PERC Memories — A Flood of Friendly Faces

By Roy Willis, PERC president & CEO, 1997-2017...

RoyWillis 250It was 20 years ago this month — July 8-9, 1997 —  that the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) met for the first time. A great deal has changed since that inaugural meeting. Yet, one thing remains constant: the men and women who serve on the 21-member council, the professional staff, and the more than 100 industry volunteers on the PERC advisory committee do their best to serve the interests of the industry at heart.

Dan Myers, who at the time was the National Propane Gas Association’s (NPGA) executive vice president, took excellent minutes of the meeting that clearly show that first council, like every one that followed, was intent on doing the right thing for the industry. That first council set a foundation — dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” — that would withstand the test of time.

I wasn’t at that first meeting. It would be another eight months before I was hired as PERC’s first staff executive. Shortly afterward, Myers gave me a notebook, a three-inch-thick compilation of documents associated with the five-year campaign to get the Propane Education and Research Act of 1996 through Congress. That effort was led by the late Milford Therrell and Glenn Miller, who both labored to build industry support and worked the halls of Congress alongside NPGA’s Washington staff Rick Roldan and Lisa Bontempo to get every possible vote. The notebook also included congressional testimony by then-NPGA president Daryl McClendon, who would become PERC’s second chairman and launched our first nationwide consumer education campaign.

Getting the law passed was huge, but the next hurdle was getting two-thirds of the industry to vote in a referendum in favor of the PERC assessment. The grass-roots effort appears to have been extremely well organized. The notebook was full of memos, call sheets, and letters from industry members urging their colleagues to support the referendum that was held the spring of 1997. Included was a letter from an independent marketer in South Dakota, Jerry Brick, who now 20 years later is the NPGA chairman. The referendum was passed with more than 90% of both marketers and producers supporting PERC’s creation.

That level of success probably wouldn’t have been possible without the most enlightening contents in that notebook — commentary in the pages of BPN’s Weekly Propane Newsletter by Bill Clark updating progress to get PERC through Congress, supporting the referendum, and offering views on what PERC could mean for the industry. Those views occasionally made their way into this magazine, along with a series of Beyond the Mains columns by Chuck Elliott.

As I combed through the notebook, it became clear that the industry had big expectations of PERC and diverse ideas concerning how it should go about helping the industry. Candidly, some of those ideas were a tad far-fetched. Ultimately, the council looked to the Propane Education and Research Act of 1996 for guidance. It’s clear what the law expects of PERC — safety and training, research and development, and consumer education — and that PERC do so in collaboration with the industry’s national and state associations.

The authority that PERC has, and its ability to collect assessments, are rooted in that law. The council’s continuing focus on implementing the law ultimately saved PERC when the chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ordered the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the council’s first 10 years of operations. I’ve described that year-long experience as the administrative equivalent of a proctology exam.

Every decision, every funding request, every program and project was put under a microscope looking, in my belief, for a reason to shut down PERC. Confident that the council had done the right thing, we stood firm, pushed back against each GAO assertion, and defended PERC before the Senate hearing. Seven years later we’re still standing. I will be forever grateful to Bill Platz, then PERC chairman, and the other PERC councilors for their leadership, unwavering support, and encouragement through that ordeal. The GAO report now rests on the bookshelf where the notebook is kept.
With nearly 20 years at PERC, and retiring at the end of this month, I am often asked what I recall most vividly about these past two decades. My answer is simple: It’s the people.

Sadly, not all of them are still with us. Milford Therrell, Bill McHenry, Tom Nunan, and David Lugar all served with distinction on the council, as did Charles Revere, who took me into his home and business to give me an inside look at retail propane, including a very long day in a bobtail. They live in my memory and heart, and so does former councilor Charles Snelling, who helped kick-start PERC’s commercialization efforts, along with former PERC chairman Joe Armentano.

Snelling and Armentano set the stage for PERC’s product development efforts that gave PERC renewed life during the restriction of our consumer education authority from 2009 to 2015, and that continue to produce value for the industry even today.

Fortunately, there are many who followed in their footsteps and gave of themselves through PERC to make our industry better. They are too many to name individually. Still, I must recognize the outgoing PERC executive committee chairman Tom Van Buren, vice chairman–marketers Drew Combs, vice chairman–producers Bruce Leonard, treasurer Rob Chalmers, and secretary Bob Barry, who led the council into the post-restriction era and, together with other industry leaders, shepherded PERC through CEO succession.

It may not seem like it, but I didn’t write this column to drop names, although to make my point it is unavoidable. My point is that what makes this industry so fulfilling and rewarding to be part of is working with the wonderful people who make up our industry and who make its organizations work. As I look back, it is a flood of faces that sweep into my mind, the faces of councilors, advisory committee members, and countless folks across the country and around the world who worked with PERC on programs and projects.

Above all, I treasure my colleagues past and especially present on the PERC professional staff that I have been honored to work with so closely these many years. I will miss them all, particularly Theresa Ryan, Anna Lombardo, Grace Willis, and even Stuart Flatow.

To me, that flood of faces, they are all such wonderful people. My friend Boudreaux might say, “There are a few who aren’t so wonderful. Don’t worry, I won’t mention you by name. We all know who you are.” And yes, I will miss telling my Boudreaux stories at industry meetings. I guess they will become part of PERC’s history.

Yet, I know there is much more important history to be made, and there two more people I want to mention who will play a key role in creating that future. One of them is Tucker Perkins, who will take over as PERC president and CEO, a man with a great passion for the propane industry and get-’er-done attitude that will serve PERC and the industry well. Who might that other person be that will shape our industry’s future? You.

I wish all the very best!