As the general manager of the Modesto Irrigation District (MID), Stanislaus State alumnus Jimi Netniss makes sure Modesto, eight smaller San Joaquin Valley communities and 160 square miles of area farmland have reliable supplies of electricity, drinking water and irrigation water.
He answers to a locally elected board of directors and oversees 450 employees who deliver electricity to more than 132,000 homes and businesses, irrigation water to 58,000 acres of farmland and nearly 22 billion gallons of wholesale treated water to the City of Modesto every year.
It’s a big job, and Netniss never expected it to be his when he was first hired as a programmer analyst in MID’s information technology department after graduating from Stan State in 2001. He was about to take a job in the Bay Area when he heard about an opportunity at MID, and he knew in his heart that putting his bachelor’s degree to work without leaving the valley was an opportunity too good for him to pass up.
“I was raised here, and I really love the community. I have a lot of family and friends in the area, and I didn’t want to leave that. I have roots here,” said Netniss, who has lived in Turlock since the early 1980s, when his family moved there from Iran early in his childhood. “When I graduated, I was eager to find something in the community that tied into what I studied.”
Netniss credits the MID Board of Directors for looking internally for its next general manager, saying he is humbled by the confidence board members have placed in him.
When he accepted the appointment in May 2023, a bit of Warrior history was made. It marked the beginning of the two oldest irrigation systems in California being managed by Stan State alumni. MID and the Turlock Irrigation District (TID) were both formed in 1887 with senior water rights on the Tuolumne River, and the general manager of TID has been Michelle Reimers (’04) since her appointment in 2020.
Educational Turning Point
Once Netniss joined what he calls “the MID family” 23 years ago, he quickly developed an enthusiasm and pride for providing essential services to the Modesto area. He also recognized the great potential for professional growth that existed at MID, and he made it his mission to learn as much as he could about the community-owned utility.
“I learned a lot in school, but I also learned a lot from people in the MID hallways, just by spending time with them and asking questions,” he said. “I would go beyond the first level of asking why and show some intellectual curiosity.”
Just a few years after he was hired, his manager earned a master’s degree and asked him if he’d ever thought of earning one. He hadn’t, but the question stuck in his mind. It prompted him to start thinking seriously about postgraduate studies.
“I looked into it, and I could see it was going to create opportunities for me going forward,” he said. “And it gave me the opportunity to focus on the field of finance, which was always one of my areas of interest.”
Netniss soon returned to Stan State to earn a Master of Business Administration degree and found it to be a turning point in his career. He said the area of finance proved to be his “calling,” and it led to promotions and his first job in MID’s finance department.
Strategic Vision in Finance
“In finance, I got a bird’s eye view of the entire organization and the people across the organization. I reported to a CFO (chief financial officer), but I was interacting with the MID Board of Directors directly, so that was a masterclass in how MID works,” he said. “I got an understanding of both sides, water and power, and how everything we do is about providing service and reliability to our customers. In finance, you see how everything comes together, and it gives you a unique perspective of how strategy and operations tied together in the budget.”
With his master’s degree in hand and experience in finance under his belt, Netniss started moving up the MID ranks and taking on increasing amounts of responsibility. His first job in finance was as the budget and rates administrator, which is a budget officer position that oversees financial planning and develops pricing for customers.
“In that position, you see the whole business from a strategic perspective,” he said. “You see every detail and how each piece of data fits into the big picture.”
From there, he became pricing and risk manager, then CFO – both important roles in the upper management structure of the utility – before he stepped into the general manager position.
Rooted in Education
Looking back, Netniss said the choice he made years ago to attend Stan State after graduating from Turlock High School was very beneficial. Staying local and living at home kept college affordable for him. Attending a smaller school had immense advantages, he said, because he felt a sense of community on campus and had professors who were very accessible.
“I had really good professors, great people, who were very influential in my education and helping me decide what I wanted to do after college,” he said. “And I got involved on campus with student leadership programs and other activities. Those are the big reasons why I enjoyed it so much at Stan State.”
Professors who were influential in his education and career choices include Pi-Sheng Deng, professor of computer information systems, and Andrew Wagner, professor of finance.
“When I went back for my master’s, Dr. Wagner really inspired me to focus on finance,” he said. “He was very influential in what I studied, and also in my making a career change and moving into finance.”
Outside of Stan State, Netniss credits the Rev. Joseph Illo, former pastor at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Modesto, as “a key person in my life who mentored me and really inspired me to go into leadership positions.”
At St. Joseph’s, Netniss served on various boards and councils in the church as he developed his leadership skills. It is also where he started teaching, which he quickly discovered is another passion of his.
That passion to teach has taken him full circle back to Stan State, where he has been teaching evening classes in management information systems as a College of Business Administration lecturer off and on over the past 17 years.
His advice to his students comes from years of experience and an understanding of where they are in life because he clearly remembers being in the same place. He encourages them to participate in community service and giving, connect with good mentors, never stop learning and appreciate their time on campus by making the most of their educational journey.
“Stanislaus State provides a lot of opportunities, and they should take advantage of all the opportunities, including those beyond the classroom,” he said. “I’d say get involved on campus and be intentional about developing relationships and giving back to the community.”