A woman’s touch

May 1, 2006 By    

When Monica McCarthy Clark took over at Glades Gas of Okeechobee, Fla., in 1987, she knew she faced an uphill battle as a woman in the propane industry.

She had been rising through the high-pressure corporate ranks of Xerox, and she was confident she could switch careers and succeed in operating her family’s propane business. But that confidence was not universal.

“When I came in to work here, I had a driver who walked in the door and said, ‘I ain’t working for no woman,'” Clark remembers. “He just refused.”

That driver – who recently celebrated his 25th anniversary with the company – came to realize that Clark brought energy and new ideas that would help the business grow.

As a woman working in the heavily male-dominated industry, Clark has helped to transform old ideas about gender roles by showing that women are as capable, industrious and interested in the future of propane as their male counterparts. Nineteen years after she joined the industry, there still are very few women in propane – Clark, 49, is one of only two women retailers in Florida, for example – but the women interviewed for this story report that, despite a few rough spots, they have generally been accepted by their male peers and customers.

“Over the years, with involvement in the state industry and them finding out that you know as much as they do about gas and its properties, I think you earn their respect; it just takes us a lot longer,” Clark says.

More than ‘Mom and Pops’

It’s not that women are new to the propane industry – consider the longevity of the term “mom and pop” to describe the husband-and-wife team who typically started or ran a small retail business. However, these women usually ran the office, handled bookkeeping responsibilities and assisted customers from behind the counter. Even today, in an age when women have filled thousands of jobs once reserved for men, few women have emerged to work the front lines by negotiating supply contracts, driving bobtails, networking with competitors or leading industry associations.

Cassandra L. Barry
Cassandra L. Barry

According to the National Propane Gas Association, only one or two women have filled positions each year on the board since 2001, the earliest year for which data was available. This year there are two: D.D. Alexander with Global Gas, and Valeria Schall with Alliance Energy LLC. By contrast, during this span there were 127 to 134 men serving as board members.

The representation of women is not much better in the Propane Education & Research Council. Three women have served on the 21-member council since PERC formed in 1998, including Sarah Edmond, Margaret Griffith and Rosie Dzanski, who was appointed in 2003 and is in her second three-year term. A few other women (excluding NPGA and PERC staff members) serve on PERC committees: Paula Wilson on the Consumer Education Advisory Committee, Heather Ball on the Engine Fuel Advisory Committee, Valeria Schall on the Safety and Training Advisory Committee and Michelle Swertzic on the Agricultural Advisory Committee.

Physical labor blocks some women

Some women inherited the business when their husbands died. A few have entered the industry after seeing their fathers or grandfathers or brothers serve their neighbors and community. Some of those men challenged these women to learn the business from the ground up by doing the “dirty work” associated with running a retail propane operation.

“They made me drive a truck, they made me fill bottles, they made me do all these things so I would know and say I’ve done this,” Jo Ann Mudgett of Hughes Propane in Pinehurst, Texas, says of her brothers. “They made fun of me, so I drove a couple of times to show I could do it.”

David Rogers, executive vice president of the Florida Propane Gas Association, notes that energy businesses are typically run by men – and propane is no exception.

“Beyond the office, there’s not really a job market for females,” he says. “You don’t have very many females driving bobtail trucks, pulling hoses, doing service work, lifting propane tanks and digging gas lines.

“Now there are women who drive bobtails, but they’re very few. There are very few women in the service aspect of the business. That certainly doesn’t mean they can’t manage the business, but people learn the business by driving trucks, doing service work, getting out in the field.”

Even though managers today rarely are called on to do the heavy-duty physical work, customers like to know that they could if necessary. Therefore, the industry has typically educated its managers through on-the-job training, says David McPhillips of Hillsboro Gas in Tampa, Fla.

“The managers are traditionally someone who came through service, drove bulk trucks and know the nuts and bolts of it. From that standpoint, it’s difficult for women to get the opportunity,” says McPhillips, 55. “I think they can do it. I think they’re totally capable; I just think there’s a lack of opportunity.

“I’m not a male chauvinist. I don’t think the door opens up often enough for them.”

Dan Myers, the former NPGA executive vice president, said customers still expect the men who run propane businesses to have dirt under their fingernails.

“They sort of look to the woman running the business and expect her to be in the same position,” Myers says. “Whether she needs to or not is immaterial.”

