Photos courtesy of the Propane Education & Research Council
Scott Brockelmeyer, then new to the propane industry and working as a consultant with Propane Resources, recalls sitting in a crowded audience at his first Southeastern Convention & International Propane Expo in Atlanta when an industry leader took the stage to speak.
“I remember thinking, ‘There’s something to this guy,’” says Brockelmeyer, now vice president of marketing and media relations at Ferrellgas, about his experience nearly 20 years ago. “I was looking forward to paying attention to him and seeing what he does for this industry. He did not disappoint.”
Roy Willis, who earned a communication arts degree from Nicholls State University in 1977 before going to law school, was delivering one of what would become many speeches as the lead voice at the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). But Willis, a U.S. Navy veteran who grew up in Louisiana, was so much more.
Willis became the first and only president and CEO of the council in March 1998 – soon after the formation of PERC. But July 31 will alter this designation when he retires and gives way to his successor.
PERC retained search firm Korn/Ferry to help find the council’s next leader, who could be named as early as May. The transition has led friends and colleagues to reminisce.
“Listening to Roy Willis give his last PERC Update before we retire,” posted Joe Rose, the outgoing president of the Propane Gas Association of New England, on his Facebook page during April’s Propane Expo in Nashville, Tennessee. “Thanks, old friend, for your vision, dedication and passion for propane. Where did the last 20 years go?”
From the beginning
For two decades, Willis played a key role in shaping the foundation for the propane industry’s check-off program. The Propane Education and Research Act (PERA) of 1996 led to the creation of PERC and a clear path for the industry to strengthen its safety and training efforts and grow gallons through research, development and commercialization efforts.
Willis became the 21-member council’s recognizable face, speaker and leader who held the reins through noted highs and lows.
“When I think about PERC’s evolution and my work here, the first eight years were focused on standing up the organization, bringing on CETP (Certified Employee Training Program) and other safety and training products, and standing up that large consumer education campaign,” Willis says. “That was stimulating and demanding.”
Willis’ reign wasn’t without adversities, though. In its heyday of consumer education, the council was spending more than $20 million annually to tout the benefits of propane. It put the popular Energy Guys campaign and the propane tagline of “Exceptional Energy” in front of U.S. consumers.
But in 2009, the federal government restricted PERC’s consumer activities after propane price increases triggered a consumer-protection clause. The industry questioned the legitimacy of the decision and worked to address the clause’s pricing structure, but the near-six-year restriction forced Willis and the council to shift their focus.
“We were fortunate to have the council at that time build out a process” focused on product development, Willis says. “That process served us well. We have been able to attract world-class manufacturing partners and bring to market 50 different propane-fueled applications that will produce demand for our industry for years to come.”
A year after the restriction hit, PERC learned of more federal government involvement in its business when the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a review of council activities and spending, and how they aligned with the PERA law.
“The worst time for me was during the GAO review of our first 10 years of operations,” Willis says. “I referred to it as an administration equivalent of a proctology exam. We came through that with flying colors. The proof of that pudding is the fact we’re still standing.”
After the restriction was lifted in 2015, PERC set forth to develop a new consumer education program. It hired a chief marketing officer (Dennis Vegas) and selected an advertising agency (The Richards Group) to lead a new consumer outreach effort. The “Blue the dog” and “Proudly Propane” campaign launched last year with the goal of reaching consumers in the residential market.
“To be honest with you, I thought about retiring when the restriction was lifted,” Willis says. “I thought a new CEO could take on the new responsibility of reconfiguring PERC one more time.”
But Willis chose to remain involved and put his experiences to work in what he now calls “PERC 3.0” – a hybrid organization that combines consumer education with propane product development and commercialization.
Willis attributes the council’s evolution to the work of the PERC Advisory Committee, a growing team of industry volunteers who now comprise three working groups, and prefers to deflect any praise to others in the industry.
“It’s always been a means to ensure our programs and projects are industry driven,” Willis says of the committee. “I’m confident the advisory committee concept is largely responsible for most of the progress we made here at PERC.”
At his final Southeastern Convention & International Propane Expo in April and with his family in attendance, Willis was overcome with emotion during the PERC Update. Organizers honored Willis with a video showing highlights of his career, and PERC Chairman Tom Van Buren of Ferrell North America announced the formation of the Roy W. Willis Scholarship Fund.
“He’s one of the most passionate people I know, and he just loves this industry,” Van Buren says.
Willis admits he feels “a little bit of trepidation on being so untethered” as he begins a new chapter of his life. He plans to help the new CEO transition into the position, but he looks forward to giving full-time attention to his other passions – writing, painting and spending time with his wife, Margaret, and family.
“As I’ve grown older, I still have the passion [but] a lot less stamina and energy toward it,” Willis says. “This is a demanding job and a complex organization in a diverse industry. It takes someone who can do 30 to 40 trips per year, and not only manage the staff but also be a spokesperson for our industry both in the media and the broader public.
“I’ve done it now for 20 years – a lot longer than I ever expected to do it,” he adds. “I think now is definitely the time to pass the baton to a new leader.”
The Roy Willis file
Tenure: Willis has served as the president and CEO of PERC since March 1998. He will retire July 31.
Early years: Born in Beaumont, Texas, and grew up near Houma, Louisiana
Military: Served in the U.S. Navy from 1968-72
College: Nicholls State University (communication arts/1977) and Louisiana State University (law/1979)
Previous: Before joining PERC, Willis served as senior vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Prior to that, he held senior staff positions in the U.S. House of Representatives.
What others are saying about Roy Willis
“The propane industry and PERC are stronger because of Roy’s leadership and dedication. It has been an honor to work alongside him and watch PERC grow into the organization that it is today. Roy’s unique blend of creativity and experience have been the foundation for many of PERC’s accomplishments. He leaves a legacy at PERC that will span the lifetime of the organization.”
– Rick Roldan, National Propane Gas Association
“From day one, Roy has always been infected with enthusiasm – for life, for our industry and for the people around him. He has always seen the benefits in any situation and does not dwell on possible failures. His love of life and humanity has always made him a pleasure to be around.” – Bob Barry, Bergquist
“I have been privileged to have a ringside seat to all that Roy has contributed over the last 20 years. Roy has raised PERC like a parent – from newborn to adulthood – with a parent’s care and commitment.”
– Gene Bissell, formerly of AmeriGas and current PERC councilor
“I’ve always envied Roy for being in a position to make such a groundbreaking and meaningful impact on the U.S. and world propane stage.”
– Craig Whitley, World Energy Consultants
“Roy Willis and I have maintained a mutually beneficial and perpetually great friendship for the last 20 years. He is an intense individual, solely dedicated to making PERC and the propane programs the most successful ever. I could not imagine anyone else more dedicated, more devoted and more willing to put up with what he has had to undergo, and to continue to make it a go as he has. My hat is off to Roy, and I believe that others concur that he was the singular best person that PERC could have hired for the thankless job that he filled for 20 years.”
– Dan Myers, formerly of NPGA
“He’s been a very important and effective leader for our industry. What he’s done in his tenure is nothing short of remarkable. PERC was just an idea when he was hired.”
– Stuart Weidie, Blossman Gas and current NPGA chairman
“I’ve always been a fan of how he carries himself, and how he has the ability to stand up in a moment’s notice and address a crowd. I was certainly impressed by his demeanor and the seriousness by which he took on this important new assignment as the first CEO of the propane council.”
– Scott Brockelmeyer, Ferrellgas