Veteran energy consultant always mastering his craft

November 21, 2016 By    
Photo courtesy of Propane Education & Research Council

Photo courtesy of Propane Education & Research Council

Louisiana native Craig Whitley has been a familiar face in the propane industry, spending nearly 20 years with Houston energy consultancy Purvin & Gertz and working with leaders from the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) and Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).

He retired in December 2015 after five years as BP’s global natural gas liquids (NGL) analytics leader – and 45 years overall in the oil and gas industry – but, as Whitley will tell you, quitting is not in his nature. So in January, he launched World Energy Consultants LLC, an international energy consulting company based in Houston.

LP Gas Editor Brian Richesson caught up with Whitley as the consultant was traveling to London to deliver the keynote address at the Oil Price Information Service’s Europe LPG Summit. LP Gas sought to learn more about his latest venture, the thought processes impacting his career decisions and his valuable insights on the propane industry.

LP Gas: You spent about 18 years at consultancy Purvin & Gertz. Can you explain to our readers what your primary propane-related responsibilities were as senior principal?

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Craig Whitley

Whitley: During my 18-year tenure as a senior partner of Purvin & Gertz and three-and-a-half years prior as president of Bonner & Moore Market Consultants, I conducted propane- and butane-related consulting assignments in 49 countries. They covered a wide variety of matters and areas of consulting, including market analysis and forecasting, due diligence and feasibility studies, merger-acquisition analysis, contract analysis, negotiation assistance, netback analysis for export terminals, CIF price forecasts for major importers, [and] opinion and advisory services. The range of clients I worked for included state-owned oil companies, refiners, petrochemical companies, NGL producers, propane retailers and wholesalers, LPG equipment manufacturers, import and export terminal operators, LPG shipping companies, railroads, LPG trucking companies, gasoline blenders [and] propane gas associations. Many of my clients may remember me as founder and senior editor of Purvin & Gertz’s North America NGL Market Outlook and Global LPG Market Outlook for the early years of my tenure. I also founded the company’s Latin America LPG Seminar and managed the company’s International LPG Seminar for 14 years. I managed virtually all LPG consulting assignments in Latin America and Southeast Asia for many years, along with numerous job assignments in North America throughout my tenure with the firm. Over the course of my entire 45-year career, but particularly during my 21-plus years as an international LPG consultant, I gave over 350 industry speeches and taught over 50 industry workshops. One of the many highlights of my consulting career was the opportunity to teach a course on global LPG supply and demand at Oxford University.

LP Gas: You worked closely with the folks at the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) during that time, didn’t you?

Whitley: I did indeed, and even closer with the National Propane Gas Association. Some of the most gratifying work I’ve done for the propane industry was performed on studies I conducted for PERC and NPGA. Most people don’t know that I was one of the early job candidates that Korn Ferry interviewed for the PERC president role after the formation of PERC. It’s funny now, but I obviously didn’t pass Korn Ferry’s litmus test and didn’t survive the first round of interviews. I didn’t know Roy Willis personally at the time of the interview process, but after meeting Roy for the first time I quickly concluded he was the right man for the job. Given his great work on helping the checkoff program become reality, he was more ideally suited for the position than any candidate. I consider Roy a great friend, and his personal database of Boudreaux jokes might very well be larger than mine. Still, I’ve always envied Roy for being in a position to make such a groundbreaking and meaningful impact on the U.S. and world propane stage. I’ve always wanted to make a greater contribution to our industry than I have because our industry has provided me so much to be thankful for and appreciate.

LP Gas: Why did you choose to move on from Purvin & Gertz at the end of 2010?

Whitley: This might sound cliché, but I love a challenge and the opportunity to grow in all phases of my life. BP gave me both in spades. I jumped at the chance to join BP because the firm offered me an unbelievable opportunity to lead analytics for the world’s largest spot market NGL trader and head global LPG analytics for one of the world’s largest international oil and gas companies. BP made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and a lot of freedom to design a new analytics portal and revolutionary new methods for managing and automating its analytics’ processes for NGLs. I was blessed with an excellent team of analysts and developers that knew how to program and implement my vision and the goals of our senior management. I truly enjoyed my five years at BP and made a lot of great friends along the way. It also came at a time when I wanted to travel less and spend more time with my wife and family, as my youngest daughter was starting high school and played three sports (softball, soccer and volleyball). She was a fast-pitch softball pitcher and I was her “bucket dad.” Only a fellow bucket dad can understand the bond that is formed between a father and his fast-pitch daughter, and how important it is to pitch every evening and be there for every game. Even though I was in my 60s, I was the only family member who could catch her fastball, screwball, changeup, drop and curveball. Katerina threw at 60 mph from 42 feet, meaning the reaction time for her catcher was the same as an 85-mph major league fastball from 60 feet. Her brothers and all her male cousins were too afraid to step in and fill my bucket dad role, scared of the speed and movement on her fastball, screwball and curve.

