Adapting To The Changing World: Never Stop Learning

(August 21, 2019) — Four years ago, after having operated a propane company for some 35 years, Alan Friedman went back to school. He had been running the company since around 1980, when he was just 16 years old and still in high school. Despite having to learn everything on the job, he was accepted to the Harvard Business School Owner/President Management (OPM) program in 2015.
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“I needed to reinvent myself and the company in a changing world,” Friedman says. “I wasn’t tech-savvy and I felt I had to do something to take the company in a new direction and keep it going. The world was changing; I had been running the company for 30-plus years and I had to adapt to keep up with the changes.”

He and his company, Superior Energy LLC (Vernon, Conn.), have indeed kept up. When Friedman took over, the company had four employees; today it has 12—many who have worked for Superior their whole lives, offering a combined experience of more than 150 years.

The company now delivers propane to a wider area and sells, installs, and services a wider selection of appliances. From one office, Superior Energy works with customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Its licensed service technicians can handle everything from small cooking appliances to 30,000-gal. tanks. The company services both residential and commercial customers. As this was written, the company had 201 reviews and a 5.0-star rating on Google; 81 reviews and a 5.0 rating on Facebook; and an A+ rating at the Better Business Bureau.

“We’re full service and high quality,” Friedman says. To achieve those kinds of customer ratings and business growth, Friedman has made changes along the way.

80 YEARS, MANY CHANGES
He is the fourth person to lead the family-owned and -operated business. The company was founded in 1939 by his grandmother, Sarah Friedman. Sarah, her husband Max, along with six kids (youngest son Harry was born later) immigrated to the U.S. from Europe to work as farmers. She spoke little English but knew a business opportunity when she saw one. Needing propane for the family farm, she decided to buy the propane in bulk and sell the excess to other local farmers. Thus, the company was founded as Superior Propane Inc. in Ellington, Conn.
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“The closest place to buy propane was Springfield, Mass.,” Alan Friedman explains. “Today it might take 30 or 40 minutes to get there, but then, with no highway and with 1930s trucks, it took an hour and a half or two hours. So, she started buying propane and selling it to people across the street. That would save them having to drive to Springfield. The area was all chicken farms; there were maybe eight to 12 farms within a mile. Those were her customers. She was a woman ahead of her time, a real powerhouse. Especially as an immigrant, and mother of seven, she was really the first in our family to not fear change, or a challenge.”

Sarah’s son Izzy took over and ran the company until around 1948. Izzy was a U.S. army veteran and electrician, so for a time the company was called Superior Gas & Electric. Then Sarah’s youngest son—Alan’s father, Harry—ran the company from the 1950s, after returning home from serving as a Marine in the Korean War, to 1980.

“My father brought in the first bulk trucks,” Alan Friedman says. “It was a slow transition. My grandmother only sold bottles. When I took over in 1980, it was still only 30% to 40% bulk.”

Harry Friedman grew the company and was the first to add staff. By 1980, the company had grown to four employees.

“Starting in the 1950s, the economy grew, the area grew, and the company grew along with it,” Alan Friedman says. “The farms turned into subdivisions. There were a growing number of restaurants and other businesses that used propane. My dad grew the company by getting restaurants as customers; he was on the road all the time. At the time, the subdivisions weren’t using propane. The builders’ mentality was that if they couldn’t get natural gas, they would use heating oil. It took a long time for them to consider propane.”

BPN's 80th anniversary special Then & Now segments features Superior Energy in Conn. propane company celebrating 80th anniversary August 2019That was the case up until the late 1990s. Then, propane began replacing fueloil. Superior Energy put in its first all-propane subdivision around 2000.

“That’s when we had our first big break,” Friedman says. “A builder called me just for the price of gas logs and some gas stoves. I asked how he was going to heat the homes; he said oil. I asked, ‘Why not propane?’ He said he had never thought of it. He tried a couple of houses and then went all propane. Once there was a tank in the yard, he used propane for everything.”

A NEW GENERATION
Alan can’t remember his age when he began working at the company. He does know that he was driving service trucks and bobtails at the age of 14. “It was farm country and the 1970s, so things were a lot laxer in those days.” After his mother passed away from cancer in 1980, his father came to the office only rarely. It was up to a teenage Alan to pay the bills and keep the family income and business going.

