Drew Combs assumed the role of motivator soon after the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) named Tucker Perkins as its new president and CEO.
PERC has had only one president and CEO in its 20-year history prior to Perkins’ promotion from COO. Roy Willis became the recognizable name and face of PERC before announcing his July 31 retirement.
Combs, vice president of propane at CHS Inc. and PERC’s incoming chairman, took the microphone at the National Propane Gas Association’s (NPGA) annual board meeting in June and recounted his words to Perkins.
“The next leader has a bar to pick up and move it higher,” Combs told industry members, then recalled telling Perkins, “You need to saddle up – we have a long ride to go.”
Perkins and Combs will work alongside each other as PERC moves forward in the post-Willis era and during a pivotal period for the industry, encompassing growing propane production and supply, U.S. exports, energy competition, as well as new challenges and opportunities. The council was scheduled to meet for the first time under its new leadership in July.
“We have a new council chairman, a new executive committee and generally a new council,” says Perkins, 60. “This is the perfect time to reassess where PERC’s strategic goals are, but also to make sure we’re aligned with the new chairman and new council. It’s about listening and letting people tell us how PERC can be more effective.”
Seeking the next CEO
PERC selected Perkins, a Virginia native who resides in Richmond, following what has been described as an exhaustive six-month process to replace Willis. It formed a selection committee composed of industry leaders and hired search firm Korn Ferry (at a percentage of the selected individual’s first-year salary) to lead the process.
Willis served as an adviser to the committee and also will serve in a supporting role for a limited time during Perkins’ transition, PERC says.
The selection committee reviewed more than a dozen applicants (the names of which PERC says are confidential), five of whom were from inside the propane industry.
The search committee interviewed seven of those applicants and selected three finalists, two of whom were from inside the industry.
“We had some strong candidates. When all is said and done, we’re making sure that we find the best fit for our industry,” says Tom Van Buren of Ferrell North America, the outgoing PERC chairman who also led the executive search team.
“The person we unanimously selected was Tucker Perkins,” Van Buren adds. “Yes, he has industry experience, and it was refreshing hearing his ideas and visions as we go forward. He rose to the occasion and answered everything with clear vision and detail.”
His propane start
Perkins’ propane industry experience runs deep. His father worked for an independent retailer in Virginia, where Perkins was often found during summers and holidays through high school and college, and where he says he “came to love the industry.” That company, Bottled Gas Corp. of Virginia, later became Commonwealth Propane and then Columbia Propane.
“At some level, I was painting tanks and doing work in the business as early as 12 and 13 years old,” Perkins recalls. “It was my first paying job, and it stayed that way until I graduated college.”
Perkins worked other non-propane industry jobs for about 10 years after college and rejoined the industry with Columbia Propane in 1990 when the Richmond, Virginia-based retailer was beginning a large growth spurt. It eventually became one of the five largest retailers in the nation, with Perkins as vice president and COO, before AmeriGas acquired it in 2001. Perkins then launched his own independent, Premier Propane, which sold to Inergy in 2004.
Perkins says his experiences working for small independent retailers, a large multi-state retailer and an MLP will help him better understand the industry’s needs as PERC’s leader.
“When we talk about propane retailers, that sounds like a homogeneous group, but it’s not,” he says. “From the lens of an MLP or even an independent in Arizona, versus an independent in Maine, the businesses are very different. My experience really helps translate how to make PERC more effective for that whole group.”
After leading CleanFuel USA for several years, Perkins joined PERC in 2012 as chief business development officer, and has come to understand the workings of the council. But he wants to set all of that aside at the outset of his new endeavor and form an objective view of PERC’s role in the industry.
“Even though I’ve been inside PERC and think I understand where PERC needs to go, I want to take this opportunity and really listen – to the industry, our partners and to the propane marketers on how we can serve them better,” says Perkins, adding how he plans to be visible and available to the industry in the coming months.
In addition to listening to those within the industry, Perkins says PERC must work to align with NPGA and state propane associations, “particularly around growing the industry. That’s ultimately our goal – to grow the industry. Between marketers, state associations and NPGA, we have great partners that we want to make sure we’re working perfectly with.”
That growth begins with education and outreach, Perkins says, whether to consumers, builders or marketers, “and quickly behind that we think about product development.”
Perkins expects PERC to place more of an emphasis in the next couple of years on its business-to-business marketing and outreach efforts. That includes marketing to the construction and remodeling sectors, plumbers and HVAC professionals.
“The last couple of years we had to sacrifice B2B marketing in favor of the consumer campaign,” says Perkins, referring to PERC’s “Blue the dog” consumer education focus. “We probably have to rebalance our outreach efforts between consumer and business campaigns because it’s so important.”
Those efforts, Perkins adds, must be directed primarily toward preserving the residential market, with a “suite of products and services that builders appreciate when building off natural gas mains.”
Beyond residential, Perkins cites opportunities with agriculture, material handling, autogas and small engines. And he underscores the need for PERC to prepare the industry to talk intelligently about propane’s benefits and features across markets, especially at a time when communication methods have changed.
“PERC is established with a hierarchy to do all of those things at one time,” he says.
PERC hasn’t announced any changes to its processes or staff, including the status of its COO position that Perkins relinquished after his promotion in May. Perkins didn’t indicate any were on the way, at least in the short term.
“This is a logical time to think about everything – all of our internal and external processes, our organization and how we can become more effective,” he says. “We’ll take a hard internal look at our staffing and all of our processes to make sure we’re working as efficiently as we can.”
PERC’s new executive committee
Chairman: Drew Combs, CHS
Vice chairman marketers: Rob Chalmers, Meritum Energy Holdings
Vice chairman producers: Kasib Abdullah, BP
Treasurer: Randy Doyle, Blossman Gas
Secretary: TBD (will be announced at July meeting)
Perkins speaks on…
Outgoing PERC President and CEO Roy Willis
“I find it hard to believe that one person worked here for 20 years when the employee base was one and the budget was zero to what it is today. For Roy to keep himself and PERC relevant speaks to his leadership.”
Pressure to replace Willis
“Roy and I have been clear for the last couple of years on the strategic direction of PERC. I will quickly say that I feel tremendous pressure that PERC does its best to be an advocate for the fuel and those who represent it.”
“While we [at PERC] do a lot of things really well, we don’t sell propane, and we have to be an effective partner to those who do.”
Relationships with marketers
“I generally think when marketers are dissatisfied with PERC, they don’t realize the programs we have are there to help them. We don’t have a different goal from the propane marketers.”
On propane’s future
“People are beginning to realize that propane has a seat at the table for the energy portfolio in the U.S. When questions go beyond energy security and economic certainty, we have a story to tell about our contribution to the environment.”