My Brilliant Propane Career
For the past five years, my main source of income was derived by driving a propane delivery truck around the mountain hamlets of Colorado. That career came to an abrupt halt this week, and though I’ll miss the service I provided to people and the steady pay I earned, in the back of my mind I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. The small local company that I’d worked for over the last three years was purchased by a large corporation, and from the morning that news came down I knew my days were numbered.
Being a propane truck driver is not the sort of occupation I had dreamed of doing as a kid. Growing up during the Apollo era, and having an uncle who worked for NASA, “astronaut” would have been high up on the list, along with center fielder for the Red Sox, or left wing for the Bruins. As I grew older and developed a love for being outdoors, some kind of park ranger job sounded good, and for four years on Cape Cod that’s exactly what I did.
Unfortunately, having my paycheck being used as a pawn in the chess match that is Massachusetts state politics got old, and I didn’t like the fact that advancement depended more on factors such as who you knew, or seniority, or the color of your skin than on job performance. Plus there was a big, interesting world out there, and I wanted to experience some of it. Despite loving the wonderful spit of sand extending out into the Atlantic Ocean like a body builder’s curled arm that is Cape Cod, I decided to pursue a different career, and went back to school to learn about these wonderful things called “computers”, which everyone said would be transferring our lives in the future.
I ended up spending seventeen years as a field service engineer for three different companies in that span, and did get to see a large chunk of the world in the process. I used to go to Europe, Australia and China regularly, and got to see most of the United States as well. However, the fortunes of high tech companies can rise and fall like an empty plastic water bottle in the ocean. The employers I worked for grew and crashed, grew and crashed, and after my last layoff I decided to get off that particular gravy train.
So my wife and I rented out my house near Denver, and moved up to the mountains between Vail and Glenwood Springs, where we remain to this day. She wrote a wonderful business plan which won an award from the Small Business Administration, and with that in hand we raised enough money to help finance our move. At the time, I had excellent credit and a decent IRA, and that helped too. Once we settled in our little parcel along the Upper Colorado River, the outdoor existence I had never stopped craving began to come into better focus. I would start a float fishing business, and along with my wife’s dog training and boarding business, we could live life happily ever after.
After a couple of false starts, I did get my float fishing business off the ground, and ten years later am still doing it. The problem was that the Colorado River in the stretch I float can be a very volatile piece of water, at least for fishing. It flows past some spectacular scenery, including some vivid redrock geology, but the downside to that is that when it rains, all that crimson sediment runs down off the cliffs and into the river granule by granule, until the water turns the color of the red cliffs high above. This can actually make for an amazing experience on the water, to not only see what the forces of erosion have created all around you, but to see and feel it happening in that very moment.
However, if the main reason that you’re out there in the first place is to try and catch some fish, then being on the Colorado River while it is literally the color red is not an advantage. (There is a reason the Sapnish called it the “Colorado” after all). What I began to realize was that I would need a supplemental source of income beyond what I could make taking people down the river. For the first few years in the mountains, I worked a succession of different jobs for mostly unappreciative employers. First it was a Denver-based copier company that was hard to work for, then a mountain-based company which was even worse. Then I got a job installing alarm and security systems, and I didn’t like that either. Along the way I got a part-time job with a livery service based near Vail, and liked doing that kind of work. It was usually pretty easy, unless you had to make a run to the Denver Airport in a snowstorm, and after a couple of years of that the owner offered to help me get a commercial driver’s license, or CDL. This would enable me to drive the buses they owned, which paid more than the large SUVs and conversion vans I had been driving.
Now for anyone who knows about all the traffic tickets I used to get all over the country back when I was younger, the thought of me being a professional commercial driver would be a bit comical. And there was a time from the mid-eighties until mid-nineties where at any given time, I probably had three different traffic proceedings going on in three different states. As long as the various state agencies didn’t compare notes, I was fine and could keep juggling the balls in the air. But then those pesky computers had to get involved, and states began to share information, and suddenly I couldn’t renew my license in one state without paying off everything in other states, as well.