“I was already doing the mechanics of the business—the tanks, the trucks, delivery—so then I had to learn how to run a business,” Friedman says. “I learned by trial and error.”

Just to be able to keep up with both work and school, he slept most nights at the old family farmhouse in Ellington that served as the original Superior office. He has been running the business since then. (They moved to their modern office and showroom in Vernon in 2000—no overnight beds in sight.)

One of the first things Alan did as owner was to replace the existing crew who had a hard time taking direction from “the boss’s” teenage son. Many of the people he hired to replace that crew are still with the company more than 30 years later. “They have aged and grown with me. We are like family and I trust them implicitly.” Friedman spends a good deal of money on training every year and brings trainers to the office. “Your most important asset is your people,” he says. “You should pay them well, treat them well, and empower them. If your people are happy, they will take care of your customers and stick by you and the company.”
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LEARNING TO ADAPT AND NOT FEAR CHANGE
In 2015, Friedman entered the three-year Harvard Business School OPM program. Going back to school at that age was difficult. The other students were in their 30s and more tech-savvy. The schedule was challenging too: study group at 7:30 a.m., class from 9 to noon, class again from 1 p.m. to 4, and study group again from 6 to 9. That was the schedule for six days a week, and it doesn’t include the time for the required reading. The students had to live on campus three weeks a year and then implement what they learned at the office and show the professors their progress. “I would call my wife and say, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m paying to go through this.’ But in the end it was worth it.”

The changes recommended at Harvard, and adopted at Superior Energy, included the hiring of remote workers to handle their online presence, and the formation of an advisory board. These have helped Friedman adapt to the many changes he has seen in the propane business over the last 40 years.

Among those changes is the need to adapt to the internet. Today, Superior Energy is fully digitized. All deliveries are digitized, including the routing, tickets, and filing. Customers can order online and can chat with the company online. Even if a customer contacts Superior on a Sunday afternoon, the company will get back to them quickly. Customer service is their main priority always.

The company confirms service appointments by texting customers and asking them to confirm the appointment or reschedule. “That’s what the younger generation wants,” Friedman says. “They want a text or email, not a phone call. But, even with that, we still remain true to our small, local business roots and those customers who have been with us for decades—some as long as 40 years. They appreciate that when they do call, they always speak with a live person, likely the same person who first set them up on their account!”

At the same time, on appliance sales, Superior has had to face new competitors like Amazon. Today, consumers can buy appliances online for the same price businesses like Superior buy them for. “We can’t change that, so we need to work with those changes,” Friedman says. They instead emphasize the ease and savings of not having to pay expensive shipping rates—which always carry with them the potential that something will arrive broken, leading to the hassle if it needs to be returned, etc. Superior, therefore, offers its customers a warranty on all the products it sells and offers professional delivery and installation. Most people like the idea of saving time and getting the quality guarantee that comes along with it.

Butane-Propane News celebrates its 80th anniversary as propane industry's leading source for news and information since 1939 with Then & Now special profiles of LPG propane companiesAnother change is that it’s harder to hire and retain blue-collar workers. “That’s a change in our country, not just our industry,” Friedman says. “The blue-collar workforce is aging. What kid wants to be a plumber or an electrician? They want to be a millionaire, without knowing how they’re going to get there or wanting to put in much effort.”

Friedman says he expects this problem to get worse as current workers retire and as the government makes it more difficult to get a commercial driver’s license. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “People come to us. My crew has been here so long, and they speak so highly of the company, that people seek us out. You have to not just hire people, but retain the good crew you have. I reward my crew and I am lenient when it comes to taking time off for family matters. A company has to keep employees happy, keep customers happy, and make money. You can’t just do two out of three; you have to do all three.”
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A change unique to New England is the large-scale conversion from fueloil to propane or natural gas. Friedman added boiler swap-outs to his range of services about 10 years ago. At the same time, he has had to adapt to competition from companies from the oil business who have moved into propane. “Fifteen years ago, I had 10 competitors; now, I probably have 100.”