LP Gas: When you retired from BP in 2015, were you planning to call it quits after nearly 45 years in the energy industry or did you already have an idea of starting your own venture?

Whitley: Quitting anything is not in my nature. Each of my four children, Scott, John, Marina and Katerina, will tell you that the Whitley family slogan is “Whitleys never quit.” When I joined BP, one of the firm’s greatest benefits was the ability to retire with benefits after only five years of service if you joined the firm after age 55. Since my wife is 12½ years my junior and has lupus, and I still have a child under 25, such a great benefit was very attractive to me because it gave me the opportunity to provide my wife with medical and dental benefits until she reaches retirement age. I worked for BP five years and five days, earning those benefits. But the plan to start my own consultancy after retirement was developed in 1990. I always knew I would not be content sitting at home in a rocking chair and watching television 50 hours a week, and I felt that if my mind remained sharp I could also put my knowledge and expertise to good use in our industry. Each of my children has questioned me forming my new company, telling me that I work too hard to call myself “retired.” My response to each of them is always the same: “In retirement, someone should do what brings them joy and happiness, perform activities that they are truly passionate about and make them feel worthwhile.” I go on to add, “It just so happens that I remain passionate about my industry and what I want to achieve in my industry. Nothing brings me more joy and happiness than being able to keep my brain functioning at a high level each day of my life, solving new industry puzzles that come with each consulting assignment and demonstrating that I am a master of my craft.” Fortunately for me, I’m blessed with a wife (Jonette) who supports and understands my desire to remain very active in our industry. Without that support, my life would be far less rewarding.

LP Gas: Can you tell us about World Energy Consultants and who in the propane industry might benefit from your expertise?

Whitley: World Energy Consultants LLC (WEC) is a Houston-based oil and gas consulting enterprise that specializes in natural gas liquids and international LPG. I founded the company earlier this year and hit the ground running after obtaining my MBA from Ole Miss in May. Given my background and experience, my wheelhouse is generally anything related to natural gas liquids and international LPG. This includes assignments in the propane industry. The cadre of services WEC offers to the propane industry include basically the same services I’ve offered the industry for years at Purvin & Gertz, namely: market analysis and forecasting of supply, demand and prices, due diligence work, merger-acquisition analysis, feasibility studies, strategic planning assistance, advisory services, expert testimony, professional opinions and custom studies that help businesses grow market share and lower their raw material costs, particularly their cost of product. Although I’m now one of the old-timers in the business, I’m a visionary that remains current and forward thinking. Clients often comment that I bring fresh, innovative and oftentimes revolutionary ideas when they seek my assistance. I’m a market analyst that thinks like a business developer and company owner. In my analytics world, that’s considered a rare commodity. I might add that when consulting opportunities require expertise in refining, LNG, independent engineering or petrochemicals, I have the ability to expand my company as needed for the length of the project by subcontracting former Purvin & Gertz colleagues who’ve retired, but still possess the expertise, knowledge base and desire to deliver exceptional analysis and highly accurate professional studies.

LP Gas: What drove you to launch such a company?

Whitley: I’m a lifetime entrepreneur that enjoys starting, building and growing businesses. For the past 26 years, I’ve aspired to starting my own consulting company once I retired from the industry. It is extremely rewarding to have a job that pays you for your knowledge, expertise and opinions. Gaining an executive’s respect by providing recommendations that can turn his or her business around, showing others how to thrive and prosper in this industry, how to make a bad project profitable or saving lives by working on assignments that curb the use of solid fuels in favor of LPG are more rewarding experiences than I can put into words. Our industry provides us puzzles every day that I want to solve, and there have been occasions where my opinions and recommendations have solved problems for companies and executives that no one else could solve. It is those moments that I live for and flourish within.

LP Gas: You’ve spent much of your career in the propane industry. What has that industry meant to you – personally and professionally?

