LP Gas Hall of Fame profile: Mike Walters

April 1, 2024 By    

The 2024 LP Gas Hall of Fame dinner and induction ceremony will take place April 4 at The Westin Charlotte in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. This year’s inductees are Joe and Rosie Buschur (McMahan’s Bottle Gas), Randy Doyle (MAPCO/Thermogas), Bruce Swiecicki (National Propane Gas Association) and Mike Walters (Superior Energy Systems). Visit the LP Gas Hall of Fame website.

Mike Walters

Mike Walters

As an 8-year-old boy growing up in upstate New York, Mike Walters envisioned crawling under race cars and dirtying his clothes at the dirt track where his father served as race director.

Fast forward to his teenage years, and Walters had shifted his focus to fire. He wanted to be the guy who crawled through burning buildings, saving lives as a member of a fire service team.

He got to fulfill both of his “All I ever wanted to be” moments – through his dad’s role at the track and his own career path in the fire service that took him all the way to station captain and assistant chief.

“You haven’t lived until you’ve lit up those red lights and siren in traffic,” Walters says. “It’s kind of a trip.”

But life has a funny way of redirecting one’s path into unforeseen fields. For Walters, that involved a move west in the late 1970s to follow his parents to California. Suddenly, he’s driving a bobtail for propane retailer Pargas – “just a job to tide me over,” he says, until a fire service position materialized.

The fire service position Walters sought never came, and he began to immerse himself in the propane industry.

One day, while standing behind a house filling a customer’s propane tank, Walters thought to himself, “You know – I’m not making any money, but I’m having a helluva good time.”

Photo: Mike WaltersSo he stayed, and now, nearly 45 years later, Walters is recognized as one of the most respected safety and training professionals and subject matter experts in the propane industry. The vice president of safety and fleet at Superior Energy Systems (SES) will be inducted into the LP Gas Hall of Fame on April 4 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Diving in

Like his climb up the ranks in the fire service, Walters began an ascension in propane. Each position came with a steep learning curve.

It all started when he got behind the wheel of the “beautiful blue and white” Pargas bobtail in Woodland, California, northwest of Sacramento and in the heart of ag country, and it continued in other industry roles.

In the early 1980s, Walters transitioned into the service department of the 5-million-gallons-a-year operation, setting tanks and running lines.

“I was diving into things I didn’t know about,” he says.

Suburban Propane acquired Pargas in 1985, and Walters soon had an opportunity to work for Cal Gas, another propane retailer.

“That was the key to the whole thing. I had already committed to the propane business,” he says. “There are two kinds of people in this business – ones who draw a paycheck at the end of the week and ones who have mercaptan in their bloodstream.”

By the mid 1980s, it was evident what Walters had circulating through his veins.

Walters moved to Cal Gas’ Sacramento retail store and continued to focus on service. But when AmeriGas acquired Cal Gas in 1987, his career took on a different complexion.

“Every year in my review, they asked me about going into management. I would say no – I’m comfortable where I’m at,” he recalls.

When the question became more of an order, AmeriGas began prepping Walters for a managerial role. The company tested his resolve under pressure and eventually made him the district manager of two retail stores in northern California. Two stores grew to six under his leadership.

“I had six locations, and all were very successful,” Walters says. “A few years go by, and the phone rings with an opportunity for me to go out of retail management and into the safety department. This is where the story changes.”

Photo of Mike Walters and propane safety leaders

To succeed in a propane safety position, Walters knew he had to surround himself with safety leaders. (Photo courtesy of Mike Walters and Superior Energy Systems)

Memorable morning

Walters thought he knew everything there was to know about the propane business. His experiences delivering propane, working as a service technician and leading six retail locations certainly made him feel that way.

Until the morning he woke up in Moncks Corner, South Carolina – in town for cargo tank inspection training – and looked in the mirror with the realization: “You’re going to die.”

He had become the Northeast region safety director for AmeriGas, overseeing more than 100 locations in 16 states, from Maine to South Carolina. But that morning, his propane industry experience – and certainly his fire service experience prior – told him that he might not be ready for his new role.

“You’re a propane guy in a safety position,” he told himself. “You better find out what it means to be a safety professional or you’re never going to survive.”

In those days, Walters says, safety was about compliance and equipment, but the more he learned, the more he realized the true meaning of safety. That morning in Moncks Corner began his learning curve in safety.

Walters joined organizations for safety professionals, read books and trade magazines, and volunteered alongside other propane industry leaders. He is a charter member and past chair of the Propane Education & Research Council’s (PERC) Safety and Training Advisory Committee (now the safety and technical training working group). He also got involved with National Fire Protection Association and National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) committees and codes and standards groups, as well as state propane associations.

“Safety and training are not mutually exclusive,” he says. “Training is a subset of safety because safety is about the people – the decisions people make, the positions they put themselves in that lead to an accident or injury. Training is a method to help them to make a better decision.”

Photo of Superior Energy Systems team

Superior Energy Systems President Donald Fernald, second from right, recruited Walters to the Cleveland-area company originally to write risk management programs. (Photo courtesy of Superior Energy Systems)

Photo: Mike Walters

Always learning

Walters held two stints with AmeriGas totaling about 24 years. He also served as the Southwest region safety director, overseeing the company’s cylinder exchange business in Arizona, and the national training manager.

He also spent two stints with what is now SES, where he returned in 2012 as director of safety and training before his promotion to vice president. SES President Donald Fernald recruited Walters to the Cleveland-area company originally to write risk management programs.

Walters’ knowledge of the propane industry was tested again when Fernald showed him a proportional blender at a Ford plant in Avon, Ohio. Walters recalls seeing a conglomeration of large piping and instrumentation that was bigger than his truck.

“That was the day my feet got planted in the midstream and industrial sector,” Walters says.

“The moral of the story is I do not know everything there is to know about the propane business,” he says today. “But I have a simple motto: Learn something every day, accomplish something every day. Then you can go home.”

Walters learned so much that he wrote textbooks and training programs for both AmeriGas and SES.

In recent years, he has devoted much of his time to industrywide safety through PERC. He’s been heavily involved with the industry’s Certified Employee Training Program (CETP), now working with PERC on creating, updating and transitioning that content into a modularized, function-based program. In fact, his contributions to CETP impact all propane industry employees who are educated through that training.

Walters will turn 70 in November, but the NPGA’s 2018 Safety Award winner has no plans to step away from the industry – “because I’m having a ball,” he says. Plus, he’s currently the secretary of the Ohio Propane Gas Association and will become president in the next few years.

“Why retire if I’ve got something to give the industry?” he says.

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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