“You have to continue to reinvent yourself and your company,” Friedman adds. “You have to learn and learn. It doesn’t have to be Harvard, it can be any college or reading, but you have to learn to adapt and not fear change. Then there is the hardest part: the implementation and follow-through. If you fail, fail fast, and then try again. And always, always remember that you cannot accomplish anything without your support staff and the people you surround yourself with. Show them that you value and appreciate their input and all they do to make your business a success.” — Steve Relyea

Boehlke Bottled Gas Awarded "Transportation Partner of the Year"

(August 21, 2019) CEDARBURG, Wisc. — GO Riteway Transportation Group recently recognized Boehlke Bottled Gas, as a premier supplier to their company that goes above and beyond to meet GO Riteway standards and is seen as an integral part of GO Riteway’s success. 



Boehlke Bottled Gas in Wisc was awarded Transportation partner of year by GO Riteway Transportation for savings and sustainability with propane autogas fleet vehicles reports BPN the propane industry's leading source for news and information since 1939.During its annual Night of Honors, GO Riteway’s co-owner and chairman, Ron Bast, presented Roger Boehlke and Chad Kroening of Boehlke Bottled Gas with its “2019 Partner of the Year” Award. 

In 2011, Riteway acquired GO Airport Connection and began incorporating propane-powered vehicles to upgrade its fleet by partnering with Cedarburg-based Boehlke Bottled Gas to build and operate a 24/7 propane autogas fueling station, according to a press release.



According to the press release, “The partnership has developed and strengthened throughout the years with both companies continuing to work together to make improvements to the operation of the three propane autogas station sites.”



GO Riteway Transportation Group was founded more than 60 years ago when the Bast Family founded Riteway Bus Service Inc. Now into the third generation of family leadership, GO Riteway continues to expand and provides transportation for business travelers, tourists, students and local residents. GO Riteway operates out of 23-plus locations in Wisconsin with a fleet that includes school buses, motor coaches, shuttle coaches, limo coaches, executive sedans and vans.

New Video Touts Propane Mower 
Benefits

WASHINGTON (August 20, 2019) – The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) has added a new video to its popular Straight Talk video series highlighting Barnes, Inc., a Madison, Wisconsin-based landscape contractor that operates 75 propane-powered mowers.
Barnes Landscape Touts commercial Propane mowers for more savings environmental sustainability in new video reports BPN the propane industry's leading source for news and information since 1939
Available online on Propane.com, the new video provides an updated look at Barnes’s experiences using propane mowers five years after being initially featured in a 2014 Straight Talk video discussing its initial foray into operating with propane.

“Barnes is a textbook example of a contractor who starts by integrating just a few propane mowers into its fleet, and then ultimately expands its propane use into much more of the fleet after experiencing the fuel’s numerous benefits,” said Jeremy Wishart, director of off-road business development at PERC. “In just five years, Barnes has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in overall fuel and maintenance costs from using propane mowers. We hope this new Straight Talk video can help show how a commitment to using propane can really make a difference for landscape contractors in both the short and long term.”

PERC’s Straight Talk series is a free online library of video testimonials that let viewers learn about propane mowers directly from landscape contractors, outdoor power equipment dealers, municipal fleet directors, and golf course managers who use the equipment daily. The testimonials give first-hand accounts about how propane saves on fuel costs, lowers emissions, and what it’s like to operate and service equipment powered by the alternative fuel.

Barnes has replaced all but its largest mowers with propane. Over five years of using the fuel, the company has paid as little as $1 per gallon of propane. Barnes has saved even more by using PERC’s Propane Mower Incentive Program, which offers contractors up to $1,000 for each new, dedicated propane mower purchase or $500 for each new qualified propane conversion kit. In addition to using propane mowers, Barnes also began incorporating propane autogas into its vehicle fleet in 2016. The company currently uses five propane autogas bi-fuel trucks.

View the new Straight Talk video on Propane.com/Propane-Products/Commercial-Mowers. To learn more about propane mowers,
visit Propane.com/Landscape-and-Turf-Maintenance.

National Clean Energy Week Highlights Propane’s Uses, Advantages

(August 19, 2019) WASHINGTON — Activities being held across the country through the end of September are helping to position propane as a clean, eco-friendly fuel in the eyes of policymakers. The activities will culminate in National Clean Energy Week (NCEW), Sept. 23-27. During that week, state and national policymakers will meet in Washington, D.C., to discuss clean energy solutions.

