Judy Taranovich is president and owner of Proctor Gas in Proctor, Vermont, a position she filled after the sudden death of her husband, Jimmy Taranovich, seven years ago.
Despite being fairly uninvolved with the gas company while her husband was alive, since making the transition to president, Taranovich has grown the business based on some of the initiatives her husband started at the company. She has also implemented some initiatives of her own, and her success has not gone unnoticed by the industry. Taranovich was recently elected to the Vermont Fuel Dealers board of directors and she serves as the National Propane Gas Association’s director for the state of Vermont.
Though her week was a busy one, filled with open houses, retirement parties and the day-to-day ins and outs of running a business, Taranovich took some time to chat with LP Gas Managing Editor Clara Richter.
LP Gas: What was the transition like for you to take over the family business?
Taranovich: I had nothing to do with the gas company at all. They did the propane as the primary business and I ran a small gift shop. That was about all I did as far as being involved. When Jimmy had his accident and passed away, I knew I didn’t want the business to go by the wayside. It was started by his parents and he was passionate about it. We had a family business. We had people they cared about in the company. We had loyal customers. I didn’t want to just sell out and become part of a big company. Today I still don’t know if it was wisdom or foolishness to go forward, because I knew nothing. But I gave it a try.
I needed the backing of the company, so I had a meeting with employees and said I could either sell the business or go forward. Either way it would be OK. I warned employees that they would be baby sitters. You don’t learn the propane business overnight. Without hesitation, they all decided to move forward. I’m proud of my people. People don’t like change, and we have lost some of our staff and added new staff, but I’m grateful to those who have stayed the course. I’m not Jimmy. I’ll never be Jimmy. We’re two individual people. Though I adhere strongly to the direction he was taking the company, I have a different thought process of how to get there. And rules and regulations have changed, and we have had to adapt. Some people struggled with that change and have moved on.
It’ll be seven years this fall. Seven years ago, I didn’t know what I didn’t know and today I know what I don’t know, and that’s a little bit of a scarier place. I was determined not to let what my husband’s parents and he built go by the wayside. He and I talked over the years and there were certain things that he wanted to accomplish that he hadn’t gotten to yet, and I wanted to get those things done for him. I have a next generation [employee] coming up. I have a son who is 25. When Jimmy passed, he was 18, and I had the opportunity to see if this was something he wanted to do going forward.
I work with good people and have amazing support from the industry. I’m hoping for a bright future. I don’t know if I have 50 more years in me, but I hope the company does.
LP Gas: Proctor Gas celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. What did you do to celebrate and what does it mean to you to have a 50-year-old business?
Taranovich: The 50-year celebration coincided with an election year, both gubernatorial and representatives. The now-governor – then he was the lieutenant governor – came and so did a lot of representatives. I did a fair amount of advertising.
We are in a pretty sleepy, off-the-beaten-path town of 2,000 people and there’s always the fear that no one will show up, but we had a big tent – 40 x 60 – and a catered event to celebrate. We had somewhere between 500 and 600 attendees.
Jimmy’s mother was in attendance. She is 96 now, so last year when we were having the anniversary she was 95. She isn’t involved to the extent that she does anything for the business, her eyesight’s not very good, but she lives right around the corner from the office and on nice days she will walk over and check on how things are going. She makes sure I’m working. She takes pride in the fact that it is still going and I feel good that I can do that for her as much as anything else. In making my decision to go forward, her, as the matriarch, and [my son] Josh, as the possible next generation, were the two driving forces to make the decision to keep the business.
LP Gas: What is it like being a female owner in the propane industry?
Taranovich: I have seen, from the time I used to go to some of these meetings with Jimmy, and even the trade shows, what has become an industry that has become much more conscientious and woman-friendly. I remember 25 to 30 years ago when everything was catered to a male audience. They don’t do that anymore. It’s much more inclusive and respectful to the women in the industry. They’ve been very good to me. I haven’t seen anything negative.
One of the things that greatly impacted me happened at my first Southeast show in 2011. One of Jimmy’s close friends, Bruce Montroy of Bergquist, organized and set up a meet-and-greet for me at the hotel. It was an incredibly emotional night. The amount of business cards that I went home with was incredible. People would say to me, “We know your husband; we love your husband. If there is anything we can do for you, please let us know.” People on those cards still keep track of me today. It’s a great industry. As a woman coming into the industry, I had nothing to offer them, but they were good to me, both then and now, and I am grateful for the outpouring. I don’t know if I could’ve done it without them.
LP Gas: Do regional influences in New England impact your business?
Taranovich: Being in Vermont has its challenges. It’s a liberal state, and it would like to go all green by 2050 and be totally off of fossil fuels. Rather than trying to live in harmony with electric, solar, gas and fuel, the state just wants us gone. So that’s been a challenge to try to find a balance there. Some of the things that the state is asking for are unreasonable. We aren’t in a state or a part of the country that can get off of fossil fuels. You can’t run tractors off of solar. There’s got to be a balance.
The state has a real monopoly going. Green Mountain Power, owned by Gaz Métro out of Canada, owns all of the power in Vermont. They also own the gas pipeline and they do it off of solar. They are so big. They go into every home in the state of Vermont. Other propane companies, not just me, struggle to keep a foothold when it comes to them. They’re promoting heat pumps and solar. Our biggest challenge is to make the consumer understand that, yes, you need your electric, but we still have our value. Propane is greener than what Green Mountain Power and Gaz Métro would like to have people believe.
[Vermont lawmakers] are fighting hard for that carbon tax, which several states are. We could be one of the first ones to get that through. When you have the marketing power, you get people to switch to solar. When you really do the research and run the numbers, it’s not that big of savings. When your electric bill is high, they put a little flyer in there saying that if you put solar panels in your yard or on your roof, you can save money. I do a fair amount of radio advertising and small magazine advertising, but it’s hard to get the word out there. But I do a real cost-analysis breakdown to show people that you aren’t saving as much money as you think you are and we’re not really the big giant in the room that’s creating environmental issues.
In New England, heat pumps aren’t efficient. That’s what people don’t realize. They don’t run efficiently in cold temperatures. This system is going to work well for you when it’s warmer, but in February it won’t be working that well. And then you have to have two heating systems, and that’s not going to save you money.
[The Burlington area] is very progressive. But they’re right on Lake Champlain. You’d have to be an idiot to not have a business succeed on Lake Champlain. That’s not the real world for the rest of the state of Vermont. We have to stand on our own merits. The people up north who keep imposing all of these taxes don’t know what it’s like to be in real-world Vermont.