Whitley: The short answer is that our industry continues to reward me with challenges and opportunities that allow me to seek and explore what my true God-given potential really is – each and every day of my life. Not many people can say they work in such an industry or environment. More importantly, the wide variety of assignments I’ve been fortunate to work on in our industry has pushed and motivated me to expand my personal potential far beyond anything I could have imagined or dreamed of when growing up poor on a small 32-acre farm in Louisiana, with no air-conditioning and a shallow well for water supply. When I look back on my career one day, I will not measure my success by the money I’ve made, the countries I’ve traveled to or the deals I’ve done. Instead, I will measure it by the industry friends I’ve made and the lives I’ve saved when working on consulting assignments that have assisted third-world nations replace cow dung, firewood, charcoal and kerosene with cleaner-burning, environmentally friendly propane and butane. With my new consulting company, I hope I will have many opportunities to assist organizations like PERC, NPGA, the WLPGA and various state and country LP gas associations in their efforts to grow our industry and bring clean fuel to the masses. According to the World Health Organization, 4.3 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels for cooking. I want to make a positive impact on seeing that number decline annually by working on assignments that grow LPG demand in the domestic sector.

LP Gas: From your perspective, how much has the propane industry changed over the years, whether for good or bad?

Whitley: That’s a great question, Brian. Our industry has changed for the better in numerous ways, but words escape me when I try to recall a change that could be considered as a “bad change.” We are certainly a much safer industry than we were decades ago, and that can largely be attributed to the ever-growing level of safety consciousness that the propane industry is known for and the invention of safety measures and equipment that have substantially reduced the number of propane-related accidents and catastrophes.

During my career, globalization of our industry has grown by leaps and bounds, as has the size of the international propane market. With the shale gas revolution, we’ve become the largest propane-exporting country in the world. We see third-world and developing markets using propane that were cooking with cow dung and firewood early in my career.

Numerous new propane-powered products have been developed during my career, whether weed flamers, propane irrigation pumps, propane-powered lawn mowers and weed eaters, propane-powered outboard motors [and] mosquito traps. I’ve witnessed firsthand entrepreneurs like Billy Prim revolutionize the distribution of propane cylinders to the masses via propane exchange. It’s really amazing how many decades it took for America to fall in love with propane exchange because propane exchange had been a highly successful means of distributing propane to domestic consumers in countless international markets for decades.

It saddens me, however, to see the number of propane households in America continue to shrink in number, while the number of electric and natural gas households continues to rise. I’m also disappointed by the number of sons and daughters that opt not to follow in their mother and father’s footsteps by continuing to run the family’s propane business. In some ways, the propane industry I grew up with has lost its charm, and I want to play some role in bringing it back. No longer do we see mom-and-pop propane companies maintain a public showroom to display and sell propane appliances. There seems to be less face-to-face interaction between propane dealers and their customer base than I became accustomed to when growing up in a propane household. Some of this can be attributed to the rapid consolidation of our industry, but even large public companies have the personnel and ability to “restore the charm” and become the most respected and favorite fuel provider in their area. As an industry, we need to work harder at forging long-term personal relationships with our customer base, putting a face on propane, per se. I love PERC’s “Blue the dog” campaign and wish that every propane dealer could have their own “Blue the dog” that they could feature in their ads, at festivals [and] in parades. Anything that could put a happy face on propane will help restore the charm our industry once possessed.

LP Gas: What advice would you give to a propane retailer operating in this new energy environment today?

Whitley: Don’t give up on our industry. Become more innovative in your marketing approach. Play a bigger role in your community, educate consumers about the wonderful benefits of the greatest portable fuel in the world. Invest in your business by offering hot water heaters to builders, educating them about the savings consumers enjoy cooking and heating with propane, rather than electricity. Run the economics and you’ll quickly conclude you can compete against the power companies that use the same strategy. PERC has shown you the way and spearheaded the use of propane-powered equipment that many of you don’t market. Don’t run a “field of dreams” business, where you install a tank and sit back waiting for customers to come. Run your business as if your life depended on it, for it really does. I’ve traveled around the world and witnessed firsthand how some international propane distribution companies, large and small, continue to build and grow their business through innovative marketing techniques and approaches. Lastly, stop planning your supply acquisition around “what happened last winter” and form relationships with suppliers that offer creative contracts that look after your best interest and will improve your bottom line.

LP Gas: The propane industry faced a challenging winter heating season in 2013-14, with product distribution problems and price spikes. What are the chances of this happening again and what can the industry do to help prevent a recurrence?

Whitley: The 2013-14 winter was one of the coldest winters we’ve had in many years, something the propane industry really needed at the time. Distribution problems and price spikes have taken place during these times because our propane industry’s storage infrastructure in the field was not designed for peak winter conditions. In short, we’ve never had enough storage at “the end of the pipe” to handle two or more weeks of sustained record-cold conditions. But the studies I performed for PERC prior to 2011, those done by ICF and others, along with tax credits Congress passed for storage additions in the early 2000s, were instrumental in improving the situation considerably. Many propane retailers can sustain two or more weeks of record-cold conditions these days. However, they represent the minority. Those who can’t know who they are and they play an unplanned and oftentimes unforeseen role, along with weather-related demand pressures, that lead to short-lived periods of elevated prices. I should add that to the extent that new gas plants in the Utica and Marcellus don’t commit every molecule to offshore propane sales, those that are willing to load trucks and railcars will play a very instrumental role in helping reduce the number and degree of distribution problems and price spikes in the future. I am hoping that, with the extended period of closed arbitrage conditions to both Europe and Asia (which have lagged on for several months), some producers in the Utica and Marcellus will come to realize that it serves them good reason to expand storage, truck and rail takeaway capacities. If so, this will play an important role in supplying the northeastern U.S., where these situations have occurred the most. Still, I’ve felt throughout the shale gas revolution that the retail propane community was not taking advantage of the escalation of production in eastern PADD II and northeastern PADD I by striking long-term supply arrangements with producers and building more secondary storage at the retail and wholesale level. Although we’ve witnessed some expansion at the secondary level, it should have been greater. Too many retailers, large and small, sit back and let producers commit as much as 100 percent of their production to exports out of the region.

LP Gas: Those in the propane industry always enjoyed your sense of humor and jokes at meetings. Is that still a part of you?

Whitley: I’ve always had a quick sense of humor and well known by my colleagues for keeping work fun, while functioning at a high level at the same time. Unfortunately, my jokes and witty remarks don’t allow others to see the “real me” inside of me. I’m actually very serious about everything I do in life, constantly striving to succeed at the highest level, a classic overachiever. It’s hard to be taken seriously as an analyst if you’re always a comedian. I’m keenly aware of that, but at the same time my life would not be as rewarding as it has been if I never took the time to bring a smile to a stranger’s face. Although I continue to tell Boudreaux jokes, the pace has slowed considerably because most millennials have never heard of Boudreaux. Many think I’m a Cajun because of the numerous Boudreaux and Thibodaux jokes I’ve shared over the years, but in reality I’m a redneck, having grown up in west Louisiana, only 14 miles from the Texas border and 45 miles north of the invisible Cajun-redneck border that stretches across central Louisiana. I’ve read numerous books on the subject of public speaking, and every single one of them warn to “never attempt to tell a joke.” Still, I continue to ease in a joke or two when I’m speaking for a reason that only my family members know. It helps to calm the butterflies, gives the audience a brief break for the boredom of supply/demand talks and helps (I hope) endear the audience to me just enough to break the ice and make for a more pleasant experience during the brief time we have together. I rarely tell jokes in foreign countries anymore because the humor never translates well, and I’m left with a room full of dead silence at the end of the joke.

LP Gas: Can you tell us about growing up in Louisiana?

Whitley: I was born in Bastrop, Louisiana, a small city of roughly 11,000 citizens tucked away in the northeastern corner of the state. My father was an accountant for International Paper Co., [which] had a large paper mill in Bastrop. He was promoted and we moved to Kansas City, Missouri, when I was 2 years old. When I was 4, my father fell at work and suffered a head injury. He was convinced he was going to die and decided to resign from International Paper Co. and move back to my mom and dad’s hometown of Anacoco, Louisiana (population 500), living on my maternal grandfather’s farm. I graduated as valedictorian of Anacoco High School’s class of 1966 and attended LSU on a scholastic scholarship. Unless pressed, I never reveal to people that there were only 19 students in my graduating class, 14 boys and five girls. You can imagine what my senior prom was like.

LP Gas: You’ve referred to your many years of experience and your experience in many areas of our industry. Can you give our readers a flavor of just how broad your LPG industry-related experience is and what qualified you to become the industry expert you are today?

