LP Gas Hall of Fame profile: Steve Ahrens

April 12, 2023 By    

The 2023 LP Gas Hall of Fame dinner and induction ceremony will take place April 22 at the Omni Nashville Hotel in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. Inductees are Steve Ahrens (Missouri Propane Gas Association), Tom Jaenicke (ATomiK Creative Solutions), Billy Prim (Blue Rhino) and Don Schultz (Schultz Gas Service). Get more information here.

Steve Ahrens didn’t dream of a career in the propane industry.

Headshot: Steve Ahrens


He thought he’d enjoy covering life’s ins and outs as a small-town newspaperman, the kind who keeps his eye on the rising high school athlete as well as the latest contract for the city’s sewer project.

But life offered another path, one that revealed opportunities to demonstrate his natural commitment to excellence, intuition for the logical next step, affinity for building consensus and ability to creatively problem-solve.

His accomplishments and confident leadership within the industry have made him stand out both at the state and national levels, and earned him a spot in the 2023 class of inductees to the LP Gas Hall of Fame.

It wasn’t an accolade he had sought or anticipated.

“I’m as amazed as anybody that we’re having this conversation,” Ahrens confesses.

Lesson one: Creativity

The longtime executive of the Missouri Propane Gas Association (MPGA) – and, since June 2022, responsible for its counterpart in Arkansas – started his career at the Marshfield Mail, a 5,000-circulation weekly serving the Webster County seat two hours south of Missouri’s state capital. Watching the pair of brothers who owned the paper, he learned to do it all – from selling ads and taking pictures, to writing opinion pieces and laying out pages.

“It was one of the most amazing jobs I’ve ever had,” Ahrens recalls. “I had a key to the place and access to this creative outlet.”

Lesson two: Accountability

Living and working in this small community, he also came to appreciate the responsibility to do it well.

“When you work for a small newspaper, and one night you’re at the junior high girls basketball game and the next one you’re at City Council, you really know how things affect people,” Ahrens says. “You figure out how to be accountable for what the newspaper does.”

While he was on the newspaper staff, his former high school history teacher, Roy Blunt, had gotten into politics – first as a county clerk, then as Missouri’s secretary of state, and later as a representative and senator in the U.S. Congress.

“Roy was one of the best educators I’ve ever known, and we stayed in touch. My wife, Carla, watched the Blunt children on occasion, and when Roy ran for lieutenant governor in 1980, I tagged along on the campaign, a rudimentary version of an embedded reporter,” Ahrens recalls.

Lesson three: Community

After Blunt was elected Missouri secretary of state in 1984, Ahrens was offered a position in his administration, and the family moved to Jefferson City.

Ahrens joined the propane industry after positions in newspapers and government. (Photo courtesy of Steve Ahrens)

Ahrens joined the propane industry after positions in newspapers and government. (Photo courtesy of Steve Ahrens)

“Roy gave me an early chance to expand beyond the scope of a small newspaper into a position that had statewide impact,” Ahrens says. “He’s had a profound influence on the way I look at life and approach challenges.”

Serving as director of publications for the secretary of state gave him more opportunities to exercise the communications skills he learned at Southwest Missouri State University and at the newspaper. It also gave him a unique perspective on the way government operates, and how people with differing viewpoints come together to solve problems and serve the community.

Lesson four: Responsibility

A friend asked him to consider filling the vacant executive director position at the MPGA. He turned it down the first time, partly because he knew nothing about the industry, but accepted when he was asked again a year later. He started serving the board as the association’s executive director on Dec. 1, 1999, a month before the Y2K software problem threatened to derail the business world.

Then came lessons five and on: everything propane.

He leaned on an experienced, and very patient, office manager to show him the ropes. He built a house with propane appliances to experience the fuel as a consumer. He listened to other association executives, within the industry and around town, on best practices.

As Ahrens began to learn the players and principles of propane, he found a board that was willing to try new things and look toward the future.

The MPGA had offered an internal training program to comply with state requirements, but during the first year of Ahrens’ tenure, the association adopted the National Propane Gas Association’s Certified Employee Training Program because they believed it provided better instruction.

“They made that investment in safety even though it was going to cost marketers a little more time and money to do that,” Ahrens notes.

Missouri enacted its check-off program a year before the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) came on line, and MOPERC’s responsibilities have slowly taken over some of the areas on which the association used to focus. Now, MPGA is concerned primarily with creating a positive business environment through governmental affairs and regulatory advocacy, while its state council handles training, marketing and safety campaigns. This shift has created a challenge to retain membership since the assessments are mandatory and membership is voluntary, but Ahrens is pleased with the level of participation from within the state.

“Most of them understand that the way you get things done is for everyone to contribute,” Ahrens says.

Steve and Carla Ahrens are surrounded by their family. (Photo courtesy of Steve Ahrens)

Steve and Carla Ahrens are surrounded by their family. (Photo courtesy of Steve Ahrens)

Ahrens’ new role in Arkansas has highlighted the need for associations to provide value. The Arkansas Propane Gas Association’s membership is up about 50 percent from when Ahrens assumed leadership, and he believes that those marketers are also hungry for representation and ideas.

“There’s work to do,” he says, “and we’re going to call on them.”

Consolidation has its impact on association membership, but the sense of camaraderie and shared mission remains strong.

“Everybody is looking out for the industry, not their particular company,” Ahrens says. “It took me a few years to realize everyone in that room is a competitor. But when we try to make things happen for the good of the industry, they honor that.”

For example, he points to a propane-fueled school bus “ride and drive” event that a marketer held in southeast Missouri. The event was so popular it attracted – and made believers of – school superintendents outside her market, who subsequently became customers for other retailers.

Likewise, after MOPERC invited neighbors to its Midwest Propane Summit, an Oklahoma attendee used the same format to generate business there.

“Sharing good ideas is what associations can do best,” Ahrens notes.

This kind of cooperation among state associations will better position each to maximize its opportunities, he says. Duties like dues billing, marketing and safety training can be shared by neighboring associations, freeing up or extending staff and stretching revenue streams for more effective outreach.

“I think the future of associations is in cooperation or getting very creative in how you operate. Consolidation impacts more than our members and marketers; it changes how we operate as well,” he says. “We have the opportunity and obligation to eliminate duplication, get more efficient and redefine a mission that reflects the current challenges.”

Ahrens’ creativity and experience in government combined to help create one of the association’s most valuable initiatives: a quasi-governmental Missouri Propane Safety Commission that replaced a previous state program. Funded by a second check-off program, the commission exists under the state’s department of agriculture, but employees don’t work for the state. The commission writes regulations and performs inspections, but since it is funded by gallons sold, it has a vested interest in finding the best approach for the industry and seeing it succeed.

His creativity doesn’t stop at the Missouri border, either. Ahrens has been a strong voice at the national level, where he has participated in PERC Advisory Committees and an NPGA/PERC joint task force that made recommendations about renewable propane.

Ahrens’ creative bent leads him to look for new opportunities. He has no interest in the “inertia” of doing the same old thing, although the number of new ideas can be overwhelming.

“Sometimes, we come out of our ‘visioning’ sessions just paralyzed with ideas,” he says, “but it’s a good problem to have.”

A current project is assessing industry interest in reallocating resources, from the long-time state appliance rebate program to the association’s real estate, to build a state-of-the-art training center that includes an autogas service center and 24/7 public refueling, targeting the city, state and county fleets located in Jefferson City as potential customers.

“The common thought is that there’s nothing new under the sun, that propane has been around for more than a century and that we’ve already tried everything,” he says, “but, my goodness, there is so much we can impact if you just had the time, the resources and the imagination to do it.”

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