Becoming a driving force

Through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Myers says, there were a few women who were active in the propane industry, including Mollie Reifschneider, matriarch of the family that ran Manchester Tank for many years, and Billie McWhorter, who took over Sequoia Gas (Fortuna, Calif.) as president after her husband’s death in 1976 and ran the company until her death in 1999. In the 1990s, more women started becoming involved in the industry and taking positions on committees within state associations. One day that may lead to better representation on the NPGA and PERC boards, he adds.

“I sense that there’s a lot more women and they’re active in their businesses and becoming driving forces in the industry,” Myers says.

This involvement appears to be met with general acceptance by the men in the industry. The younger women interviewed for this article say they have been welcomed and treated with respect and encouragement from the beginning. Those who entered the industry 20 or more years ago say they persevered despite some initial misgivings and emerged stronger for having forged relationships and asserted themselves among their male counterparts.

“I do think there’s a ‘good ol’ boy network’ but they are willing to accept women,” says Alexander, one of the two female NPGA board members.

“I think the biggest roadblock is people don’t want to listen to you because they think you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Clark says. But she never let that stop her.

“I’m just so bullheaded. I can’t sit back here and say that I was held back by any of that,” she says. “I’m very outspoken when it comes to people treating me like that at the state level; boy, I let loose and they know (where I stand).”

Younger women, like Cassandra L. Barry, 36, are finding the environment much friendlier as a demographic minority. Barry joined Ray Murray Inc.‘s customer service department 16 years ago, and she and five other women were trained weekly on the propane equipment regulators and fittings and other equipment so they could work effectively with customers. After 11 years, she began calling on customers in three states as a regional sales manager.

Even though she is one of a small number of women in equipment sales, she says she has been accepted by men, and she has contributed her knack for designing display space, an attribute her male counterparts appreciate.

“It’s just a great industry to work in,” Barry says.

Schall, who began working with propane in 1981 with Empire Gas Corp. and later with All Star Gas, says she was always encouraged. She became such a force in the business that McPhillips called her All Star owner “Paul Lindsey’s ‘man.'”

“One thing I noticed, however, was that you weren’t cut any slack,” Schall says. “Things have changed in that you see a lot more women in the industry. Part of that is because the industry is more and more attractive to women, plus there are more opportunities in the supply arena, insurance, legal and human resource areas.”

Road bumps

The growing presence of women in the industry has not been without its bumps in the road, however, particularly at the conventions and trade shows in the industry.

Considered “musts” for conducting industry business, the shows are where retailers network with their peers, manufacturers lure customers and deals are hashed out. Companies do whatever they can to attract attention – and that means appealing to an overwhelmingly male crowd.

Mudgett recalls going to conventions where there was frequently a “scantily clad, beautiful woman prancing around the hall, doing shoe shines” – a feature Myers admits continued until recently.

“I don’t like those kinds of things. I think it betrays the woman as being a little bit below average intelligence, that it’s just our bodies going to get us there,” Mudgett says. “I’m sure the men like to look at the girls. But you see more and more women around (the show floor).”

Alexander remembers the old Warren Petroleum suites at the Southeastern convention – complete with “hostesses.”

“They were dressed similar to the Hooters ladies, in scanty clothes,” Alexander says. “That made an impression on me, that that’s how they thought you should entertain customers.”

While she says most of that blatant sexism has disappeared, she was uncomfortable with the appearance of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders at a recent convention.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Alexander says. “I was like, geez. And you know what? It was a big hit! Every guy there wanted to have their picture taken with a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. It just seemed to take us back a bit.”

Clark and Barry say they weren’t upset by the cheerleaders’ presence. Clark says it is typical of “corporate America,” and Barry called it “a pretty good gimmick” to attract a predominantly male clientele.

“You just take it all with a grain of salt and you move on,” Clark says. “That kind of stuff doesn’t bother me. We’re all in this together and it will all work out.”

Times have changed

Myers says the “old timers” in the industry may lament the demise of the “all-male club,” but that the younger men are dealing with the women as equals.

“I think the exciting thing is to see women coming into the propane business and not just in sales. Women in sales is sort of a natural. She’s getting in there primarily because of her looks and not her knowledge, and forgive me for saying so, but it’s a fact,” he says.

“What’s exciting is to see a woman getting in on the engineering side at a manufacturer, or running a bobtail at a retailer, or starting a retail operation on her own – getting into the meat of the business. I think that will continue to grow if women see an opportunity in this business just like they do in other businesses. No reason why they shouldn’t.”

