2020 Policy and Political Challenges For Propane Industry

By Joe Colaneri…

The 2020 presidential and congressional elections promise to be among the most contentious and consequential in American history. Against the backdrop of certain impeachment proceedings against the president, a presidential primary season in full swing—and congressional elections that could swing both houses of Congress toward the Democrats or the Republicans—or split control—and the prospect of a new president provide policy and political challenge for the propane industry.
Colinari notes challenges for propane industry in 2020
The propane industry itself is on the cusp of a new era in leadership and direction. For the first time in a generation, both the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) and the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) are under new management. Thus, the industry finds itself having to navigate both a changing political landscape in Washington, D.C., and new leadership and direction from within.

But within the conflicted, confusing, and confounding politics in Washington, D.C., there is a road map for advocacy and leadership built on traditional methods and evolving strategies.

Three Pillars of Advocacy
With all this challenge and opportunity coming, it may be useful to provide a Washington, D.C., process overview—that can help shape how the propane industry may be able to harness the potential of its ideas and the power of its message in 2020 and beyond.

One of the most influential books ever written on congressional behavior was University of Washington Professor Donald Matthews’ pathbreaking “U.S. Senators and Their World,” which explored, for the first time, the norms and folkways of the United States Senate and pulled back the curtain on the behavioral aspects of the Senate and the rules, written and unwritten, that guided policy and political behavior. Written in the early ’60s before Capitol Hill advocacy and influence became a major industry, Matthews’ work became a template to study the other aspects of the legislative process—including the influence, norms, and folkways of congressional staff.

Colinari states policy challenges for lpg industry in 2020 reports bpnThe congressional literature on staff influence is now long and deep—one part descriptive, two parts behavioral, and is based largely on an examination of determinative behavioral variables related to members of Congress, constituencies, issues, and political circumstances. The patterns suggest advocacy strategies that are relevant to trade associations, companies, and other stakeholders who advocate. What emerges is a conceptual list for discussion:

• The legislative process is essentially staff-driven
• Member meetings are largely symbolic, but an important rite of constituent passage
• Staff influence reflects Senate and House culture and has some constitutional basis
• Senate staff are largely policy-driven
• House staff are driven by immediate grassroots pressures
• Senior committee staff have more power and influence than most members of Congress
• The private sector stakeholder/committee staff process is intensely symbiotic

What matters to the propane industry (and other stakeholders) is how to take these congressional factors and themes and fashion a strategy that blends advocacy with leadership for the benefit of its members and constituencies.

Pillar One: Congressional Staff
The congressional policy process is almost entirely staff-driven, thus, forging long-term ties with congressional staff is a critical advocacy norm for stakeholders. Trade associations almost reflexively set up member meetings for their members, and these meetings are not without consequence. They are an important marker in assessing grassroots sentiment, but, except for the photo op, they have little consequence when policy decisions are made in the back staff room and presented to the member. In fact, many members defer to their staffs on policy matters. That level of trust is almost always sustainable if and when that staffer becomes a lobbyist in the future. Former Hill staffers are hired as lobbyists because companies, consulting firms, and trade groups know who has the ear of the member and who actually is driving the legislative process.

Trade associations are, out of necessity, changing in order to survive and remain relevant on Capitol Hill. The old tried-and-true photo op meeting isn’t enough to add value—different advocacy tools need to be deployed. For propane, that is a given. The industry has developed an impressive grassroots network over the past 20 years. What it needs now is to use that network to drive an aggressive legislative agenda unique to the industry.

The propane industry’s trade association, NPGA, has something that many industries do not have—it has PERC, which is both resource and constituency. Together, these two organizations could form one of the most formidable public policy business development partnerships on Capitol Hill and in the federal agencies. The essence of their respective structures suggests a powerful policy relationship in the offing—both facilitated by a strong grassroots constituency.

Both NPGA and PERC have compelling and consistent mandates—the need to sustain existing markets, and the imperative to identify future markets.