The nadir came one Christmas, when the company I worked for gave me a bonus check for $1500 to recognize a job well done. I felt richer than I’d ever had before, and my mind reeled with the possibilities of what I could do with such a windfall. The week I was leaving Denver to go to Massachusetts to my family and the home office, I got a letter from the state of Colorado stating that my license was being suspended due to a ticket that I had gotten in Boston the previous year. That ticket had been so stupid that I had just blown it off. I had been in downtown Boston with my girlfriend, and had made a right-hand turn at a stop sign without coming to a full and complete stop. After my turn, I noticed a large black police officer waving me down, and so I pulled over to find out what he wanted. He ended up writing me a ticket for running the stop sign! If anyone reading this has ever driven in Boston, you’ll recognize the improbability of getting a ticket for that. Anyway, I ignored the subsequent mail I got from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts regarding the matter, until it caught up with me the following year.
When I got back to Massachusetts and the companies home office where I was to train some new techs on our equipment, and to be trained myself on some new stuff, I began working the phones to get it cleared up. I thought it would simply be a matter of paying for the Boston ticket, plus some added fine, and the matter would be settled. I’d still have plenty of bonus money left over to get everyone Christmas presents that year, plus maybe a new pair of skis and camera for myself. But it turned out that in addition to my Boston ticket, there were also outstanding tickets to resolve in Virginia, New Jersey, and my license in New York state was also suspended due to my ticket in New Jersey.
I ended up spending the better part of the week on the phone calling DMVs in five states trying to clear everything up. It finally came down to this – my license in Colorado was under suspension due to my being suspended in Massachusetts, and my license in Mass was still suspended (though I had paid for my Boston ticket) because I was under suspension in Colorado, because I was under suspension in Mass. It was a crazy situation, and even a trip to the Boston headquarters of the Massachusetts DMV took all day to resolve, as I had to keep going higher and higher up the food chain until I finally got someone with enough authority to clear my Mass suspension which made everything else vanish. By the end of that week, my bonus was check was gone, added to the state coffers of Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Colorado one check at a time.
From the mid-nineties onwards, my driving record slowly began to clear, aided by higher speed limits and the fact I was spending more and more time out of the country driving rental cars through European, Asian, and Canadian capitals. (I did get to meet some fine law enforcement representatives there, as well, but this is after all a story about my propane career, so those stories will have to wait). By the time my wife and I began our new life beside the Colorado River, my driver’s record had been clean enough to contemplate driving for a living, and so I began to pursue opportunities doing that. With a year of CDL driving under my belt, I noticed that Ferrellgas had a vinyl banner hung outside, advertising for delivery drivers. I stopped in and asked about it, but was told there were no current openings. They just had lots of turnover, and so the banner was kept up there more or less permanently.
Then the next fall I got a call from Ferrell, wondering if I were still interested in a job. I was and after a couple of interviews, I became their newest employee. Driving a propane truck (called a bobtail) is not at all like driving a corporate group or wedding party around in a bus. For one thing, you’ve essentially got a 3000 gallon bomb just behind your head, so any serious accidents you get into are likely to show up on the front page on the local newspaper, if not the New York Times. The other key difference is, that far from staying on well-paved roads and the heated entrance drives to fancy Vail hotels, propane tanks tend to be in all the hardest to reach places. Most of the Eagle County area where I live was developed in very smart ways, with natural gas lines being run to the various housing developments along with other utilities like phone, electric and water. But high up in the hills, the more remote a place is the more likely it is to depend on a propane tank for heat. What this means for a propane delivery driver is lots of dangerous drives up squirrelly driveways in bad weather to keep someone’s house from freezing. It just so happened that my first year of doing that, the winter of 2010-11, ended up being the snowiest year in the past twenty in Colorado. Vail and Beaver Creek both ended up getting well over 400 inches of snow that year, and the altitudes I had to go to were often similar to theirs. There were days that I ended up having to put double chains on four times just to get to one bad place or another, and it was that way from November all the way through until April when the delivery season finally started to wind down.
I got stuck several times that winter, usually because I waited too long to put my chains on. I was always able to get myself unstuck, usually by a combination of digging and putting on my chains after I was immobilized. Since chains are much easier to apply if you can move your truck a little, I soon learned to chain up before going into a sketchy area. The one time I ended up being rescued by a large tow truck I had been chained up, but drove off the driveway I was on in an absolute whiteout. I was up on top of Bellyache Ridge above Edwards at over 8,000 feet, and the snowdrifts up there were as high as my hood.
