His passion for propane still burns strong

October 1, 2008 By    

Sam McTier is always there, always been there, everywhere.

He is synonymous with the propane industry, the go-to source for anyone seeking information on an issue. McTier packs 50-plus years of industry knowledge into an intelligent, detailed mind that impressively defies his age of 82.

To someone new to the industry and unknowing of McTier’s background, the propane veteran once wrote in an e-mail, “I probably know a lot more about what I don’t know about the propane industry than most people in the propane industry. This is another way of saying that I have a broad background in the propane industry, but there are lots of things where I don’t know the answers.”

Sam McTier not knowing an answer on a propane issue? Many will beg to differ.

“Sam is a walking library of technical information,” says Dan Myers, an industry consultant who’s known McTier for 30 years. “He really is always the go-to guy for me. If I need to know what the issues are on a particular problem, pro and con, count on Sam to give it to me.”

A new agenda

The signs pointed at an early age to McTier having a long and successful career, but as he admits, “Engineering wasn’t on my agenda.”

Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1926, McTier progressed quickly through school, graduating from high school at 16 and college at 19. He took three semesters at Texas School of Mines (now UTEP), majoring in economics, before joining the Navy V-12 Program. The program allowed students to complete their degrees and earn commissions during World War II.

The Navy sent McTier to the University of Colorado, where he planned to continue his education in economics but instead was forced into choosing mechanical engineering as part of the officer-training program. While studying analytical mechanics there, he taught himself calculus.

“I’m very lucky I got that background,” McTier says of engineering and the opportunity through V-12. “It forces you to think about things. It helps you figure out what’s going on in the world. That methodology is valuable in everything you do.”

McTier served for two years and two stints in the Navy. The first was his officer training during World War II. The second came when the Navy called him for the Korean War. He served aboard the USS Hopewell and was later stationed in Nagasaki, Japan.

“I never even thought about not doing that,” McTier says of his decision to join the Navy and enter college. “The war came along, and that made the decision a lot simpler. I went to school for three semesters in my hometown, and when I went away to Colorado the Navy took over. They paid all of my bills and sent me through. That’s the reason I didn’t think of not going back into the service when they called me into the Korean War. I didn’t want to go, but I felt like I should.”

For McTier, his education proved especially valuable in the propane business. His first job in the industry came with United Petroleum Gas Co.’s branch in Chicago as a propane plant installer. He worked for about four years with United but found more of an interest in selling equipment, so he began a sales career with Bastian-Blessing Co. (now Engineered Controls).

“I snuck into sales when nobody was looking,” says McTier of his ability to turn a plant installation job into a sales career.

McTier worked for 22½ years with Bastian-Blessing, selling equipment and plants, and had aspirations of running the company himself. When that didn’t work out, he took his career in a different direction and in 1971 started his own business. McTier Supply of Lake Forest, Ill., was a Sherwood distributor in the high-pressure gas and propane industries for almost 35 years, offering regulators, valves, fittings and other operating equipment. In the process, McTier helped Sherwood improve its marketing and grow as a company.

“There was a certain amount of arrogance within the propane equipment industry in those early days,” he says. “This gave Sherwood and us an opportunity to offer some real competition to RegO and Fisher.

“It gave me a lot better insight about what was going on in the industry,” McTier adds of running his own company. “I don’t know if anyone called on as many propane marketers as I did. I enjoyed every minute of it – how much fun it was to watch a small independent that started in the business from scratch and grow into a multi-million dollar operation. It really told the story about America to me. I was able to help them [marketers], tell them what the rules were and how to be safe. It was satisfying from that aspect as much as making money out of it. Helping people gave you the incentive to keep going.”

Citing a downturn in the economy and an itch to do something different, McTier sold portions of his company in 2006 to Cramer Decker Industries and Ray Murray Inc.

Today, McTier is president of Propane Technologies, which he launched in 2005. It manufactures safety shutdown systems for bobtails and bulk transports.

McTier tells a story of an accident in South Carolina where a worker was filling two 18,000-gallon tankers. When the filling process began, the transport-filling hose pulled out of its coupling and 40,000 gallons of propane was released into the atmosphere. A mobile home park was located nearby – fortunately, there wasn’t a source of ignition and a disaster was averted.

“I started working on safety devices right away,” McTier says.

Over the years, McTier has been heavily active in state and national associations, holding numerous committee positions and always looking out for the industry. In 2002, he received the National Propane Gas Association’s (NPGA) Distinguished Service Award for his contributions to the industry.

He remains an industry consultant, serving on NPGA’s board of directors (he’s also a former chairman), NPGA’s Technology Standards and Safety Committee and its International Committee, among others. He’s also a member of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).

“When I started my own company, I devoted time to working on committees,” McTier says. “It was a way of giving back to the industry that helped you. You have a sense of satisfaction if you feel like you’re contributing.”

