In an era of when businesses are becoming increasingly tech savvy, upgrading their systems and connecting with customers through multiple platforms—email, texting, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter—Lorraine Ross, owner of Conejos Propane in La Jara, Colo., continues to succeed after 60 years “the old-fashioned way.”
Women In Propane profile of Lorraine Ross owner Conejos Propane by BPN the propane industry's leading source for news and information since 1939. Feb-2019 issue
Neither Lorraine, 95, nor her two employees, including her son, Dick, own a computer. A shrewd and financially successful businesswoman, according to her son, she tries to get to know her 1500 customers. She enthusiastically greets customers who regularly visit and call. For some, she is like almost like a grandmother offering kindly advice.

Propane orders are taken over the phone or in person and tracked with tickets she generates by pen and pencil. The tickets are then delivered to customers with their propane or mailed to keep-full customers, those she knows so well propane deliveries are made to them regularly based their usage history.

“I like to get acquainted with my customers,” Lorraine said. “I enjoy my customers. I’m interested in my customers and what goes on in their lives.”

Conejos Propane operates out of her home. She just laughs when asked if she has plans to retire.

Lorraine and her husband, June Ross, who died 35 years ago, originally started the business by filling propane tanks. The couple met as teenagers when Lorraine’s family was visiting Colorado from Iowa. They married when she was 20. Her sister coincidently married June’s brother.

June had just returned from WWII as a disabled veteran who could not fully lift his left arm. His wife juggled the demands of motherhood caring for three children, taking care of her husband who was in and out VA hospitals, and helping to manage the business, including filling tanks and keeping the books.

“It worked out well. We just worked it out all together. My kids were very helpful,” she said. “I graduated from high school where I learned to keep books. We always operated our business out of our home. I would stay up to do the books. I’m an ambitious person. I enjoy my work and I enjoy what I do.”

In addition to running the propane company, she taught sewing for 22 years to students in the local 4H program, ran a chicken hatchery for more than 40 years, and was a custom seamstress until the styles changed (more women began wearing slacks) and the propane business increased. “My specialty was weddings. I loved to do weddings.”

Today, Conejos Propane’s customers remain mainly rural residential customers located in the San Luis Valley, although the company does have some commercial customers. There are about 2200 families in the county with a median income of only $29,000; 23% of the population live below the poverty line, according to census information. Many residents struggle with drug problems, explained Dick Ross.

It’s no surprise getting customers to pay their bills is one of her biggest challenges. “I have to watch they don’t go too far in debt. But I have good customers,” she said.

“In my mind, she’s an unsung hero,” her son said. “In an era where men rule and women are coming in on their own, she does it the old-fashioned way. A lot of our success is treating people like a human beings; being a part of their families and they are a part of ours. You don’t see many women today doing that.”

Although she runs the business out of her home, Lorraine finds time for many hobbies. “I do stained-glass work. I enjoy that. In the summer, I love working in the garden and with the flowers. I grow vegetables—potatoes, sweet corn, and pumpkins. Our season is short here. We still get a frost the third week in May and the first week in September, and we’re at high altitude.”

She is close with her three children and six grandchildren. Her son Dick, who lives 10 miles away, comes to work every day; they lunch together. She talks daily with her daughter, who’s a half-mile away, and she also talks daily to her oldest son, who lives in Gunnison, Colo. In addition to spending time with family, she has also been active in her church and was president of the local hospice association for 20 years.

Lorraine’s advice to other business owners: “Treat your customers with respect and be interested in what’s going on their lives. I think it makes a big difference. They are not just a number.

“Be concerned about your fellow citizens. Your fellow neighbors and all. And remember to give God credit for what you have,” she said.

“I have no complaints. It has worked out well.” —Karen Massman VanAsdale