National Clean Energy Week celebrates propane autogas and clean lpg as the National Propane Gas Assoc. advocates propane is clean American energy source for vehicles, homes, agriculture and more reports BPN the propane industry's leading source for news and information since 1939. The National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) is a sponsor of NCEW 2019. The association has been organizing activities around the event and is encouraging others in the industry to coordinate activities with NPGA. During an all-day policy symposium that is among the events to be held in Washington, NPGA’s senior vice president of advocacy and technical services, Michael Caldarera, will be a featured speaker.

Participation in NCEW is one of NPGA’s four “90-Day Criticals” for the third quarter of 2019. The goal: to showcase propane among America’s clean, alternative energy sources.

“This is NPGA’s first year as a sponsor in National Clean Energy Week, which is now in its third year,” NPGA’s deputy counsel, regulatory affairs, Sarah Reboli, tells BPN. “Our leadership chose to participate because the strategy to combine events throughout the country that build up to a series of discussions in Washington, D.C., is an excellent way to showcase how propane—in every state—can serve as a clean energy solution while bringing the examples back to our nation’s capital to show major policymakers.”

NCEW was launched in 2017. The organizers of the event explain, “NCEW brings together government officials, industry associations, businesses, nonprofits, and advocates in the clean energy space for events in Washington, D.C. and across America to showcase how they are helping to make the clean energy sector stronger, and influence the discussion around responsible clean energy solutions that directly address America’s need for abundant, reliable forms of energy.” Today, NCEW has more than 100 participating organizations.

The event has been recognized by governors across the country. The organizers of NCEW report that 29 governors, both Republican and Democratic, issued state proclamations recognizing last year’s event. As this was written in mid-August, the governors of Alabama and Oklahoma had recognized NCEW 2019, and many more were expected to do so closer to the event, as they did last year. “This year the number will be closer to 40,” Reboli says. “That shows the momentum building under National Clean Energy Week.”

As well as sponsoring NCEW and participating in its events, Reboli says, “NPGA is working with the propane industry and state associations to highlight the use and advantages of propane to meet the country’s wide array of energy needs while reducing emissions.”

For example, NPGA will showcase autogas fleets and conversion kits across all types of combustible engines by partnering with the Ohio Propane Gas Association at the Midwest Green Transportation Forum & Expo and by conducting a tour and interview with a shop that converts engines of nearly every type to propane.
“We are working with several companies to host tours and meet-and-greets, participate in interviews, and place op-eds in their local newspapers,” she adds.

As NCEW 2019 nears, all propane businesses can join in and “spread the news on propane’s role in meeting America’s energy needs,” Reboli says. She suggests they participate by sharing messaging from NPGA’s website (npga.org) and the association’s social media platforms.

“The heart of our message is that propane is part of the solution to America’s energy and environmental ambitions,” Reboli concludes. “We’re showcasing propane’s uses and advantages to policymakers at the local level through events at different places in the country as well as state and national officials that participate in the events in Washington, D.C. It’s crucial that we use National Clean Energy Week to demonstrate that propane has a place in the national dialogue about American energy.”
For more information about National Clean Energy Week, visit nationalcleanenergyweek.org.

For information about engaging in activities in support of NCEW, call the NPGA office at (202) 466-7200 or email Sarah Reboli at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.—Steve Relyea

Implementing a 20% Rule: Why and How

Delivery efficiency is both critical and controllable. David Lowe, vice president of Pro Image Communications (Grand Blanc, Mich.), notes that propane marketers can’t control the weather or the wholesale price of the fuel, but they can control their own company culture and delivery efficiency. With the right roster of drivers, equipment, and methods of dispatch, he says, marketers can boost their delivery efficiency and productivity.

David Lowe propane industry veteran advises LPG professionals on how to maximize delivery and operational efficiencies reports BPN the propane industry's leading source for news and information since 1939In his seminar at the 2019 NPGA Southeastern Convention, “Delivery Efficiency Case Studies,” Lowe presented data and offered tips to help marketers improve their productivity. Both the data and the tips come from real-life experience. Lowe represents Pro Image as an Energy Professional providing propane clients with unique marketing, sales, training, and consulting programs. His seminar was based on data collected from clients that had come to him for analysis of their operations.