Rogers agrees, pointing to the two women retailers in Florida who he says are smart and outspoken and show initiative.

“I think most people today respect the fact that a woman can do just about anything she puts her mind to, including running a propane business,” Rogers says. “Now, I won’t say there haven’t been some folks over the years who don’t share that belief. There still are men who think women should be home cooking and raising babies… but that’s not true today.”

Monica McCarthy Clark

Glades Gas
Okeechobee, Florida

Monica McCarthy Clark’s grandfather never had blinds in the window of his first-floor office that faced the parking lot. But unlike his granddaughter, he never had to breastfeed a baby while running his business.

The blinds – installed the night that Clark’s fourth child was born so she could bring him with her to work the following week – signified a change in the way Glades Gas would be operating with Clark at the helm. But the family’s commitment to serving its propane customers with diligence and care has never wavered.

Daniel B. McCarthy started the business in 1929, and his son, Dan, joined him in a second location after serving in World War II. Dan’s sister and her husband started a third office. Eventually, Clark took over her grandfather’s office in Okeechobee, and her two brothers now manage the other locations in Belle Glade and Clewiston.

Clark had been living in Delaware, working a high-pressure job as a sales manager for Xerox, when her father finally invited her to join the family business. Nineteen years later, Clark, 49, is an industry veteran, having served as only the second woman president of the Florida Propane Gas Association (2000-01) and 10 years in various other association capacities.

Having grown up in the propane business – she painted tanks at 14 – Clark had expressed interest previously in becoming a retailer.

“I asked my dad if there would ever be any room in the business for me, and his answer was [that] I’d have to see what my six brothers would do [first],” Clark recalls. “I really got angry with my father.”

He came to see her excel in the business, but not everyone was aboard.

“When I came in to work here, I had a driver – he just celebrated his 25th anniversary with us – he walked in the door and said, ‘I ain’t working for no woman.’ He just refused,” Clark remembers. He, and others like him, came to appreciate the energy and drive she contributed to the business. Customers in this part of rural central Florida still look for a man to help them, she says.

“They’ll come in looking for a part or information, and they just know I don’t have any idea what I’m talking about because I’m a woman,” she says with a laugh. “It’s every week. They’ll come in looking for gas parts, I will give them information, and honestly, they don’t think I know what I’m talking about.”

The situation doesn’t get much better when she refers him to the service manager, a man named Dana.

“They just think you couldn’t possibly know pressures or what kind of regulators they need or hoses or whatever,” Clark says.

JoAnn Hughes Mudgett

Hughes Propane
Pinehurst, Texas

JoAnn Hughes Mudgett does not want to be confused with a “women’s libber.” She likes having doors opened for her and receiving the niceties generally reserved for women.

But do anything to imply to this lady that she can’t do something because she’s a woman and watch out.

In 1986, when she took over the family propane business in Pinehurst, Texas, she says she was told regulators were targeting her for extra attention because she was a woman.

“At the time, the Texas Railroad Commission was not too fond of women in the propane industry, and they came by about once a month to write me up about something,” she says. “It wasn’t a figment of my imagination.”

For example, she had to show proof that the cylinder station had been in the same location as it had for 25 years, when her father and brothers ran the business. After voluntarily improving the plant’s safety by adding bulkheads, she was taken to task for their distance to the property line, two feet short of the 100 yards. She applied for an exception to the rule, but it was not granted – until she threatened to take them down since a “grandfather clause” meant she did not need to put them up in the first place. The exception was granted.

Finally, she had had enough.

“I called the RRC (railroad commission) and said ‘I’m coming in,’ … and I said, ‘I want to know what you have against a woman owning a business,'” Mudgett recalls. After that, her relationship improved.

“Today we have a RRC that works with our industry to maintain safety and keep unnecessary regulations out,” she says.

Since then, she has added a natural gas company with more than 1,200 customers, and Hughes Propane has more than 3,000 customers. In 2002, she was the first woman to serve as president of the Texas Propane Gas Association. “I know there were several who objected,” she says.

She stays heavily involved in the group now since her son, Frank Hicks, took the reins as president of Hughes Propane in 1997. She serves on the TPGA’s executive and nominating committees, and has worked on several NPGA committees in the past.

“I love the privileges I have [as a woman],” Mudgett says. “I just don’t want to be told I’m not smart enough to do business with men.”

D.D. Alexander

Global Gas

Englewood, Colorado

As one of only two women on the National Propane Gas Association board of directors, D.D. Alexander is accustomed to being referred to as one of the “gentlemen.”