NPGA, by necessity, needs to maintain staff relationships in the House and Senate, but there is a dynamic here as well—not all staff influence is created equal. This more than likely has a constitutional basis. House members are more grassroots-oriented with the ongoing pressures of being up for reelection every two years. Their immediate imperative is political, not policy. This needs to be factored into any meeting with a House staffer. Very few have the time or inclination to pursue a policy agenda. The Senate is far different. Insulated by the apparent security of a six-year term, senators and their staffers are freer to pursue policy and develop the relationships with stakeholders that can help drive that agenda.

In the world of congressional staff, the role of committee staff is supreme. Committee staff not only have power over the congressional agenda, but they also shape it. In most instances, they outrank their own members in power and influence. If a stakeholder can’t make the sale with a committee staffer, it won’t make its way to the member. There is strong empirical evidence in the congressional literature, as well as the anecdotal, to back this argument. But there is one other factor to consider, committee staff need constituencies to be effective. They need the issue background from the field—they need stakeholders as much as stakeholders need them. Thus, the stakeholder/committee staff relationship is inherently, intensely, and of necessity, symbiotic. Committee staff are eager to build their power by developing relationships with the private sector that will provide policy ideas, substantive expertise, and political cover.

Pillar Two: Members of Conress
Establishing and reinforcing the importance and influence of congressional staff is a critical step in building an advocacy and leadership program on Capitol Hill. Equally compelling is the building of the member network. Whether the politics is wholesale or retail, it needs to reflect the industry’s core constituencies—propane country, rural, in a traditional sense, conservative, pro-business values, balanced by the societal move toward clean fuels—and laser focused on the committees that matter most to the industry—tax, appropriations, labor, energy regulation.

And the network at its core should reflect a targeted approach to advocacy reflecting the fact that members of Congress seek their alliances based on their constituency sweet spot—their reelection—while the propane industry needs to view politics as a bottom-line enterprise. The two need not be incompatible. There is, in fact, ample room for crossover.

The member of Congress views the constituent as an instrument of political success. The propane stakeholder should view the member of Congress as an instrument of added business value.

Pillar Three: The Essential Partnership OF PERC and NPGA
It is important for any stakeholder to realize that in a complex institution such as Congress, picking your spots and your issues is critical. The trade association affiliation is important in helping develop the important grassroots connections and sustaining at least a cursory connection with the member of Congress. But advocacy is changing and the trade association that opts for the consensus model of congressional representation and photo op advocacy with no follow-up is destined for irrelevance. Trade associations are increasingly active in forming issue-specific coalitions, inside and outside their industries, with like-minded groups when consensus is possible.

The propane industry has a long history of forming its own industry coalitions to advance specific propane causes. The Propane Vehicle Council is one example of a group of like-minded propane companies forming an organization dedicated to the over-the-road motor fuel market. The industry could examine forming coalitions or working groups, formal or informal, in specific issue areas that could involve resilience, sustainability, infrastructure, and the strong connection propane has with rural America. Tax and federal funding initiatives could be developed to promote the growing list of potential propane markets. And propane could work with other industries to form powerful issue-specific groups.

As has been the case for more than 20 years, PERC is a world-class institution established by the industry to support traditional propane markets and examine and develop new markets. That industry expertise sustained over 20 years will enable NPGA to match and possibly outmaneuver its energy competition on Capitol Hill.

By harmonizing the PERC priorities, expertise, and initiatives with NPGA’s grassroots strategy, advocacy, and coalition-building, NPGA and PERC can and will continue to develop visionary policies and exciting business opportunities.

Propane is America’s fuel. It has as yet untapped political power within its core constituency in rural America—Trump country. But it also has what many industries lack—it has the future if it chooses to command it. Propane has the versatility and the domestic supply to be a major energy participant in resilience, sustainability, hybrid technology, on-road and off-road, construction, ports, and new engine technology. And it has what the public is demanding—a clean domestic energy source at a fair price—and all-American at its core.

If propane can muster the power of its two organizations, both dedicated to its future, each group complementing the other with the expertise and the network to deliver, then the nexus between advocacy and leadership will have come full circle.

When it comes to politics and policy, it’s a value proposition—an exchange and a linkage of expertise and access, of constituent and constituency, of tradition and future.

