February 2018, Vol. 245, No. 2


SGA Sets Upbeat Course as Industry Veteran Takes Reins

By Jeff Awalt, Executive Editor

Bill Cantrell’s father was an accountant by profession and a craftsman at heart, and some of Cantrell’s favorite memories are of helping him make furniture, cabinets and other improvements to their Tampa, Fla., home.  He credits this early enjoyment of building and “making things work” as a factor in his decision to study engineering, which led to his successful 40-year career in the energy industry.

During his early career at Tampa Electric Company, Cantrell advanced through several technical and senior management positions, including director of the merger transition with Peoples Gas Companies to become part of TECO Energy. He was president of Peoples Gas System from 1997 to 2009, when he served as chairman of the Southern Gas Association.  He later served as president and CEO officer at SourceGas, which is now part of Black Hills Corp. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and an MBA from the University of Tampa.

In January 2017, Cantrell started a new chapter in his career as president and chief executive officer of SGA and its subsidiary, the Gas Machinery Research Council (GMRC).

P&GJ: What attracted you to the energy industry?  Did you already have a career path in mind when you decided to study electrical engineering at Georgia Tech?

Cantrell: I did not really have a career path laid out when I started at Georgia Tech. I was better at math and science than other subjects, and I knew I liked to build things and figure out how to make things work. I got that from my father. Engineering seemed like the right place for me. I thought electrical engineering, in particular, could open the door to many different career paths and industries. I interviewed with several types of companies when I graduated in 1974 – pulp and paper, chemicals and electronics – but I felt most at home when I interviewed with companies in the utility industry. I also enjoyed the idea of being able to work in open and hands-on types of environments.

My first job was in the power plant engineering area at Florida Power Corp. I started work on their Anclote plant project, which was a new oil-fired generating plant under construction in Tarpon Springs. I spent more time than I hoped in an office at first, reviewing drawings from the architectural firm, but I also got to see how those drawings translated into the actual equipment being built. Later, I was assigned to the Crystal River 3 nuclear project, where I worked out of a construction trailer and spent most of my time on the operating floor as they were installing various pieces of electrical equipment. It was great to be there in the thick of it, getting to see it all come together. After a year at Florida Power, I moved to Tampa Electric and, after some rotational assignments, I went right back to work in the power plant area.

P&GJ: How did your early experience at TECO prepare you for leadership roles in the natural gas distribution sector?

Cantrell:  I was very fortunate that Tampa Electric focused on leadership development. That focus and attention helped me in two ways. First, I had some great mentors who already completed the same training and taught me a lot. Also, I was able to take advantage of even more leadership training as I progressed. I not only received the benefit of the training, but I was also working for leaders who demonstrated how important that training was for me. It gave me a strong appreciation for the value of professional development from very early in my career.

P&GJ: How did you get involved with SGA, and what did you gain most as an association member?

Cantrell: I worked on the transition team for TECO Energy when it entered the natural gas business through its merger with Peoples Gas in 1997 and moved to the gas side as president of Peoples Gas. I immediately started going to SGA meetings and encouraged others at Peoples Gas to take advantage of SGA’s training programs too. After learning what the association does and how it’s structured, I became more involved by moderating panel discussions on various subjects at conferences and served as co-chair of the Executive Roundtable one year. Eventually, I joined the officer rotation of the Board of Directors and was fortunate to serve as chair of SGA in 2009.

That year as chair not only taught me a lot about how SGA works and its professional development opportunities, but it also gave me a deeper understanding of how different segments of the industry work together and the issues they face. With no compression or storage parts of the business, my point of view was slightly limited at Peoples Gas. That’s where SGA’s member experience can really make a difference though. As I became more involved and joined conference planning committees, I became exposed to those segments and forged stronger relationships across the industry as a whole.

P&GJ: You spent more than 40 years in industry before you were named president and CEO of the Southern Gas Association, and SGA has made some organizational changes since then.  How strongly do you think your industry experience has influenced your approach to the position?

Cantrell: First of all, my predecessor, Mike Grubb was great for the organization, and SGA grew a lot under his leadership. In fact, Mike’s first year as president and CEO – the position I have now – was in 2009, which is the same year I served as chair of SGA. We worked closely together and, frankly, spent part of that first year drinking from the same fire hose, so to speak. But a new perspective can always be helpful, especially in an industry that’s going through a period of fundamental change. When I came on board, it made sense to take a fresh look and find opportunities to improve. Through some strategic planning, we wanted to answer the questions, “What do our member companies most need and want from SGA?  How should we organize ourselves to best deliver that?” After completing that exercise, we restructured the organization and our priorities to best meet those needs. We essentially created a functional organization that’s aligned with our three priority functions – conferences, training and development and committees.

P&GJ: You almost make it sound easy, but what you’ve just described must have been a massive undertaking for an organization with the scope and complexity of SGA.  Where do you even begin a process like that?