Whitley: My two B.S. degrees are in chemistry and zoology, for I was a pre-med major who had a difficult time getting into medical school. I started my career in 1971 as an analytical chemist for Aeropres Corp., a firm that produced hydrocarbon aerosol propellants from propane and butane. I worked at Aeropres for 11 years, with ever-increasing responsibilities and roles, including plant manager, operations manager, technical director, southern sales director, vice president of operations and eventually, at the age of 30, executive vice president, with 123 great employees under my management. In many ways, those were some of the most rewarding years of my long career. I learned how to run numerous analytical tests on NGLs, load and unload trucks, drive an 18-wheeler pulling a propane transport, load and unload railcars, blend hydrocarbons, write a company safety manual and implement a companywide safety program, ship exports to the Caribbean, load cylinders, perform 100 percent of the engineering and design of a truck loading and unloading facility, a molecular sieve complex, numerous manifold systems, storage tank additions and much more as our company grew.

Aeropres was a young and rapidly growing company, oftentimes running by the skin of our teeth, which allowed me to wear many hats. I even managed a fleet of 110 railcars and over 50 transports at one phase of my career. In 1976, I founded an NGL trading company as a subsidiary of Aeropres we called Aero Energy Inc. that I help grow from an idea in 1976 to $160 million in sales by 1981. I left Aeropres to form my own trading company (Trio Energy Co.) and sold it to a Houston-based gas processing company (Bruin Petroleum) in 1984. This is when I moved from Shreveport to Houston and became vice president of gas processing for Bruin, managing five gas plants. I was also president of Bruin’s trucking subsidiary, BruinGas, and its aerosol propellant subsidiary, Trio Chemical Corp. I worked for Bruin five years prior to becoming an NGL consultant with Bonner & Moore Market Consultants after Bruin’s founder, Ben Collins, phased back Bruin and partially retired due to health reasons.

Over the next 21 years, I worked on hundreds of consulting assignments involving practically every aspect of our industry, prior to becoming global NGL analytics leader for BP from December 2010 through December 2015. Looking back, I believe God was watching over me as each of these new roles developed in my career and allowed my industry experience to grow in a linear fashion. My wide variety of industry experience uniquely prepared me to handle just about any consulting assignment I’ve ever had to perform. More importantly, the way my career unfolded ideally fit my personality, as I prefer roles and assignments that allow me to do a large variety of things, or else I get bored very quickly. And that’s the beauty of consulting, for just about the time a consulting assignment might start becoming routine, you complete it and you start a new assignment performing something totally different.

Looking back at my career, I can easily say that this industry has rewarded me in many more ways than I could have achieved as a medical doctor. God was truly looking down at me when I stumbled across a 3×5 index card in the Louisiana state unemployment office in 1971 that read, “Analytical chemist needed – Aeropres Corp., Sibley, LA.” I removed the card from the bulletin board, was sitting in an interview an hour later and hired at the end of the interview. Little did I know at the time that this would be the beginning of many great things in my life, that I would always remain in the industry and that it would allow me to travel to what has recently become 52 countries and counting.

LP Gas: Craig, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Whitley: About three years ago, I created my bucket list. It has 20 items on it. At the top of the list was “Get an MBA.” I’m proud to say that I accomplished that feat in two-and-a-half years and graduated summa cum laude from Ole Miss in May of this year. The dean of the business school told me I was the oldest MBA graduate ever from Ole Miss, having completed it at the age of 67 and beating out the previous oldest MBA graduate by two years. I also would like to point out that the Whitley family is a “propane loving family.” My youngest son, John, who works for Williams in Hutcheson, Kansas, has worked in the propane industry for the past eight years. My son Scott worked a few years at AmeriGas before getting a degree in education and teaches at the elementary school level in Houston, but [he] really enjoyed his time in the industry. I plan for my daughters to assist me when I conduct industry workshops (but they don’t know it yet). Lastly, of all the things I’ve done in our industry, it’s what I’ve not been able to achieve that is on my mind the most. Only those closest to me know that deep inside I’m a “closet propane retailer.” I’ve always yearned to have my own propane business, something that would allow me to interface directly with the end user and be able to sell and market a physical product daily. At this stage in my life, it doesn’t look like that will occur, but I keep my fingers crossed that one day I might be invited to serve on the board of a propane company, for I feel I have a lot of knowledge, expertise and skills to offer a propane marketer and/or distribution company, and putting that last notch in my belt would truly be the icing on the cake that I call my career. Lastly, many don’t know that I traded NGLs during a 14-year period of my career. It is a part of my career that I enjoyed and miss. But fortunately, with energy reform coming to Mexico, a Mexican joint-venture LPG importer, Movenergy, has given me the opportunity to become the company’s agent and official propane supply representative and elected me to Movenergy’s advisory board. So, to some extent, my career has turned full circle, and with this position I’ve added to the list of consulting services that I can provide to clients outside of Mexico.

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