Working for Ferrellgas was an unpleasant experience on a number of counts. The first was that I was expected to start my day down in town at their yard at 7am, which could be an hour’s drive, depending on the weather. This meant waking up at 5:45 am each morning, something I never enjoyed. Since my wife is a night owl, and up to midnight or one am most nights, this meant that our body clocks got very out of sync with each other, and did our relationship no favors.
The other annoying thing about Ferrell was that I had no say in what my route would be from one day to the next. When I finished my day on a Tuesday, I would have absolutely no idea of where I would be going on Wednesday until I got in on Wednesday morning and logged on to the small computer handset that I traveled around with. There were many days that winter when, after a long snowy commute in, I would log on only to find that I would have to then drive right back up to where I came from to deliver to one of my neighbors. I asked several times if I could just drive my truck home to reduce all that pointless extra winter driving, but was rebuffed each time.
Another issue with the fact that my day-to-day deliveries were being determined by a dispatcher in Colorado Springs two hundred miles away who had no appreciation for our local topography. On a snow day, I’d be sent up to some of the accounts that were the highest and hardest to get to, and on the breaks between storms I’d be sent to the easiest. Or, on a given day I’d be sent to three or four far-flung areas of the county, just to go to some of the same areas the next day to fill their neighbors. It made less than no sense. Ferrell also set the price that each customer paid, and left the drivers no discretion as to what each person paid. The more affluent a customer was, the less their rate tended to be, and they made up the difference by charging more to those who couldn’t. I hoped that I wouldn’t run into any of the homeowners I delivered to because odds were, if they saw what they were paying they wouldn’t be happy about it. I wanted to drive around with a bag over my head when I worked for them. Ferrell also had a four day work week consisting of ten hours each day, and the upside to that was that I used that fifth weekday to work at Beaver Creek Mountain as a volunteer. The job didn’t pay, but it did come with a free ski pass. This meant that I definitely got in one ski day per week, and if I was lucky a couple of other short visits during the week as well.
But another downside to working for Ferrell was that they had strict forty hour work week. Even with ten hour days, there would be days when by Friday afternoon, I’d be at my limit and have to cut my day short in order to not go over. It would have been nice to be able to have an occasional hour or two of overtime, but that didn’t happen in their world. The trucks we drove were also pretty old and beat-up, and having issues all the time. The first time I had a problem, it was a leak and when I mentioned it to my supervisor he made arrangements to have a mobile mechanic come and fix it. The truck ended up being down for three days, and I learned a painful lesson. When you only have two trucks for two drivers, if one truck goes down its driver’s pay goes down, too. When they’re already tired beaters, there are lots of issues that could potentially be getting fixed. But if repairing them means being out of work, its easy to let things slide that won’t leave you stranded by the side of the road if they fail completely.
The other full-time driver that worked for Ferrell was a guy I’ll call Dick, (mostly because its close to his real name and also that he was one). Dick was a guy I didn’t like very much from the get-go, though as we drove around together during training he seemed to be a tiny bit more sympathetic. Dick had terrible communication skills, and I began to think that maybe he had mild autism or something. He could be very smart about some things, but only in a very focused manner, like a laser. He would do very stupid things in a very intelligent way. Since I had the older truck and it broke down often, I was sidelined more often than he with equipment issues. It would have been nice for him to offer to maybe do something else while I drove his truck for a day, but he never did. I like think that I would have done that for him. But once I was driving full-time and no longer training, his demeanor to me became as curt and rude as it was to everyone else. Dave had no friends or social life outside work that I ever knew of. I sort of imagined him living a Travis Bickle existence at home, surrounded by stacks of cash and talking to himself in the mirror. I don’t think that we ever made eye contact during a normal conversation in two years, but in the truck we would both be looking forward and not at each other. Maybe that’s why he was nicer there.
I made it through that first winter, and learned a lot in the process. Not only just about the technology of propane itself, but what parts of Eagle County had propane, which ones didn’t and whose customers were whose. The local market was dominated by two main players, Ferrell and Amerigas, with a small local company called Cross Propane based over in neighboring Garfield County that I didn’t know too much about. I wasn’t perfect, there were a couple of tanks that I overfilled because I just got too distrsacted reading the newspaper while I was filling, or because I underestimated the size of the tank, but otherwise things went pretty well.