Cantrell: One of the first things I did was to start visiting member companies and asking for their input on what SGA does best and where they see opportunities for improvement.  Then our executive team and board planning committee conducted an in-depth analysis with input from member companies and our entire staff to identify the association’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Another important early step was to very closely examine our mission and vision, to help ensure that we developed a strategic plan that moves us closer to those goals.  I think the mission statement we developed does a good job of articulating SGA’s key objectives – To grow individuals and advance the industry by linking people, ideas and information.

P&GJ: How has SGA changed since you first got involved in the association?  Was there any room for surprise in your first year after participating as a member for so long?

Cantrell: At its core, SGA serves the same purposes it did when I joined about 20 years ago, but of course, it has grown significantly over that time.  One big change is that most of our larger members were gas-only companies a decade ago, but we have a huge number of combination companies now. Our training may change with this, and of course, new conference participants will bring new perspectives. The biggest surprise of the past year was finding out how many people we really reach in the industry.  We used to talk about having a footprint of 17 states, but with mergers and acquisitions and professionals in other regions who want to take advantage of what SGA offers, we have members now in probably 35 states – and even that’s growing. It’s really hard to separate how SGA has changed from how the industry has changed, because they’re so closely linked.

P&GJ: How have the needs and concerns of SGA member companies changed during this period?

Cantrell: You don’t have to go back very far to see enormous change in the industry. Being in Florida at the end of a pipeline system, I can remember vividly that our biggest concern only 10 years ago was, “Where are we going to get the gas?” We were trying to figure out if we would have enough gas to serve all the new developments we wanted to sign up. In order to sell gas, we would emphasize its value, aesthetics and efficiency because prices were less competitive and more volatile. I remember when base prices were $4 to $5 (per Mcf), and we had spikes to $15 for spot gas. If there was unrest in the Middle East, it didn’t only affect oil prices but gas too. If platforms were evacuated for a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, gas prices went up. All the LNG terminals in those days were import terminals. Now that’s all flipped. Thanks to the new technology and the accessibility of the domestic shale plays, we have an abundant supply of natural gas at very low prices relative to history.  LNG terminals are turning around and exporting.

On the other hand, permitting and constructing our facilities has become a bigger challenge – and not just for liquids pipelines like Keystone and Dakota Access. In fact, pretty much every large project related to natural gas has some opposition. Part of what we hear is that it will be easy and economical to switch to renewable energy, and that we don’t really need fossil fuels anymore. Of course, we know that wind and solar are not 24-7, and natural gas will be an essential part of our energy supply for a long time.

A different concern we’ve seen from member companies is the growing need for technical training for new employees. As the aging workforce begins to retire, there is a knowledge gap being created. SGA is working to fill that gap by offering on-demand learning opportunities, in-house workshops and larger regional training conferences like the Spring Gas Conference coming up this March in Columbia, South Carolina.

P&GJ: From SGA’s perspective, what should the industry be doing to address public perception in the face of growing opposition?

Cantrell: You asked me earlier how my industry experience might apply to my role at SGA, and this is an area where it helps. I worked in the regulatory area for much of my career. I was getting air permits for power plants and testifying in rate cases. I learned early on how important it was to seek input and buy-in from different segments of the community, from local officials to environmental groups.

What we’ve seen in recent years is that companies whose projects have encountered opposition have responded independently by putting together their own processes for training employees, communicating facts and figures and developing various outreach programs. But as natural gas demand continues to grow and more new pipelines and other infrastructure needs to be built, increasing industry activity will only draw more attention. More companies will face opposition, and our members want to be prepared.

A little over a year ago, the Executive Council of SGA decided to address this as a priority issue, and we’ve been working with AGA (American Gas Association) and INGAA (Interstate Natural Gas Association of America) on an industry response that taps our collective strengths.  We’re going to be rolling this out as a major initiative in 2018.

Surveys have shown that a company’s own employees are its most credible messengers, and our industry has a huge employee base with customers in all 50 states. We’ve got a great message, and we want to empower all our employees to get that message out.

What we’ve done at SGA is develop a program focused on employee mobilization to give natural gas workers – our industry’s most credible messengers – the knowledge and skills to speak effectively on its behalf. Working in partnership with other industry organizations, pulling on their research and resources, we created a collaborative  grassroots training program. We’ve already done pilots with four of our larger member companies, and we’ll start rolling it out to others early in the year.  This won’t be limited to just SGA members.  The more participation, the better it will be for our industry.

P&GJ: You’ve spent the past year talking to people from every corner of the natural gas industry.  What’s the consensus outlook for 2018?

Cantrell: Although we know there’s going to be opposition to our projects, I think it’s going to be a great year for our industry.  The economy is forecast to grow, which will help more businesses feel comfortable about expanding as well as create more opportunities for natural gas demand growth. I’ve got very few concerns about 2018 in our association. We’re on the right track. We’ve got great membership, we’ve got a great team, and I’m excited about the year. P&GJ

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