BRIDGMAN — When Kelly Ferneau was growing up in Huntington, Ind., her step-father always called her into the garage when he was working on the lawn mower or the car.
“He was an engineer and so was our neighbor. I always thought it was cool to learn how stuff worked. So that’s why I decided to become an engineer,” she said.
Ferneau, 50, was named plant manager of Cook Nuclear Plant in January, making her the first female plant manager at Cook.
“Most of the things I’ve done I’ve been asked to do. I’m proud to have made it this far and I would gladly move on to the next position if I was so chosen, but I’m not a ladder climber,” she said. “The position to me doesn’t equal a status. It equals an opportunity to do more for the plant.”
Ferneau joined Cook as operations manager in 2013. Before that she spent four years as an assistant outage manager at Palisades Nuclear Plant in Covert and 18 years in various rolls at the Byron Nuclear Generating Station in Byron, Ill.
“When I was in high school I went to a program at Trine University. It was a week-long program designed to get women interested in engineering,” she said.
The program took the students to visit the Kelloggs factory in Battle Creek and Cook Nuclear Plant.
“When I came to Cook ... it was so cool. So I was like, ‘I want to work in nuclear power.’ It was all because I came here,” she said.
Ferneau ended up attending Trine and obtained a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. She said she had a few opportunities and chose to work at Byron, starting out in engineering before going to operations.
“There I went to the license training class and got my SRO (senior reactor operator) license,” Ferneau said.
She said one of the most valuable things in her career happened in that class.
“I had made it through class and I was assigned to a shift and my shift manager assigned me to do the qualification card that equipment operators had to do. And out of my whole class I was the only one who got that assignment,” Ferneau said.
Ferneau was confused at first and thought she was being singled out.
“So I’m basically going out with the people I’m the boss of and they’re showing me how to do stuff and they’re signing me off, which is kind of opposite of the supervisor/employee relationship,” Ferneau said. “But I did it and afterwards I was so thankful he had done that for me because I really got to go out and see how the jobs are done and what struggles they have.”
This has helped her know what she is asking people to do when she is making assignments and has allowed her to provide technical input where she wouldn’t normally be able to.
She adds that she was the only woman in that SRO class.
“When I first started, the guys wore ties and they told me I had to wear one too. I’m like, ‘women don’t wear ties.’ So they actually changed the policy,” Ferneau said.
When she started there, there was only one other woman at the plant, but she never had her SRO license. There were no women in operations with her ever. When she moved to Palisades her group was half women, half men. Everyone who reports to her now is a man, though the people who report to those people are a mix of men and women.
Ferneau said she was caught off guard by the amount of support she received when the news came out that she was named the first female plant manager.
“I want to make sure I do a good job because I don’t want to let them down,” she said.
Ferneau recently spoke at a meeting of Whirlpool Corp.’s Society of Women Engineers.
“They asked me about salary issues – if I had ever made less money than a man. I said I really don’t know. I never wanted to look. I felt like I got paid a good wage for what I did. And you can pick your battles, but I was very satisfied with what I made,” she said.
But this made her realize something.
“Now in my position I have the opportunity that I can ensure that everyone is paid equally. So in that light I’d say yes I do realize I have the opportunity to ensure there is equality and I have no doubt that AEP pays people equally, but I have that ability now to watch for those things,” Ferneau said.
Even though her job is demanding and she has to attend a lot of meetings and she has to always keep her phone on in case something comes up, Ferneau said she really loves it.
Her favorite part is getting to interact with the people in the plant and seeing how she can help. Most mornings she spends about an hour walking around the plant.
“I like see what’s getting in their way from being able to work safely and to be able to complete the jobs with quality. And then taking an action to fix it for them so their day is better. And if I can’t, explain why things are the way they are,” she said. “I want the plant’s performance to keep improving.”
If she wasn’t in engineering she’d be a travel agent, if those still existed, Ferneau said. Or run a doggy daycare, as Ferneau has four rescue dogs.
Ferneau lives in Bainbridge Township with her husband, Mike, on 10 acres. They’ve been married for 15 years and plan to renew their wedding vows this year in Fiji, where they got married.
“When we went the first time I didn’t have time to shop for a wedding dress, so I wore the traditional Fijian attire, which was basically tree bark that was shaved and thin and painted. We’re going back and I have an actual dress,” Ferneau said.
When Ferneau is not traveling, she is reading, listening to live music, or going for walks on the beach and the bluff.
She has two step-daughters who live in Washington and one grandchild. Her mom and brother live in Indiana.
“So it works out well for me to be close to them and I really love this area. It’s hard to beat. ... I have no intention of moving anywhere. As long as I continue to perform well, I believe I’ll be here. Retirement eventually, but I’m a little ways from that.”
Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman