Is there an industry that faces more legislative and regulatory challenges? From the forecourt to the convenience store, there are numerous touch points that attract the attention of people in Washington or the local statehouse and more often than not that attention tends not to be positive.
As we at the magazine state regularly, this industry benefits from aggressive and highly competent trade associations fighting against overreach in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. <i>NPN Magazine’s</i> Legislative Leader Awards was developed to give them the much needed recognition they deserve for their hard work, while at the same time encourage others in the industry to step up and join the effort. With all of the work the various associations do at the staff level, both in Washington and at the state level, just how important is it to have the members involved in the process? Critically important.
“Any lawyer lobbyist who tells you that he or she has clout is one or both of two things—
dishonest or delusional,” said Tim Columbus, a partner in the D.C.-based law firm Steptoe and Johnson and the general counsel of the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America and the National Association of Convenience Stores. “Political people care about their constituents. It's my job to help people understand what assets they have and how they can bring them to bear. And I can help somebody by explaining this is the policy debate, here's what's involved, here is why we feel the way we do, and here's why it's the right thing to do. But, nobody tells that story as well as a constituent.”
That viewpoint is common among association professionals at both the national and state levels.
“Tip O’Neill said it best about 35 years ago when he said that all politics is local,” said Gene Guilford, president of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association. “Lobbyists and lawyers do not get bills passed nor do they necessarily stop bad bills from passing nearly as effectively as the people who have businesses in the districts represented by public policy officials. That is political science 101. You have to have people on the ground who go to work everyday, employed people pay taxes, build businesses and serve consumers. There's nothing that can take the place of a highly motivated and articulate spokesperson on behalf of his or her business.”
This year’s winners exemplify the hard work and dedication of the previous recipients.
Winner, Federal Legislative Leadership
Wendy Chronister, President and CEO
Chronister Oil Company, Springfield, Ill.
Chronister Oil Company has been a trusted supply source for fuel distribution for over 40 years and today provides an extensive supply of fuels and bio-fuels. The company operates Springfield Truck Lines as a subsidiary fuel transport operation. And founders Grady and Linda Chronister opened their first Qik-n-EZ convenience retail site in 1967. The business today flourishes, continuing to carry its family-minded principles with a focus on quality employees and outstanding customer service as one of the most recognized convenience store brand in Central Illinois. In 2009 Wendy Chronister took over the reigns and she immediately became involved in supporting the industry locally and nationally.
“I stepped forward when I first became involved in the industry,” said Chronister. “I became involved with SIGMA at the same time and legislatively and on behalf of NACS as well. Getting to know our business, the obvious, biggest issue to me, from a legislative perspective and financially, was credit card interchange, which is our second largest expense and something I have no control over. I previously believed health care was the most regulated industry, but I've started to believe it’s ours. Everything that we sell – liquor, tobacco, food, fuel – and our employees are regulated by some government acronym. I realized that although we are a relatively smaller company compared to others, but still significant, it's very important to educate the people making decisions.”
“Wendy has done a great job at the federal, state and local levels reaching out and meeting the people who represent her,” said Columbus. “What she has done is recognize that political risk is just another kind of risk that entrepreneurs have to address and manage every day.”
One of the first tasks Chronister undertook was debit fee reform by testifying before Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) Senate subcommittee, which led to the Durbin Amendment covering the issue. She was not only one of the senator’s constituents, but actually grew up “down the street” from him.
“She has known Sen. Durbin for many years, so when it came down to the swipe fee issue, she was available to us as an individual who was well acquainted with our sponsor and who he knew and trusted,” said Columbus. “That makes a guy like Dick Durbin willing to go out on a limb and face some pretty significant pushback from some very powerful economic and political entities. I think her role in this process was indispensable.”
Chronister noted that being pragmatic and politically flexible are useful attributes when becoming involved in the legislative process to support industry issues. The same can be said for the associations and how they spend PAC money and otherwise develop relationships in Washington.
“Dick Durbin and Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT) were big champions of this reform,” she said. “I'm not sure that (I agree with Durbin) on every issue, but I will give him 100 percent on this issue. And I'm not sure there is a politician I agree with 100 percent on either side of the aisle, but I think Durbin recognized that it was a significant public policy issue, and he worked very hard on behalf of the industry.”
Chronister admits that getting involved came with some trepidation, but that quickly evaporated. “I have to admit the first time I became involved I was a little bit timid,” she said. “And then I realized after being on the Hill and in Springfield – these people are inundated with many issues and nobody knows about your own business more than you,” she said. “Frankly, you cannot be for or against somebody on an issue until you've at least educated him or her about it—then you can. Part of the intimidation factor was overcome when I realized that when you go in and talk about your own business, nobody that's been elected knows more about your own business than you do. All you have to do is go out and talk about how you feel and how it affects you.”
Columbus notes that as simple as Wendy Chronister makes it sound – and functionally it is not overly complicated – she brings some special gifts to the table. “It's not just things like the Durbin amendment,” he said. “I know that she works in the state legislature, she'll work with the Illinois Weights and Measures Department, she knows her people and she walks in and knows exactly why she's there and knows exactly what counts for these folks. She has an organized presentation and a good story of why what she needs is the right thing to do, and she's always able to explain to them the six snappy answers to the folks that are going to criticize a government official over the issue. She is simply prepared and as a consequence, she is fabulously effective.”