Joe Colaneri is a partner at AJW Inc., a Washington, D.C.- and Sacramento, Calif.-based public policy and advocacy firm. He was previously executive director of the Propane Vehicle Council from 1996-2002.

Propane Fuel-Ordering Apps Are Coming

By Bill Stomp …

The propane industry is a commodity delivery business. Sure, some propane companies deliver additional commodities such as oil, diesel, or lubes. However, we are primarily a commodity delivery industry.
Fuel Ordering apps are coming reports BPN propane industry leading source for news since 1939
Did you know that Uber is in the commodity delivery industry too? It is, and it has some secrets that we in the propane delivery industry can exploit to improve profitability fast. But first, is Uber getting into the propane delivery industry? Not yet. So, let’s take a look at the Uber business and what commodity industries it is disrupting. Maybe this will give us a glimpse into when or if it will be entering our sphere and what we can do to prepare for the changes ahead.

Now that Uber is worth more than $80 billion, what can we learn from it and its new version of what today’s disruptive commodity delivery business looks like? Maybe we can discover a few of its clearly very lucrative secrets…

Quick background: Uber uses an app to completely disrupt the human and food delivery businesses, also known as the taxi and meal delivery industries. The company has a broader vision to enter every delivery industry and it has already begun the process of entering the over-the-road freight delivery industry with the aim to be the Amazon of delivery.

First, some amazing Uber facts:
  • Launched in 2009 and now does on average 17 million deliveries per day
  • Has over 100 million customers (over 10 billion deliveries in 10 years, all via an app)
  • Market cap is around $70 billion
  • Number of app downloads is over 160 million
  • Number of phone orders and customer service reps—zero. (All 17 million taxi or meal delivery requests completed without any phone calls and minimal website interaction…all via an app.)
  • Actively disrupting four delivery industries: ride share, food delivery, freight delivery, bikes/scooters, with more industries in its sights
What can we conclude from these facts? In just 10 short years, Uber used today’s app technology to automate deliveries and has gone from zero to 17 million deliveries per day with a $70-plus-billion valuation. It embraces new technology to dominate its competition. Some will argue that it is not profitable yet; Uber counters that argument by pointing to Amazon, which also was unprofitable for a few years and now dominates its competition (think of how Sears, Kmart, and most U.S. malls have been impacted). It is undeniable that the new generation of commodity businesses like Uber and Amazon are using the latest in app technology to generate amazing sales, growth rates, valuation, and efficiency.

Americans who have a smartphone can use Uber to order a delivery (food or rideshare) almost anywhere and at any time, all from an app, which is extremely convenient. Close to 95% of the propane world has no app for customer ordering, making it substantially harder for today’s convenience-driven market to get the fuel they need.

An argument can be made that ordering fuel is substantially harder than ordering one of thousands of food orders from a plethora of different restaurants via the Uber Eats app. Or that ordering a single product like propane is more complex than ordering an item from Amazon that offers millions of different products for same-day delivery. However, many people from both inside and outside the propane industry are questioning the validity of that logic.

Just about every propane company in existence has no customer-facing app, so has no app downloads; has customer service reps; and receives hundreds or thousands of phone orders and calls every day.

So, imagine a stodgy, outdated, and unsophisticated delivery industry that has a technology deficit—such as the taxi industry or food delivery industry. When Uber presented technology to that customer base, we were all surprised at the hunger among those customers for doing business via an app rather than the older, more familiar model of calling for a ride or a delivery.

What if that same hunger existed in our own industry? What will happen when all your competitors follow the Uber model (or for that matter, the Amazon model) and get apps to streamline their customers’ experience? And, then what will happen when all your customers start downloading your competitors’ apps? Won’t your competitors obtain your customer list?

Based on conversations with hundreds of propane companies, my projection is that 34% will have an app by the end of 2020. They either are planning to roll one out by year-end 2019 or planning to do so next year. You are in a race. For example, at one time, no propane companies had a website. Now, every propane company has a website. Websites are now the Yellow Pages of today; everyone has one and they make little difference to your company. However, the Uber model is all app-based. So, like Uber and Amazon, those companies that have an easy-to-use fuel-ordering app and get it first to market will take market share, will obtain their competitors’ customer list, will grow sales, and will reduce costs.

So, what are you waiting for? Every study shows that a customer-facing app will grow sales and reduce costs.

Here are your options…
  1. Build an app yourself. Some of the larger companies may spend upwards of a quarter million dollars to perfect this (substantially less than Uber and Amazon spent on theirs). It will take you a year or so in time, and you will need to employ on-staff programmers to keep it working and updated in our constantly changing tech world.
  2. Go to CustomFuelApp.com, and they will customize for you the industry-leading, easy fuel-ordering app that has already been built. You, too, can save a year of blood, sweat, and toil and be the first to market with something even the smallest propane companies can afford. This may be the easiest and most effective method to take, as you then do not have to become an app expert, but rather outsource that work to experts who thrive on software coding and technology.
  3. Do nothing, and let your customers get poached by other companies, just like Uber poached a huge and growing portion of the taxi and food delivery industries.
  4. Build out an Uber-like platform for propane delivery. You might consider contacting digitalsoftwareservices.net, a company that has already built out Uber-like solutions for food delivery, taxi delivery, parcel delivery, and propane delivery. It developed the propane safety app and specializes in the fuel delivery and Uber technology worlds.
Regardless of what you do, don’t stand still, procrastinate, or remain in denial. Taking action to protect your customers and grab market share today is a journey that must be launched in order to stay competitive in today’s technology-driven world. As a starting point, you might contact the people at CustomFuelApp.com to begin your journey. This smart step can help you beat your competition to market and take the lead before they all jump on board.

Bill Stomp is a war veteran; has helped over 200 propane companies improve sales, safety, and profits; and is an international presenter on these topics. He is a partner at TankSpotter.com and DigitalSoftwareServices.co.

Technology Road Map Helps Companies Achieve Business Goals

(December 17, 2019) — Is there a new technology that could help you achieve your business goals? The only way to know the answer is to stay up-to-date on what’s out there.
Aaron Cargas talks about staying up-to-date on Propane Fuel Delivery Software using Cargas' Technology Roadmap to help lpg professionals reports BPN dec 2019
“You need a structured way to evaluate new technology that you might want to put in place,” says Aaron Cargas. “Technology and your business are constantly changing, so you need to plot out a road map that goes a year to three years into the future.”

Cargas has been with business software and consulting company Cargas Systems (Lancaster, Pa.) for 23 years and is currently vice president of marketing and product development. He shared with BPN his tips for plotting out and following a technology road map.

Always be evaluating. Back-office software, CRM software, marketing software, and phones are constantly changing, so there’s a continuous need to monitor and evaluate the latest offerings. An owner, manager, or IT manager generally takes the lead in this, but many others are brought in to evaluate a new technology before a purchase is made. “Things constantly change in the tech world—and everywhere,” Cargas notes. ”You should always be looking at what’s out there.”

Select a target. How do you decide where a new technology is needed? “Look at your goals for the next three years and find out what’s holding you back,” Cargas suggests. If you are having difficulty connecting remotely to the system at another location, consider a centralized, web-based system. If your goal is to improve delivery efficiency, consider mobile devices for drivers. If you want to boost the sales and profitability of your service department, consider mobile devices for technicians.

Make one change at a time. After you choose a system, it takes time to implement it and fine-tune it. For that reason, Cargas finds, most companies change only one thing at a time. “You can’t change everything at once, so focus on what is most important.”

Try before you buy. The best way to evaluate a system is to see it being used. Look for videos showing the software in action, and ask vendors to demonstrate the software over the web or onsite. “Our sales team does demos, works through a day in the life, and gets to understand the marketer’s needs,” Cargas says.

Consider the cloud. Data and software are moving from in-house servers to the cloud, where a vendor maintains it. That’s happening with almost every system, including back-office, CRM, and phones. “The cloud has matured a lot over the last 10 years,” Cargas says. “It offers performance, reliability, and scalability. People who wouldn’t make the move before, are making it now. There’s a definite trend in that direction, to cloud subscription software and also moving existing servers and applications to the cloud.”

