Not so nifty at 50

June 1, 2008 By    

Turning 50 last month subjected me to the standard quips about memory lapses, silver hair, growing paunch, out-of-style wardrobe and technological incompetence. Most were accompanied by the courtesy title, Old Fart.

Patrick Hyland
Patrick Hyland

The bulk of those insults came from my five loving kids. My work colleagues and propane industry friends were surprisingly gentle, especially given my milestone achievement of being accepted for an AARP membership.

All of which got me thinking about how different things were when I began this job 11 years ago.

Back then my oldest child was entering college and I was learning the ropes of school financial aid. Last month, our third child walked the stage for his college diploma while his sister, a college junior who had just finished fourth grade when I took this job, began an internship here with our parent company.

Don’t blink; it all goes by so fast.

I look at the propane industry today and see similar change. Acquisitions in the last decade have left so many prominent retailers an historical footnote: Cornerstone, Thermogas, National Propane, Agway, Star Gas, All Star Gas, Columbia, Dowdle, Piedmont, Lakes Gas, ProFlame, AGL Propane, Jenkins Gas & Oil, V-1 Oil, Sharp Energy and Propane Continental, just to name a few.

I miss three deceased industry leaders who were among the first to welcome me to my new post in 1997. Bill McHenry was a consummate gentleman as well as an articulate, passionate statesman for our industry. Dwain Willingham was forever challenging colleagues – and himself – to step outside the box to do more and better. And Milford Therrell used that distinctive, deep Southern drawl to persuade a fractured industry to invest in itself and compete in a new energy market.

I wish my good friend and mentor, Zane Chastain, was still pushing deadlines for us in Cleveland instead of the snow in Duluth, Minn. Nobody knew the propane industry the way Zane did. He recognized the importance of digging beneath the numbers and agendas to get to the real stories of the industry – its people.

I am a better editor and a better person because Zane provided a golden example of both before he retired eight years ago.

But change is constant, even in an industry where folks constantly moan that “nothing ever changes.”

The biggest difference is the price of product. Wholesale propane cost $0.44 per gallon in March 1997; it was $1.63 this past March. Since 2002 alone, propane prices have jumped nearly 250 percent.

That change has threatened propane’s historical role as the energy choice of middle-income families. I’m told the average retail price this year is 340 percent more than it was in 2002. Many long-time marketers claim it’s the number one reason for the decline in gallons sold nationwide the last four years – and the main reason they are getting out of the business altogether.

Runaway crude prices ($15.97 per barrel back then vs. $132.19 now) have taken a perilous toll on the cost to deliver product as well. Ten years ago, propane marketers were fueling their vehicles with $1.20 gasoline. This Memorial Day weekend, the price at the pump averaged $3.84 for gasoline and $4.49 for diesel.

There have been substantial improvements since my rookie year, too.

I almost never have a dealer ask me to wait until he hangs up the phone before I can send him a fax. Most even seem to be getting the hang of the Internet to promote themselves and transact some business.

Technology has made huge inroads in helping increase efficiency and productivity with route mapping, remote gauges and office software.

The work of the Propane Education & Research Council has dramatically raised the bar in the areas of safety training, marketing and research.

And I have Brian Richesson on staff to share the load and catch all my mistakes before they go to print.

Can’t wait to see how it all shakes out by the time I turn 75.

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