A Cool Sip of Success

By H. Maria Noel, Director, Diversity & Inclusion

“Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie.”
Like the title of Maya Angelou’s book of poetry, Valoria Armstrong’s appointment as President of Tennessee American Water brings a sigh of relief to an otherwise parched community.

Valoria (val – or – EE’) becomes the first female and first African American to head the water utility, and the third African American woman in Chattanooga to oversee a major corporation.* And though she moved here in 2001, her commitment to this community, to Tennessee American Water and to the importance of diversity and inclusion is now etched in local history.

“I am responsible for the overall operating and financial performance of Tennessee American Water, including safety and employee engagement, field customer service, distribution, water quality and environmental excellence,” Armstrong says. “I’m focused on reinforcing our customer, regulatory and governmental relationships, as the principal external contact for the company.”

Tennessee American Water operates one plant in Hamilton County (Chattanooga) and two plants in Marion County (City of Whitwell and Suck Creek community) – providing clean, affordable, reliable water to nearly 374,000 customers in Tennessee and Northwest Georgia.

What is your biggest challenge in 2016?

“The biggest challenges are aging infrastructure and an aging workforce. Water infrastructure across the country is aging out of its useful life,” Armstrong says.

In 2013, she says, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s overall drinking water system infrastructure a grade of D. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projects a $380 billion cost to replace the nation’s aging infrastructure over the next 20 years.

“We take the responsibility of providing the best quality water seriously.”

Last year, Tennessee American Water earned the 15-Year Directors Award for Safe Water, surpassing more than 20 times the standard for drinking water. In its 129-year history, Armstrong says the utility has never been put on notice for violations by state or federal regulators. 

As for its aging workforce, Tennessee American Water, along with other local firms, faces an influx of skilled baby boomers who are beginning to retire.

“Finding new employees to fill vacancies, getting the word out about great careers in the water industry and making sure future employees have the skills they need are important,” Armstrong says. “I’m glad to see community and state leaders, including the Chamber, educators and businesses working together to identify solutions.”

Armstrong, who joined the utility in 2011, served as Human Resources Director prior to her new appointment. Recently, she led a team of human resource professionals in the seven-state Central Division, which included Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan and Indiana. She also worked in human resources for 11 years at Food Lion, LLC headquartered in North Carolina.

What is your vision for the future?

“My vision aligns with American Water’s vision of clean water for life,” Armstrong says. “Our customers depend on us to deliver quality water to their homes and businesses each day. We are environmental leaders in the communities we serve and always push ourselves to achieve high performance. Our staff of dedicated employees live this vision every day.

“It’s also important to balance system improvement needs with what the customer pays for water service. Operating the right way is the most effective way to achieve growth and keep costs down.

“I see Tennessee American Water offering solutions to communities struggling to meet the water system needs of their residents. In 2013, we acquired the Whitwell water system, which had struggled to make needed upgrades. One of the first items we addressed was putting in a water main to assure adequate fire protection and water flow to seniors’ apartments.” 

Tennessee American Water recently completed a new dewatering facility, which removes zinc from the water that naturally occurs in the Tennessee River.

This year, Tennessee American Water plans to spend nearly $15 million in various improvements.

How did you become president?

“American Water, our parent company, is working hard to identify great leaders and open doors to opportunities through succession planning,” Armstrong says. “American Water  values diversity and differences. There’s a focus on diversity in our hiring of women, minorities and veterans, as well as promoting great talent from within.”

“Also, I've always worked for the next job. Growing up in Metter, Georgia, a small town in the rural South, I wanted more. By pushing myself hard and never settling  this opportunity has surpassed my goals, so I know the sky is the limit.”

A role model for young women and an advocate for diversity and inclusion, Valoria has served on numerous corporate, education and nonprofit diversity councils. At 26, she became the youngest and first female in more than 50 years to be elected President of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“Diversity matters and it’s good business. Diversity means that the value and success you achieve is not due to what is seen on the outside. If you work hard at a company that believes in you, deliver on results and establish meaningful relationships, you can pave your way and set the stage for future success.

“I’ve had great mentors and sponsors in my career and I’ve learned from my mistakes. I am committed, focused, driven and intentional about all that I do. Someone saw that and took a chance on me.”
 

*After serving in an interim role, Ruth Brinkley served as President and CEO of Memorial Healthcare System. Charlesetta Woodard-Thompson served as interim CEO at Erlanger Health System. Both no longer serve in these positions.

DIVERSIFY

Valoria Armstrong will keynote the Chamber’s DIVERSIFY 2016 Luncheon June 24 at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Be sure to check out CHAChamberDiversity on Facebook and @CHAdiversity on Twitter.

Tennessee American Water, a subsidiary of American Water (NYSE: AWK), is the largest investor-owned water utility in the state, providing high-quality and reliable water services to approximately 374,000 people in Tennessee and northern Georgia. Founded in 1886, American Water (NYSE: AWK) is the largest and most geographically diversified publicly traded U.S. water and wastewater utility company. With headquarters in Voorhees, N.J., the company employs 6,800 dedicated professionals who provide regulated and market-based drinking water, wastewater and other related services to an estimated 15 million people in 47 states and Ontario, Canada. 

-Jan. 21, 2016