Learning to grow together: Success stories from the Benchmarking Council

May 18, 2023 By    
The Benchmarking Council currently has 110 members divided among 10 groups, representing 104 companies. (Photo courtesy of Eric Sears)

The Benchmarking Council currently has 110 members divided among 10 groups, representing 104 companies. (Photo courtesy of Eric Sears)

Kara Tucker joined her family’s propane business in 2006 after five years in New York City’s investment banking industry.

With three generations of propane experience preceding her, Tucker fervently wanted to make good decisions to steward the business that had provided so well for her family.

That’s why she joined the National Propane Gas Association’s (NPGA) Benchmarking Council – to gain insight into best practices for operating a propane company. The information she has gleaned from her group has been invaluable, Tucker says.

“The brilliant thing about the Benchmarking Council, and what makes it really special, is that you’re in a noncompetitive, confidential environment,” says Tucker, president of Koppy’s Propane in Williamstown, Pennsylvania. “You can talk about anything openly, freely – everything from human resources to what vendors you use for anything, software, tank monitors. You’re sharing best practices and learning from others what worked for you, what didn’t work for you, and [asking], ‘Do you have an example of this? I’m working on revising my employee handbook; would you be willing to share what you use?’

“You’re not reinventing the wheel on everything,” she says. “You really have an awesome group of people who are valuable resources and share ideas.”

History of Benchmarking

Since 1996, the Benchmarking Council has provided opportunities for retail propane marketers to compare business practices with other marketers. The group has 110 members divided among 10 groups, representing 104 companies. Each group is carefully curated to ensure that members do not compete, and existing members vote whether to accept each new member, says Chad Kroening of Boehlke Bottled Gas Corp. in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, who serves as the council’s chairman.

A few of the groups are composed only of business owners, while the majority are populated by a variety of high-level operations decision-makers, says Kroening, the vice president of safety and commercial operations at Boehlke Bottled Gas. Most groups have seven to 15 members – big enough for a variety of experiences, small enough for intimate conversations and solid relationships.

From left, Kristen Snyder and Kara Tucker of Koppy’s Propane in Savannah, Georgia, for a council meeting. (Photo courtesy of Kara Tucker)

From left, Kristen Snyder and Kara Tucker of Koppy’s Propane in Savannah, Georgia, for a council meeting. (Photo courtesy of Kara Tucker)

Twice a year, in the spring and fall, the groups meet at the same place for large presentations and breakout sessions as individual groups. Then, each group is encouraged to meet once more at a place of its choosing, with many expenses covered by membership fees.

Some groups use this as an opportunity to visit a member’s business or to tour a vendor’s facilities, Kroening explains. Each group is assisted by a facilitator, who are professionals or retired industry members, he says.

Members of the Benchmarking Council quickly develop trusting relationships that provide support when tough decisions must be made. Members share stories from their personal experiences with vendors, hiring practices, customer service and more.

And this support extends far beyond three meetings a year.

“I consider my Benchmarking group my alternate board of directors,” Kroening says. “If I have a decision I want to run by some people and want 13 quick opinions, I’ll shoot an email to them and get an opinion within a couple of days. It’s almost like a support group.”

Profiting the business

Eric Sears, NPGA’s senior manager of state association relations, was a Benchmarking Council member himself for 13 years before joining the association staff.

While he said, for privacy reasons, he cannot divulge specific examples, it’s not uncommon for members to feel that they’ve learned something from attending the Benchmarking Council that will profit their businesses.

“Many companies have had memberships for years and, when members learn something new and extremely valuable, you will hear them say, ‘This just paid for my trip!’” Sears says.

John Ell, president of New England Propane in Bethel, Connecticut, would attest to that. “It’s certainly saved us money over the years,” Ell says. “We’ve saved a lot more than we’ve put into Benchmarking because of the ways we’ve learned to do business on multiple levels.”

Once, Ell says, his company had a transmission issue with a line of vehicles, so he asked his group if anyone else had seen that. He learned that they had not, so he was able to chalk it up to “a fluke.” On the other hand, another manufacturer he was considering had a product backlisted six months, and he learned from his group that this was a common experience.

“We talk about everything – business strategy, hiring, best practices, how to track customers, what other people are doing to promote the industry and themselves,” he says. “It’s worked out pretty well.”

Although those who join the Benchmarking Council may wear different hats, they have one characteristic in common – a strong desire to grow their businesses and the industry, Sears says.

“They are industry personnel with a passion for improvement and growth,” he says. “Companies with Benchmarking memberships invest in their employees, have a growth mindset and look to improve the operational and financial aspects of their business.”

Eric SearsEll says he has been impressed with the high level of responsibility of his group’s members, and he’s grateful for the way they have generously shared their knowledge.

“I’ve met some really good people, some very smart people, who’ve been in the industry much longer than I have and have been very helpful over the years in terms of various challenges we’ve faced,” he says.

The people who join Benchmarking are focused on growth, Tucker says. “They’re not sitting back; they’re out there to grow the gallons, grow the businesses, making their business more efficient. That’s the kind of person who’s part of Benchmarking, and I love that. That’s how I am,” she says.

“They’re taking the time out of their schedules three times a year to get together because they want to do things better; they want to grow their businesses,” she says. “It’s just awesome to be around other people like that.”

The experience has been so valuable, in fact, that Tucker’s younger sister and Koppy’s Propane vice president, Kristen Snyder, joined a different group within the Benchmarking Council. Now, they get double the ideas and impact, she says.

“Say you’re thinking about investing in a large number of tank monitors, and you’re not sure which vendor to go with,” says Tucker, who also serves as NPGA’s Pennsylvania state director. “You poll your group. Why do you like them? Are they reliable? What has your experience been with XYZ vendor? And that is worth every penny you pay for membership. Because you could choose the wrong vendor and have a bad experience.”

The Benchmarking Council is adding a cylinder exchange group in the fall to help boost membership. (Photo courtesy of Eric Sears)

The Benchmarking Council is adding a cylinder exchange group in the fall to help boost membership. (Photo courtesy of Eric Sears)

Declining participation

Like other corners of the industry, consolidation, residual effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a weak economy have contributed to declining participation in the Benchmarking Council.

But members say these factors combine to provide an even bigger incentive for decision-makers to invest in their businesses by joining the council. Kroening hopes to build it back to the pre-pandemic 180 members, to ensure robust discussion groups and strengthen businesses throughout the industry. To that end, this fall they’re testing a new cylinder exchange group, open to all members with cylinder exchange programs.

Speaking from personal experience, Sears says what has most impressed him about the group is the camaraderie among members. “Many Benchmarking members have made lifelong friends while learning from them,” he says. “I am always impressed by the willingness of members to share information with others who are young, new or entering the business.”

Joining the Benchmarking Council 17 years ago was perhaps one of Tucker’s first and best decisions, and it has led to many more. That’s the message she wants to share with fellow marketers on the fence about joining: “The amount of advice, the efficiencies, the best practices, the ideas I’ve learned over the years have definitely saved us way more than we’ve paid to be part of it.”

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