Ask about integration. Integrating the systems used throughout an organization can be a chore. Many companies today want to get the best back-office software, the best sales software, and the best marketing software, even if each one comes from a different vendor. It’s a trend called “best of breed,” Cargas says. The downside is, the buyer has to make sure the systems will connect. “If systems talk to each other, you don’t have to re-enter the data, so it’s more efficient and more accurate,” he notes. “It’s great to ask a vendor, ‘Do you, or could you, integrate with this other thing I’m using?’”

Get to know the vendors. Once you choose a system, you will be working with the provider for years to come. So, before you buy, drill into the company behind the system. Is the company stable? Does it have a dedicated support team? Will it provide updates? “The company is just as important as the hardware and software it provides,” Cargas says. “It is important to understand them.”

Business and technology are never static; they’re always changing, he notes. Just like you plan out other parts of your business, you should plan to keep current on the technologies you use throughout your organization. It’s a continuous process. — Steve Relyea

No Soft Enforcement Period For Dec. 17 Electronic LD Deadline

(December 16, 2019) — Bulk Transporter reports that the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance is reminding all motor carriers and drivers subject to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) final rule states starting Dec. 17, 2019, they must use an Electronic Loggig Device (ELD).
Electronic Logging Devices (ELD) now mandatory for all propane commercial vehicles starting Dec. 17 2019 FMCSA rules reports BPN lpg industry leading source for news since 1939
The deadline also pertains to grandfathered automatic onboard recording devices, which will no longer be allowed under the FMCSA regulations to provide records of duty status as a substitute for a required electronic logging device. Motor carriers using automatic onboard recording devices must have fully operational ELDs installed by Dec. 17. According to FMCSA, there will be no extensions or exemptions made to the ELD rule deadline. In addition, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance said inspectors will begin fully enforcing the ELD rule on Dec. 17, so there is no “soft enforcement” grace period.

If a commercial motor vehicle driver is required to have an ELD and the vehicle is not equipped with a registered, compliant device, the driver is considered to have no record-of-duty status. That also applies to a driver still using an automatic onboard recording device after the Dec. 17 deadline. According to the North American Standard Out-of-Service Criteria, property-carrying drivers who do not have a record-of-duty status in their possession when one is required will be declared out of service for 10 hours. A passenger-carrying driver without a record-of-duty status when one is required will be placed out of service for eight hours.

Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance-certified inspectors use the North American Standard Out-of-Service Criteria to identify conditions that preclude further operation of a commercial motor vehicle by its driver for a specified amount of time, or for some conditions, until the violation is corrected.

The April 1 North American Standard Out-of-Service Criteria specifies out-of-service conditions related to deficiencies of record-of-duty status and hours-of-service rules and regulations. In addition, the alliance’s inspection bulletin regarding hand-held and electronic logging devices outlines the requirements for units used to record drivers’ hours of service, according to 49 CFR Part 395 Subpart B—Electronic Logging Devices.

FMCSA implemented the ELD rule to make it easier and faster to accurately track, manage, and share record-of-duty status information, and improve road safety and reduce crashes. An ELD automatically records a driver’s driving time and other hours-of-service data. Hours-of-service rules and regulations were developed to minimize driver fatigue and improve safety on the road. ELDs monitor a vehicle’s engine data, such as when the engine is running, whether the vehicle is moving, miles driven, and duration of engine operation, among other data-gathering tasks.

(SOURCE: The Weekly Propane Newsletter, December 16, 2019. Available by subscription.)

Suburban Propane Launches Brand Refresh

(December 13, 2019) — Over the summer, visitors to Suburban Propane Partners’ websites and social media began seeing new messaging related to three themes: Suburban Commitment, SuburbanCares, and Go Green with Suburban Propane. These are the pillars of a brand refresh the company launched in June.

Suburban Propane Launches Brand Refresh reports BPN the propane industry leading source of news and info since 1939 dec 13 2019 edition“This brand refresh elevates the focus of Suburban Propane’s many strengths in serving our customers, our commitment to our employees and the communities we serve, and the sustainability of propane as a clean American energy source,” says Nandini Sankara, assistant vice president, marketing and brand strategy and spokesperson for Suburban Propane (Whippany, N.J.). “The refresh will highlight Suburban Propane’s use of advanced technology, our dedicated safety efforts, and the longevity and tenure of our dedicated employees and the associated expertise that comes along with them.”