Ideally, Lowe says, all tanks would be filled at 20%. More likely, he adds, it is done at 30%. Based on 12 months of data from those clients, though, he found that they were filling tanks at a point between 38% and 44%.

MAKING CHANGES
During the seminar, he presented several case studies showing the data from clients, before and after they made changes to improve their delivery efficiency.

In one, he analyzed the numbers for a January in which the marketer delivered whenever the company wanted and the following January in which the marketer delivered only when customers were at 20%. After implementing the 20% rule, this marketer delivered 14% more gallons per drop; 20% more gallons per mile; and 26% more gallons per day.

In another case study, he analyzed the numbers for a January in which the marketer delivered when the tank was at 30% and the following January in which the marketer delivered at 25%. In this case, after implementing a 25% rule, the marketer delivered 4% more gallons per drop; 11% more gallons per mile; and 15% more gallons per day.

In a third analysis, he made a comparison that showed the difference between filling tanks at 30% versus doing it at 20%. By making this change, the client improved the number of gallons per drop by 13%; the number of gallons per mile by 29%; and the number of gallons per day by 23%.

Making these kinds of improvements in delivery efficiency requires several actions: Make sure drivers don’t get called off route to do other things when they should be making their scheduled deliveries; avoid runouts by improving your process, not by delivering more often than you should; and, if a will call customer is unable to afford a full 300-gallon delivery, offer a price protection program plan. Better yet, don’t offer customers a will call plan; offer only automatic delivery.

“If you don’t offer will call, they don’t ask for it,” Lowe said. “If there is an issue, you can place the account on a budget plan. You are the energy expert and you don’t have to say no. A budget plan makes it like natural gas; the customer pays the same every month. If you have them put it on their credit card, and there is a problem in the future, then they get mad at the card, not you.”

He also recommended running the numbers and getting rid of customers who don’t make the company money. One way to do that is to ask every driver and customer service representative to name three customers they’d like to get rid of. “Delivery culture is anchored on numbers, if those numbers have meaning,” he said. “Facts aren’t feelings, and feelings aren’t facts.”

MENTAL PREPARATION
Implementing a 20% rule and sticking with it requires success in leadership, making decisions, and sticking to a process of gathering numbers and continually refining the way things are done, Lowe said.

The key to maintaining success, he added, is mind set. It takes mental preparation to achieve improved productivity through change. The leader must have a vision or goal, a process, and the discipline to stick to that process every day. He compared improving delivery efficiency to improving physical fitness: you need to have a vision of what you want to accomplish; you need to know how you’re going to do it; and you need to have the focus and discipline to do it every day.

The most difficult challenge in achieving your vision is the failure to remain focused and disciplined every day. It usually requires specialized personnel to achieve your vision.

“Be responsible and accountable,” he advised. “You’ll get success and maintain success when you and your staff are uncomfortable.”

When Lowe owned a retail propane and transport business, he says, “I knew my numbers and I worked the process. I was gathering numbers and continually refining, seeing what does and doesn’t work.”

Lowe named some managers from the sports world who have been role models and who can inspire managers in any industry. Tom Landry was always reserved on the sidelines, holding a piece of paper and talking calmly with his middle manager, the quarterback. Paul DePodesta has found success in both baseball and football because in both sports he has been devoted to culture and data. Bill Belichick is relentless and requires his team to practice for every situation that could happen in a game.

Some teams have a high turnover in personnel. Why? Because the coaches drop players that don’t fit the desired profile. Propane marketers should do the same, keeping only the drivers and equipment that fit the profile of the sort of operation the marketer wants to run.

“To increase productivity, you must improve delivery efficiency, resulting in fewer workers and trucks,” Lowe concluded. “You can spend your money on drivers and trucks or you can buy yourself boats and airplanes—that’s a choice you make.”

For more information, contact David Lowe and Pro Image Communications at (616) 430-1879, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and proimagecommunications.com.

(©Butane-Propane News magazine, August 2019)