with natural gas and water utilities, but also serve the needs of mid-stream pipeline companies. We conceptualized our company as a natural gas utilities consultant, through being a multi-disciplined engineering, inspection, and GIS company. Today, we collaborate with some of the largest natural gas and water utilities in the country.
What is your view on the IT and OT convergence in the utilities sector?
Initially, IT would bring new solutions to a company’s operations management. However, the solutions from IT were met with skepticism, as they were different than the way operations had successfully operated in the past. But, as operations began to adopt new technologies and see their benefits of providing faster, nimbler, and more efficient solutions, operations began to push and drive the adoption of technologies to IT.
IT has become an integral partner with operations in helping utilities adopt and integrate technologies to keep the utility in compliance and proving essential services to customers.
What are some of the challenges that the utilities sector is facing today and how can Magnolia River help?
Here are a couple of different pain-points Magnolia River helps clients navigate today.
Five years ago, some baby-boomers were against utilities adopting technology and had no desire to change the status quo. They were unaware of the benefits and saw technology as a threat to their positions and livelihoods. As workers began adopting technology in their personal lives, i.e. smartphones and tablets, there was more adoption of technology within the workplace.
We always try to build progressive solutions that will embrace the rapidly changing technology for the next 3-5 years
Using technology to standardize processes
It was a challenge to convince utilities how technology could continuously update their operations and increase their efficiency. This challenge has mostly been overcome, but, even today, small utilities do not always possess the resources to upgrade from paper forms to digitized data. If smaller utilities can upgrade they usually lack the trained personnel and rely on outsourcing to a local IT operations firm that does not understand the operations of a utility and aren’t able to support them fully. Magnolia River has been successful in helping utilities understand the benefits of upgrading to the latest technological developments, procure the best solutions, provide support, and help maintain the system.
Is there a process that you follow to understand and deliver your multi-discipline utilities solution portfolio?
Typically, we run a needs assessment to allow us to understand the expectations of our clients from a process standpoint. Next, we work with them to break the silos existing between the middle management and operators to deliver the solution that caters to both groups within an entity.
We always try to build progressive solutions that will embrace the rapidly changing technology for the next 3-5 years. This assures the clients that the solution will propel efficiency into their systems by withstanding the changing technological field.
How does Magnolia River offer professional installation, configuration, and management services on a variety of platforms?
We install, manage, and configure Esri software along with other custom software applications for utilities to include our own proprietary software. We help clients obtain or offer appropriate training on all the software platforms we support. We empower our clients to take full-scale ownership of their software solutions as opposed to Magnolia River operations taking ownership. This prevents bottlenecking in our clients’ operations and leads to greater efficiencies and ultimately happier clients.
Speaking from our own software development standpoint, we believe in building application that are highly configurable and easier to operate and maintain. Although it takes more time on the front end, it allows, our clients to use the software in multiple operations throughout their industry verticals; gas, water, pavement management, etc.
Tell us more about the compliance services that Magnolia River delivers.
Compliance is the governing principle of our software development practice, which facilitates utilities to abide by the different regulatory requirements. We have a very competent team that serves on various committees to help clients stay informed with current regulations. We ensure that the utilities can maintain compliance even after we have installed our solution two years prior.
What sets Magnolia River ahead of the competition curve?
Revolving around relationships
We do not have customers; we have clients. The differentiator is the close-knit relationship that we maintain.
Competent and knowledgeable
We have decades of experience and expertise across different pieces of utility operations. We operate as utility operations consultants that understand GIS operations, engineering, and software development.
Focus on support
We are deeply invested in providing clients with the right software and ensuring the software is backed up with exemplary support service.
What is the next bigstep that Magnolia River will undertake?
We stretch from Washington state to New Jersey, from Florida to St. Louis and serve clients in 26 states and are planning on having 14 office locations within the year. Our 400 employees are dedicated to making a difference, one relationship at a time and from a technology standpoint, we are always improving our products to help our clients improve the lives of their customers. From a software development and client support standpoint, we are always improving our products and update our software on a quarterly basis. We look to stay current with new regulations and keep our clients aware of changes.
We are also firmly focused on the impact of cybersecurity in the utilities operations and are focusing on how to better enable utilities to deal with new and evolving cyber threats.