Truck drivers find purpose in the propane industry

June 16, 2022 By    

The propane industry has given driver Randy Brouwer more time with his family and a chance to experience the special moments in his children’s lives.

The industry gave Jeff Smith – “Smitty” to his friends and colleagues – the support he needed and a job he could return to after overcoming cancer.

Bob Costello has driven for Van Unen Miersma Propane for more than 25 years. Photo courtesy of Joshua Martinez – Almanac Agency, Nashville, Tennessee; DustyPixel/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty images

Bob Costello has driven for Van Unen Miersma Propane for more than 25 years. (Photo: courtesy of Joshua Martinez – Almanac Agency, Nashville, Tennessee)

It’s made Bob Costello feel as if he’s doing something noble with his career.

Other drivers say the propane industry, not always an obvious choice for those looking for work, has given them an enjoyable way to make a quality living while connecting with customers, some of whom have become friends, some like family.

Like many industries, propane is faced with a driver shortage. But LPG offers plenty of work, the drivers add, for those who are ready and willing to get behind the wheel, learn the trade in a timely fashion and deliver an essential energy source to its millions of customers across the country.

Passion to drive

Since he first got his driver’s license at 16, Brouwer has loved to drive.

“Driving has been my life,” says the 33-year-old, who spent much of his childhood in Portland, Oregon. “The whole reason I got my CDL is because I love to drive.”

Randy Brouwer says he joined the propane industry for better work-life balance. Photo courtesy of Christensen Inc.

Randy Brouwer says he joined the propane industry for better work-life balance. (Photo courtesy of Christensen Inc.)

Before he settled into his driving position at Washington-based Christensen Inc. about five years ago, Brouwer was an over-the-road driver hauling general freight and working as an owner and operator. But he was missing out. The father of three young children, Brouwer recalls missing his middle daughter’s first words, her first steps.

“Being away from my family for months at a time to make a decent living was really hard,” he says. “So, me and my wife decided to change some things up, and I needed to be home more often. I found myself a nice job at Christensen.”

Brouwer calls himself a “unique breed” because he’s trained in Christensen’s many business lines – a role that allows for a “nice change of pace.”

“I can go one day doing oil to the next day in the bobtail or transport to the next day in the fuel truck,” he says.

But the transport is, by far, his favorite due mainly to the straightforward nature of loading and unloading bulk propane. No matter what he’s driving, Brouwer welcomes the drives to parts of eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and Idaho.

“It’s nice to see different things. You never know what you’re going to see,” he says.

This part of the country also affords drivers like Brouwer plenty of work throughout the year owing to winter heating demand and agricultural opportunities. Propane is used early in the year to control frost on trees and later to dry onions and hops. It all can lead to full workweeks and overtime opportunities during the busy seasons.

“If you’re willing to work hard, you’re definitely in the right industry,” he says, citing the competitive pay and improved family life. “I definitely don’t miss being out on the road for months at a time.”

Family feel

As a young teenager, Smith would hitch a ride with his uncle, a truck driver based in Wichita, Kansas. Whenever Smith’s uncle would pass through southern Indiana, he’d invite his nephew to join him in the truck.

“I’d ride with him, and I enjoyed it,” Smith says.

His uncle offered to teach him more about the trade when he turned 21. It was then that Smith began running team routes with his uncle, who would stress the importance of keeping an accurate logbook.

Smith caught on as a driver and broke into the propane industry with Indiana-based Silgas, hauling propane for about a decade before joining Ferrellgas as a transport driver.

He was drawn to the freedom afforded by the national company, with which he’s worked for 27 years.

“Here’s your truck and your trailer – get it maintained and serviced wherever you want,” Smith, 61, recalls Ferrellgas telling him. “Even though I’m a company driver, it’s sort of like I’m an owner [and] operator.”

Ferrellgas also made Smith feel like part of the family. This was never more evident than in 2015 when he learned he had cancer and was preparing for chemotherapy treatments.

“No matter what happens, however long you are off work, you have your job when you come back,” Smith recalls then-manager Dustin Kuhlman telling him.

Jeff Smith enjoys the freedom and support he gets as a transport driver with Ferrellgas. Photo courtesy of Ferrellgas.

Jeff Smith enjoys the freedom and support he gets as a transport driver with Ferrellgas. (Photo courtesy of Ferrellgas)

The words provided a needed relief for Smith, who was off work for about 10 months, and he won’t soon forget the monthly get-well cards he received from the company during that time.

“I know we’re a big company, and we cover a lot of states, but just something about it is like family,” he says.

Since returning to work following his cancer battle, Smith has run propane transport routes within a 300-mile radius of Louisville, Kentucky, delivering bulk loads mainly to Ferrellgas locations.

In a driving career that has spanned about 40 years, propane remains Smith’s product of choice. He cites its clean-burning properties, ease of use and the thick tank walls surrounding it.

“I’ve hauled quite a bit of stuff over the years,” he says. “If you put all the trailers in a line and said, ‘Smitty, pick any trailer you want,’ I’m going to back under that propane bottle.”

Noble career

The upbeat Costello, a driver with Van Unen Miersma Propane in California for the past 27 years, says he’s “kind of a nerd when it comes to propane delivery” because he loves it so much.

He loves meeting people and taking care of them, providing an energy source that heats their water and allows them to cook. He calls it a noble career.

“I love being in the truck and delivering to customers,” he says. “A lot of customers are friends of mine – ‘How are you doing, Bob? How’s the family?’ It’s really nice.”

Costello got the itch to drive at an early age when he rode with his dad, also a truck driver, for a summer. A “car guy at heart,” Costello planned to pursue the auto body trade in junior college, but he ended up attending truck driving school and getting his license.

After working a couple of driving jobs, he joined Van Unen Miersma Propane in Ripon, California, about 65 miles south of Sacramento, at 25. It marked the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the propane industry.

“This company has given me everything,” he says.

Energy Distribution Partners acquired Van Unen Miersma Propane over a year ago. Costello, 51, says the ownership transition was seamless, and he continues to enjoy the position and what it offers.

“One of the perks of this company – they let me sell cherries on the side,” he says of his allotted vacation time. “I’m a roadside cherry guy.”

When it comes to propane, Costello steps into the bobtail or the company’s new “baby transport,” the latter hauling 6,300 gallons, and delivers to homeowners, small businesses and other commercial accounts. He sees a lot of propane use in agriculture – for irrigation engines and walnut dryers.

He’s benefited from the advances in technology, including computer routing. He remembers the days of having to crunch the numbers on paper for customers. Now their tag prints with the push of a button.

Van Unen Miersma Propane was Costello’s first full-time job in the industry. He plans for it to be his last.

“They’re going to bury me in this truck. I’m serious,” he says. “I plan to do this until I retire in 16 years.”

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