On the move

McTier married the former Ginny Munson on April 7, 2007. The two had known each other for 30 years; they were in the same club and had seen each other at the same parties over the years – McTier with his late wife of 49 years, Ann Heffner, and Ginny with her late husband, John Munson. The more Sam and Ginny discovered about each other, the more they liked.

Now, living in their Lake Forest cottage in a vibrant retirement community 30 miles north of Chicago, they complement each other with similar lifestyles.

An interior designer who has done extensive work in tracing her family’s history, Ginny, 75, is her husband’s bookkeeper. She stays involved in the community, serving on the women’s board of the Lake Forest Hospital. She also is a longtime board member of The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Illinois, which helps to promote national heritage. Her downstairs office in the couple’s home is lined with file cabinets and filled with papers. She’s also computer savvy.

“She’s an active person,” McTier says. “A lot of males work all day, come home, lie on the sofa and watch TV. They couldn’t operate with her. We have something going on almost all the time. I don’t want to devote all my life to work. I like to travel, see things and see what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

“They haven’t stopped moving since they got married,” says Dianne Olsen, one of McTier’s two twin daughters. “I can’t keep up with them. Every time I call, they’re going somewhere else. He’s found his perfect match after my mom. She’s keeping him going. It would be really hard if he didn’t have Ginny.”

McTier’s office in the couple’s home also is located in the family room downstairs. The large brown desk is covered with notes, papers and photos. Behind the desk are three monitors that McTier uses to help organize industry documents on his computer. The walls are adorned with drawings that set the scenes of cities, symphonies and sports – all major parts of McTier’s life.

He played viola in the El Paso and Lake Forest symphonies, violin in a quartet while stationed in Nagasaki and remains on the Lake Forest Symphony board of directors. He plays guitar and the ukulele, and he sings and dances. McTier spent his younger days on the tennis court competing in tournaments. He played squash and still enjoys golf, getting Ginny on the course now too. In fact, during a recent weekday afternoon, McTier rushed to attend a scheduled golf lesson. There is little time to rest.

A burning passion

McTier makes clear his passion for propane. In addition to his many involvements in the industry, one of the more notable items he’s faced is the hot, controversial cabinet heater issue. The industry had spent more than $1 million to research the use of composite cylinders indoors for cabinet heaters. Although research showed a lucrative market for such a project, the NPGA board of directors voted 88-1 in February to cut off anymore funding.

McTier was the lone dissenting vote, feeling the industry was bypassing a big opportunity. Since then, he has devoted his time and energy in reviving the project, forming an international coalition of supporters who met for the first time at the Southeast show in late March. The coalition continues to move the project forward, with a proposal due to the National Fire Protection Association by Dec. 1.

“On any technical issue this industry has gotten involved in, any thorny issue over the last 30 years, he has always played a central role,” Myers says of McTier.

Ginny adds, “He’s so passionate for [the industry]. It keeps him young. He loves it, and he’s so good at it. He’s on the phone all the time. People are always asking him how things work. It’s amazing.”

In describing his passions, McTier takes a small black notebook from his pocket and reads from his scribbles, listing the many areas in which he’s helped the industry – OPD valves, ESO valves, internal valves for dispensers, two-stage regulators, remote shutoffs. He describes each with technical detail and excitement in his voice, showing another quality for which the industry knows him – he loves to talk.

“Sam knows he talks a lot. God love him,” Myers says. “He once said the only standing ovation he ever got was when he stood up to give a speech and he ended it in five minutes.”

State of the industry

“The whole industry needs to be inspired,” McTier says. “It’s coasting along. We need to light a fire and get people moving again.”

The industry has changed, and marketers need to change as well. Many are stuck in the past, when customers sought out their propane supplier. It’s not that way anymore. Marketing propane, McTier says, is the industry’s No. 1 problem and challenge.

“The industry has grown up with customers to market. Customers hear about propane, and they decide they want to use it,” he says. “The situation isn’t the same today. You have to do something extra to get propane sold. We’re doing better, but we’re still a long way from getting that enthusiasm and marketing expertise. We’re a long way from reaching our peak.”

At the same time, McTier commends PERC’s work for the industry. He commends PERC President and CEO Roy Willis for his leadership, calling him a “real mover and shaker.” He commends PERC’s new marketing agency, Colle + McVoy, calling it a sharp group that uses an emotional approach in its strategy. And he commends the many others who have done good work for the industry.

In whatever direction the industry moves, McTier will be there to offer insight, opinion and energy, and the members will know his reasons are true.

“Nobody pays him to do all of this. That’s the truly incredible thing,” Myers says. “He is so dedicated. He wants to make sure everybody is doing everything right, and that we have the best and latest standards and technologies.

“He’s such a marvelous man. I’ve never known anybody like him.”

About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at brichesson@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3748.

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