Women In Propane: Sue Handle: A Life of Propane, Family, and Community

For Sue Handle, owner of Henderson Propane Service Inc. in Ellicott, Colo., a rural community east of Colorado Springs, propane, family, and community are intertwined. Sue’s career in propane started at a young age. Growing up, her father helped build a pipeline, so the family moved as the pipeline was constructed. “We [she and her sister] were always the new kids so we could talk to anyone,” Sue says. 
WIP Handle

When she was in the eighth grade, her father started a propane company in Simla, Colo. “In high school, I took business courses like accounting and typing and I helped my mother with the books and answering the phones.”  She and her sibling learned the ins and outs of the propane business—even becoming delivery drivers.
In 1960 her father started Henderson Propane, which Sue and her husband (an Ellicott native) bought from her mother after her father’s death in 1969. In the beginning, Henderson Propane of Ellicott had approximately 300 customers. Today the company’s roster has grown exponentially, with the majority of customers residential. “We have a large coverage area since there is a high demand. It has grown considerably,” Sue says. 

She is familiar with all aspects of running a propane company, from training the drivers, to staying current with all National Propane Gas Association priorities and government regulations. She even helped upgrade the curriculum for the Certified Employee Training Program.

As her business has grown, so too has her family. Her daughter and son-in-law, Rhonda and Danny Gillis, have been running the company with her since her husband passed more than 20 years ago, and Rhonda and Danny’s children have also been involved in the operation. Grandson Christofer delivers propane, while her granddaughter, Shelby, is following in her footsteps by answering the phones and keeping the books. Sue’s main job these days, she says laughing, is watching her 3½-year-old great granddaughter after preschool. 

While the propane industry has basically stayed the same through the years, Sue observes Henderson Propane has tried to change with the times. The company, one of five propane suppliers in the area, has implemented new technology. Most of Henderson Propane’s home-heating customers take advantage of the automatic fill program. A computer tracks their consumption pattern, and the weather, so the company can automatically deliver propane when needed. 

She notes that with more emphasis on safety in the industry, there is also more record-keeping and government reporting than there used to be. The biggest challenge is getting people to pay their bills. “I’m not hard enough; that’s why I have the girls do it.”

 Living and working in a rural area, she knows most of her customers. “You get to know them when you deliver to their homes two to three times a year and talk to them on the phone. I have seen births, marriages, and deaths, so you might say I know the ups and downs of our customers’ lives. There are customers who even call us and ask if we know any plumbers or electricians. “It’s probably an advantage living in a small community. You get the opportunity to help [customers]. Our staff takes the time to explain things. We try to treat people like we would like to be treated.”

Her spare time is spent helping out in the community. “We all belong to Hi-Plains Sertoma, a service-to-mankind organization we helped form. We help take care of a local park, hand out toys to kids during the holidays, and help with bingo twice a month—the proceeds pay for the lights at the park and improvements to the park.” 
The family also owns the Plaza, a building that houses the local grocery store and an event space, which is often donated to local nonprofits for their meetings.

“We try not to work after 5, but it’s pretty much your life. We try to talk about other things when we are together. In wintertime, you’re working about 24 hours a day—phones are answered 24 hours, seven days a week. 

“We’ve probably taken about two or three vacations in my lifetime,” she recalls, listing a trip to Las Vegas when Rhonda graduated from high school and a family reunion in Arkansas. “That was 20 years ago. Maybe sometime we’ll get another vacation. We are currently the oldest family-owned propane company in El Paso County.”
“My life has been blessed. You just do what you have to do.”   Karen Massman VanAsdale