UO students improve business performance of university utilities

UO chilled water plant

The finances behind the university’s Central Power Station are complex to say the least.

Costs fluctuate between seasons. Most energy goes to campus, some is sold back to the Eugene Water and Electric Board. Machinery undergoes wear and tear and requires maintenance and replacement. Imagine a master spreadsheet with 20 tabs housing all of these algorithms and cost predictions.

Six students from the Oregon Consulting Group, a student-run consulting organization in the Lundquist College of Business, took this already robust production cost forecast model and refined it even more.

After months of research, business students Mitch Caswell, Shaheen Safari, Jerry Song and project manager Tucker Leneve gained a deep understanding of the university’s utility system. The group’s director oversaw the project and guided the group along the way, with help from Senior Manager Danielle Breining and President Harrison Zimba.

“The project forced me to think critically about how different formulas could fit together as a whole to continually improve the model,” said Safari, a group consultant and business administration major. “I learned that I could achieve any task or goal I had with some persistence and determination.”

The UO utilities and energy department has fully adopted the group’s updated model, which allows them to make more accurate cost projections. Tony Hardenbrook, director of utilities and energy, said the services he received from the group were on par or above what he has received from professional consultants.

“I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I was with them,” Hardenbrook said. “It wasn’t just an experiment or an assignment for some students. This is something we are now using. We definitely got more than we expected in return.”

Hardenbrook said there is no better place on campus where students can gain a breadth of business exposure than the Central Power Station. The student group’s consultants accounted for contracts, buying and selling commodities, payroll and personnel, operations and maintenance costs, and loans. They learned about the different aspects that go into running a business operation the size of the Central Power Station, which provides heating, cooling and electricity for 4.4 million square feet of building space with annual operating costs of $23 million.

The partnership between utilities and energy and the Oregon Consulting Group is part of the Division of Finance and Administration’s shared services initiative to use the university’s existing inventory of assets to create educational experiences.

“We have so many resources right here on campus that we can utilize to support our daily work,” said Jon Marchetta, director of shared services. “Working with a student group like the OCG not only allows us to leverage the talents of our own students, it also allows us to use practical examples of business operations that exist right here on campus.”

Shared services will continue to work with the student group and other campus units in the future.

—By Talia Smith, Office of the Vice President for Finance and Administration