When springtime came the delivery schedule eased up, my hours got cut way back and I lost my minimal health care benefits. Since I was considered “seasonal”, Ferrell was under no obligation to do much for me during the off-season. I got some work rehabbing propane tanks, which involves putting them on a roller and removing the fifty-year old lead paint from them with a heavy metal grinder. This was exhausting, dirty work, but it helped pay the bills and built up nice strong forearms and biceps for the upcoming rowing season. But being around the shop meant seeing more of Dick, and that was no plus. There were some long hot days where my old career became very a distant memory. London, Paris, Beijing and Sydney sure seemed farther away than ever.
Soon fishing season was kicking in, and I didn’t mind getting in only a day or two a week painting tanks that summer. Then fall rolled in, and the weather got cooler, and it would be time soon to be getting the bobtails back on the road. Then I noticed that Amerigas was looking for drivers, and I thought it would be worth looking into it to what they might be able to offer. I responded to the ad and got involved with the interview process. I also met their main full-time driver (who I’ll call Lonnie), and he seemed pleasant enough, though all he did was bitch about how much he hated working for Amerigas. Amerigas had more rules to follow than anyone else in the industry, but the pay was a little better than Ferrell and if you got busy and could move some propane they didn’t care if you ran an hour over doing so.
One of the “safety” things that Amerigas did I knew that I might be uncomfortable with was their use of in-cab cameras. Set inside a glass bubble where a rear-view camera would be mounted, where two cameras, one facing forward and one aimed right at the driver. The cameras were electronically connected to accelerometers and gyroscopes, and if the truck did anything unusual they would start filming. “Unusual” could mean driving off the road, or going to fast, or accelerating or stopping or just being on a bumpy road. Maybe they could even detect each time a driver picked their nose, Lonnie seemed to think so and he just hated the cameras.
The local reputations that the two big propane competitors had was that Ferrell was horrible to deal with, and had terrible service, but was cheap. The perception of Amerigas was that they had decent service, but were way more expensive. That’s why Amerigas could pay more and have shiny new trucks full of safety sensors (which constantly caused false shutdowns, that Lonnie also hated) while Ferrell drove old trucks that constantly broke down.
Amerigas offered me a job and I was going to take it, but then Ferrell lost two of its three full-time employees. The man who ran our office left to take a job with CDOT, and our service tech who lived over in the next county died. Both were unexpected, in the first case because my former boss knew the business so well, and because the second was a suicide. The suicide wasn’t of the “cry for help” variety either. The man (who was a father of five) put a .357 in his mouth and pulled the trigger, while he sat in the front seat of his truck parked next to his house. He was a nice guy that I worked with a lot that winter and it was a shock.
So now I felt guilty about taking the Amerigas opportunity, and leaving Ferrell high and dry just as were about to get into the delivery season. So I declined their offer, and decided to stay with the Devil I Knew.
My new boss was a guy named Bob, and we got along pretty well at first. He was among other things the service tech from Grand Junction, and had been with Ferrell longer than most. He knew quite a bit about the every aspect of the propane business. I was hoping that I might get to learn about the service side of things, so that I could replace our dead tech and get a full-time job out of it. Bob wasn’t really not a terrific people person either, although compared to Dick he was practically Jimmy Fallon.
Then in early November, just as I was starting to get in almost a full week of work, one my sister’s called from Massachusetts telling me that my mother’s health had a sharp decline. It had been a couple of years since I’d been back east, and apparently her physical state was beginning to match the mental which that had been eaten away by dementia. My sister said that I should think about coming home sooner rather than later. I looked into some flights to see what my options were, and then called Bob to see about getting away for a few days.
His reaction was not what I expected. Instead of some mildly sympathetic response, he sounded very irritated that I would even ask about going back east.
“You can’t leave now! We’re in delivery season, we need to be getting gas out”, he said.
I told him that I wasn’t even working forty full hours yet, we were busier but not yet busy. He told me to go if I wanted to, but they couldn’t guarantee me a job when I got back. I went home and stewed, and talked to my sister, and found out that my mother had rallied a bit and was doing marginally better. I talked to Bob and told him that I would stay and deliver propane, but that if my mother declined again I was going to head straight back to Massachusetts, no matter how busy we were. He was fine with that, and with that began my second season as a Rocky Mountain propane driver.