And why is it important to become involved? In Chronister’s opinion, involvement is a critical business function. “Somebody can start out with a very good policy objective and then in a conference room trade something or assign something that has a huge impact on your business and the more so the smaller you are,” said Chronister. “When somebody says, ‘I don't have time to go out and talk to people,’ then you are not really a good watch keeper over your business. One of the more challenging things of running a business is time management. You have a crisis all the time. But you need to recognize that by going out and doing something here you are actually saving yourself from future crises.”
That’s an idea that Columbus reinforces. “You can be the world’s greatest manager, but you cannot out manage a bad day in government,” he said. “The day someone passes an ordinance that says you can't sell beer at the store anymore, and that's 40 percent of your business, you are not going to make that up on the margin. So being aware of what's going on and being in a position to actually be effective in responding to a political threat I believe is part of every good manager's job description and Wendy has been a great manager.”
Winner, State Legislative Leadership
Jamie Lohr, President
Guardian Fuel & Energy Systems, Westerly, R.I.
Randy and Jamie Lohr started Guardian Fuel and Energy Systems, Inc. in 1993. Guardian is a heating oil (bio and conventional) dealership that additionally distributes diesel, biodiesel, gasoline and kerosene. The company does business in both Rhode Island and Connecticut and works with both the ICPA and Oilheat Institute of Rhode Island supporting their legislative initiatives.
Splitting responsibilities within the business has allowed Randy to keep the business running while Jamie has the opportunity, when required and when the legislative fit is appropriate, to represent the industry in both the Connecticut and Rhode Island state houses without causing undue operational strain.
A particular issue of interest and involvement has been the promotion more ecologically appealing heating oil and specifically working to mandate the use of ultra low sulfur heating oil. A strong environmental focus is close to the hearts of the Lohrs (and is strongly represented among the company’s customer demographics) and is a cornerstone of the company’s branding.
“My husband and I learned about bio being used as a heating fuel probably about 12 years ago through the Warwick public school system experiment that had been taking place. We began using it in 2006 when it became available to us, and we a great experience with them. It was definitely something that we wanted to bring to our business, so we learned as much about it as we could, and we've been very happy with it. But what we would really like to do is for our heating fuel to be able to compete with the environmental advantages with natural gas. And really the only way we can move forward with that is to get ultra low sulfur heating oil.”
While this issue is close to the heart of Lohr, it is also an important issue for the heating oil side of the business in the Northeast. While this may seem counter intuitive in general to the petroleum industry, it is grounded in realities for both the heating oil product and the region.
“The heating oil industry is under attack virtually on a daily basis primarily from environmental interests as a result of high sulfur content of heating oil,” said Guilford. “Clearly, anything that we can do that makes a market improvement in the environmental footprint of heating oil allows heating oil have a future. Here in the Northeast we have already seen the beginnings of a low carbon fuel standard, which hasn't touched heating oil yet, but it's heading in that direction. The only opportunity that we have to serve our customers and to remain in business is if we have a better fuel. And we have a good product with ultra low sulfur and biofuel.”
Regionally, New York has already switched to ultra low sulfur heating oil for this season and Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Maine will be making the switch by 2018. The legislative effort is ongoing in Connecticut.
“Gene (Guilford) asked us to testify because of our experience with bio. Since we were one of the companies that have used it the longest, we're going on seven years now. I can put bio heating oil into every gallon we sell and that is great at a 2 percent blender or 5percent blend or if I advertise it properly at a 10 percent blend, but I cannot get the sulfur out unless the legislature demands it. So that was the next step for us to get the heating oil really clean by getting the sulfur out. So I testified for ICPA.”
Lohr first became active when she testified for ICPA over pricing contracts relative to the run up in prices in 2008.
“We were up there testifying about what happened in the industry and how could dealers like ours, that were family businesses for the most part, how could we guarantee our customers that they wouldn't get hurt in pricing structures like that and we couldn't guarantee that,” said Lohr. “I guess at the time we were hoping that the state would not really allow us to sell pricing contracts anymore because it made it tougher for us to compete with each other and that didn't fly. That was a good one for me to break in with because there was a lot of contention on that issue but it didn't really matter to me one way or the other whether the legislature agreed with the position that ICPA was putting out there. But it got them thinking about it and it gave me a chance to testify and see how the process worked.”
How hard is it to step out and become involved? For Jamie Lohr, once the initial inertia has passed, it’s a straightforward process. “It's surprising. If I can do this, anybody can do this,” Lohr said. “This is not a hard thing to do. You find out what the issue is and if the issue means something to you and you have a viewpoint, all you have to do is give your viewpoint. You do not have to be an expert on it; you just say how you feel about things. I've watched a lot of other people give testimony to the legislators on other issues. When I went to testify the first time, I realized that these are just ordinary people who care about these issues. It's O.K. to be nervous if you are in front of a microphone in front of the legislature in Hartford. You just say what you need to say and hopefully that influences people to adopt the legislation that you are interested in or at least give them something to think about for the next round.”
What does Lohr say to others that might not be as active in supporting their organizations? “The last thing that I would want is for legislators who do not know the industry to be making decisions that affect us every day, and they do that if you do not speak up because then they are only getting their information from other sources,” she said. “So it really is important if you want to serve your customers better and if you want to make your business operate more smoothly to have your government working for you and the best way to do that is for you to tell them what you need. Don't be afraid.”