When Alexander started Global Gas in 1989, she was the only female wholesale propane supplier in the country. A good friend with years in the industry warned against it.

“He said a female would never make it as a supplier in the propane industry,” Alexander recalls. “From when I started to now, it’s changed a lot.”

After college, Alexander joined her father in 1981, handling the retail and supply side of his business, and worked from a trading office in Houston before she opened Global Gas in Englewood, Colo. In 2001, after her father died, Alexander bought his business and re-entered the retail side.

“I was the only female trader that I knew about,” she recalls. “Now, of course, you see a lot more women traders and a lot more women as suppliers.”

Fresh from college, the 22-year-old woman had a “double whammy” against her as she entered the propane industry, Alexander says. She wound up using those attributes to distinguish herself in a crowd.

“If they realized that you knew what you were taking about, then it was an advantage (being young and female),” she says. “I worked really hard at knowing the supply side of the business and trying to be a resource to the customers. To the industry’s credit, they accepted me, and I have some really great long-term friendships from it.”

Members of the propane industry are quite helpful and welcoming – once they know you are serious, Alexander says.

“I think it’s a great place for women if they want to have longevity,” she explains. “It’s not a quick entry, but once you’ve entered, it’s a long-term relationship. I don’t think a lot of industries are like that.”

Darshana Patel

United Propane Inc.
Millersville, Md.

Darshana Patel didn’t know what propane was used for, except barbequing, when she applied for a job with United Propane Inc. in 1984.

At that time, the fledgling propane retailer with two locations and 2.5 million gallons in annual sales needed a staff accountant, and she understood numbers. Those numbers grew increasingly important as the business grew, adding locations and selling millions of gallons each year.

Within two years, she became controller; after six or seven years, she was made a vice president, and in 1995 she became president, a position she held for 11 years. By 2000, the company had 130 employees in 11 locations and sold 23 million gallons of propane each year.

In 2003, Inergy bought Millersville, Md.-based United Propane, and Patel maintained her role for two years before leaving to become an independent business and financial consultant.

“I kind of grew up with that company,” Patel recalls of her time with United Propane.

Despite her unique role as an Indian woman in what she described as a heavily “Anglo-Saxon male” industry, she says she never felt any discrimination. However, salesmen at meetings often assumed she was a spouse, and made their pitch to her male colleagues.

“I would say I was very, very lucky,” Patel says. “I feel I was treated with respect.”

Patel earned that respect by working hard to learn the industry, and she spent four years in leadership roles – two as president and two as vice-president – for the Mid-Atlantic Propane Gas Association representing the states of Delaware and Maryland.

“One of the things you need to earn is the respect of your employees, which comes from understanding their needs and goals, and you’re not perceived as a frivolous female,” says Patel, a certified public accountant with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and an MBA in business and finance. “You get that at home from your employees, and you can conquer anything out there.”

Jane Newton

Collett Propane

Xenia, Ohio

Jane Newton grew up in the propane industry, the only child of a couple who ran a small mom-and-pop retail propane business alongside their hardware store in southwestern Ohio. She happily remembers climbing in and out of the bobtails with her parents, Virginia and Robert Collett.

After earning a degree in marketing from nearby Wright State University, she worked more than a year for a group that imported crafts from Third World countries in an effort to stabilize income for their creators.

Eventually, she returned to the family business, starting her own retail location with 30,000 gallons of storage in 1986. Later, Newton added a 30,000-gallon storage tank in Wilmington and, in 1995, she took over her father’s propane business, buying the tanks he had been leasing from Suburban Propane.

Today she serves as president of Collett Propane in Xenia, Ohio, and has 22 employees in two locations, where they average 250 to 320 new accounts (mostly residential) each year.

She has been heavily involved with the Ohio Propane Gas Association, and, in 2000-2001, served as its second woman president. There has not been another woman president since.

“There just aren’t that many to choose from,” Newton says. “It’s a pretty male-dominated industry.”

She felt that discrepancy most when she had to make presentations to the association.

“You go up and present before your association, and 99 percent of them are men out there, you maybe are a little intimidated,” Newton says. “It helped me grow as an individual, speaking-wise and confidence-wise.”

But Newton says her colleagues were always helpful and friendly, and she never felt discriminated against.

“I think you have to prove yourself more to the customer than to other people in the industry,” she says. “As long as you run a safe operation, you’re going to succeed.”

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