Kelsey Baker, new Kandiyohi County administrator, looks to build on the county's strong foundation
Baker started in late February, replacing long-time administrator Larry Kleindl, who retired.
WILLMAR — Communication is key to the leadership style of Kelsey Baker, new Kandiyohi County Administrator, and she hopes to use the skills she has gathered from her past positions to improve the county in a variety of ways.
"I am here to manage the county, bring us forward, bring us together and accomplish really good things," Baker said Tuesday from her office in the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building in Willmar.
Baker stepped into the top job at the county in late February, taking over from long-time administrator Larry Kleindl, who retired after 16 years as administrator and nearly 30 years with the county.
"I knew Kandiyohi had a lot of potential. Larry had done a good job," Baker said.
Baker has a long history with the region, having been raised in Sunburg and graduating from Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School. Her parents are from Kerkhoven; her mother is a music teacher with KMS and her father owns the Ford dealership in Kerkhoven. Baker was also involved with the Kandiyohi County 4-H horse program as a child.
Baker enrolled at North Dakota State University in Fargo. Her freshman year opened her eyes to what she was really interested in, and it wasn't her first major.
"I was interior design my first year and thought, what was I doing?" Baker said.
She changed direction her sophomore year, deciding to focus on communication. She double majored in public relations/advertising and management communications. She learned about all sorts of communication styles during those years in college and narrowed in on a possible career.
"I kind of thought I'd be a broadcaster," Baker said. "But in my junior year I thought maybe I'd get into city government."
Baker graduated from college in 2009, just as the nation was in the grips of the Great Recession. Government jobs were hard to come by, so for awhile Baker found herself managing the Payless Shoes stores in Willmar and Alexandria.
"I knew that wasn't the long-term fit, but I did enjoy it," Baker said, learning about customer service, scheduling and hiring, skills she would use in future roles.
Baker took an opportunity to enter state government in February 2010, though it required her to move to Pierre, South Dakota. There she took a job as the marketing and executive assistant for the South Dakota Housing Authority. She was able to put all her marketing and public relations skills to work there. Two and a half years later she moved to a similar role in the South Dakota Department of Revenue, this time as a public information officer.
"When I went to the Department of Revenue, that is when I really fell in love with government and how it works," Baker said.
While working at the DOR, Baker also completed a two-year executive master's in public administration program with the University of South Dakota. She then took a position with the South Dakota Department of Labor Regulation, where she put in place many of the same programs that she had done at the DOR.
By 2016, Baker was ready to come back to Minnesota, so she could be closer to family. She was also looking for new career opportunities, a chance to grow in administration. Her sister presented an opportunity in the private sector, to serve as the executive director of the Legends at Heritage Place, a long-term care facility in Sartell. Baker took the opportunity, but was in the role for less than a year.
"In October my dad called and said the Swift County Administrator position was in the paper," Baker said.
After looking at the job, Baker decided to throw her hat into the ring, even though she didn't have much hope the county board would be interested in her. They ended up hiring her. Baker started as the Swift County administrator on March 21, 2017. During her time Baker helped the county through a $5 million courthouse renovation, strategic plannings and the pandemic.
"I felt really good being back in government," Baker said. "I walked into that, feet first, just jumped right in."
At first, Baker wasn't sure she would ever want to leave Swift County, but there was still the drive to try her hand at a larger county. When the job in Kandiyohi County came open, Baker threw her hat in the ring and was yet again successful.
"It was great to get the call from DDA (David Drown Associates) that Tuesday night that it was a 5-0 unanimous vote for me," Baker said of the Kandiyohi County Board's decision to hire her. "They saw that potential I could bring."
There was a four-month transition between the time Baker was hired and when she officially took over in Kandiyohi County. That was a challenge, but it also allowed her time to tie up loose ends in Swift County while also spending time shadowing Kleindl.
"I felt like I was doing the right thing for me personally and professionally," Baker said of taking the Kandiyohi County job. "I think I needed this."
It has been a busy start to Baker's administration. She and staff are looking at ways to streamline operations at the downtown office building, as well as in health and human services now that a new director will need to be found. Employee retention and recruitment, providing new ways to offer services to residents and do some strategic planning with the county board are also priorities for Baker. She also wants to improve communication with the public with a county Facebook page, which went live on April 4, as a starting point.
"Kandiyohi County is a premier county. We have a good foundation," including a great group of employees and department heads, Baker said. "My job now is to build upon that foundation and really move us forward."