Sankara shared with BPN the ways Suburban Propane demonstrates its commitment to the three pillars that are the focus of the brand refresh.

Customer Service
Suburban Commitment to Excellence is supported by the tagline, “Delivering excellence locally, backed by our strong national presence.” This pillar showcases the Partnership’s commitment to customer service. In practice, it includes adherence to the highest level of safety standards, highly trained employees, and access to supply even in the most extreme weather scenarios.

“It also encompasses our pledge to be there for our customers and their families 24/7/365, and the flexibility in doing business with us to meet the needs of each customer,” Sankara says.

Delivering that level of customer service starts with the 3300 employees who serve as brand ambassadors at 668 locations in 41 states, she adds. “We support that overriding mission by setting clear expectations supported by an extensive training program, including an intense focus on safety, optimizing the customer interaction experience, and technical training. We set clear expectations and follow through by the exceptional leadership we have across all levels in our organization.”

Employees, Communities
The second pillar, SuburbanCares, is supported by the tagline, “SuburbanCares about our people and the communities we serve.” It showcases a commitment to employees and community outreach.

One measure of the Partnership’s commitment to staff is employee longevity: 34% of Suburban Propane’s employees have been with the company for 15 years or more.

“The long tenure of our employees speaks to high levels of employee satisfaction that starts with our 90-plus-year legacy, combined with the unique set of opportunities that each one of our jobs offer,” Sankara says.

Among those opportunities are many career development and apprenticeship programs. The apprenticeship programs provide the tools needed to begin a career as a delivery driver or service technician. They supply full-time, company-led training, including both a detailed curriculum and on-the-job training. Opportunities also include tailored training opportunities, a tuition reimbursement program, and continuing education via both instructor-led classes and self-paced e-learning courses.

“From developing your skills as a driver to building a foundation to take the next step in our Manager in Development program, there is a wide range of training opportunities available—an advantage of working for a large organization like ours with over 600 locations nationwide, where it provides opportunities for our employees to work in a multitude of available positions in the company and to define a clear career path to unlimited job possibilities,” Sankara says.

Other employee-focused initiatives include the Live Well Program, which focuses on preventative care, education, and awareness of healthy lifestyles; many other assistance and recognition award programs for employees; and Heroes Hired Here, which includes hiring, training, and assistance programs for both military veterans and their spouses.

The community outreach aspect of SuburbanCares includes Suburban Propane’s national partnership with the American Red Cross, as well as partnering with Toys for Tots, Caring Capital, local Touch-A-Truck events around the country, and many other sponsorships and events at the local level.

“Our employees are heavily involved in all of these efforts, from helping us identify, plan, and host community events at the local level, to acting as volunteers during the American Red Cross’ annual 9/11 Blood Drive in Jersey City,” Sankara says.

Green Living
The third pillar of the brand refresh, Go Green with Suburban Propane, is supported by the tagline, “Serving communities today, leading the way to a sustainable tomorrow.” It focuses on promoting propane as a bridge to a green energy future. Here, the Partnership will work to educate customers and the general population on the green benefits of propane.

“These efforts can be seen on our website and social media channels, as well as in Suburban Propane’s internal and external marketing assets moving forward,” Sankara explains. “Currently, we are focusing on the use of propane as an autogas for school buses, fleet vehicles, lawn maintenance equipment, generators, agricultural uses, and more.”

The brand refresh does not change Suburban Propane’s logo or its business motto—“Our Business is Customer Satisfaction.” Instead, it emphasizes the Partnership’s commitment to the practices represented by the three pillars.

The rollout of Suburban Propane’s brand refresh began with an announcement in a June 26 press release. It expanded with the launch of a dedicated landing page on the Partnership’s website and targeted internal communications. Different aspects of the three pillars will continue to be showcased on Suburban Propane’s social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) and the blog page (“Fuel for Thought”) on its website.

Sankara says this will “ensure our brand, and what we stand for as a good corporate citizen, are well represented to our customers, the local communities we serve, and, as a public company, our investors.” — Steve Relyea