That next season wasn’t as snowy as the first, which made for somewhat easier driving conditions but not always. We didn’t get any huge dumps of snow that year, but that created its own issues. When snow falls a foot at a time, people can’t get out of their driveway so they call a snowplow. When less than a foot falls, people just drive over it repeatedly and pack it down. This is works fine for an SUV or a Subaru, but for a 30,000 lb two wheel drive truck with dualies in back. Not only would the bobtail sink into the snow, but it had very little traction to climb back out once it did.
One day I had to go down a narrow, steep, partially-shaded driveway to get to an idiotically placed tank. (People tend to place the propane tank in their yard based on multiple esthetic and practical factors, none of which seem to be, “How easy is it going to be for some poor bastard to drag a heavy, liquid-filled hose through thigh-deep snow to reach this tank for the next sixty years?”). The house was on the north side of a large hill named Bellyache Ridge. It wasn’t too high, maybe 8000 ft at the top, but the house was on the snowy north side of it. I knew I had a fifty-fifty chance of making it back up out of the driveway, but if I didn’t there was a safe flat area at the bottom of the hill to slide back into, and I could put my chains on then.
I backed down the driveway, because in many cases going into a driveway backwards gives you the best chance of getting out if you run into trouble. This is especially true going uphill, because there is no worse feeling than getting halfway up an icy driveway, losing momentum, and sliding backwards. I dragged a hose down yet another north-facing terrace through waist-deep snow, using most of my 150 foot hose. I had delivered there before, and hated that driveway. The tank could have just as easily been placed up near the road, where I could reach the tank easily. Once the whole operation was complete, and the hose stowed away, I backed up a little more and with the bobtail in low gear commenced my climb back up the driveway to plowed pavement. I pressed the gas pedal, and my truck didn’t move. I checked my gearshift, (thinking that I might have been in Neutral), and verified that the locking rear differential was turned on. Again I pressed the gas, and again the truck shimmied a little and gave the impression of a huge diesel-powered beast performing Herculean acts of pure torque. I got out, and saw the truck was high centered on its rear axle. The whole thing had just sunk right into the snow, which might support 10,000 lbs but not three times that amount.
So the next step was putting on the dual chains while the truck was already in a hole, and that’s about as much fun as it sounds. If you’ve never put on heavy duty double-wide snow chains, you haven’t experienced winter driving at its finest. Putting on singles is a pain once you’re stuck too, but once they’re on they can be worse than nothing at all. The tire just digs a deeper trench under the tire with the chain. I did have tool called a chain hanger to help get them on, but they only work if you can move the truck a few feet forwards or backwards. I managed to get the chains on, and tried to drive back up the driveway again. The wheels spun madly shooting great waves of snow across the driveway, as the chains dug deeper and deeper into it. Finally they gained purchase in the dirt of the unplowed driveway below, and the bobtail leaped out of its hole and onto the snow-packed driveway, where I was able to sustain my momentum all the way back up to safety. Once on top, I parked my truck and walked back down to see exactly what my truck had been stuck in. It was in fact the accumulated layers of multiple small snowstorms compacted into a luge run. I was going to get my shovel, and fill the two holes in, but just said fuck it. If this bastard was too lazy or cheap to get the snow off his driveway, I was certainly not going to move it around for him.
Two days later I got chewed out by Bob. The homeowner was angry about the two holes in his driveway snow that went down to the solid ground two feet below. Bob asked me about it, and I gave him the synopsis. I told him that that place had both bad tank placement and poor snow maintenance. I also told him that I hoped the guy broke the oil pan of his Audi or Subaru in it. That didn’t play well with Bob’s management side, but once the driver part of his brain kicked in he softened a bit.
Sometimes it was the driveway’s design into a residence that could trip you up. One house on the north side of Bellyache had a driveway with three tight switchbacks to negotiate. The second one was too tight for my bobtail in one go, and so right in the middle of it I had to stop and back up to get another go at the turn. Except it wouldn’t back up, it was too icy and not recently plowed. I was able to move the truck enough to get the chains on, and made my way to the bottom where the house was. The tank was in plain sight at the far corner of the driveway and wouldn’t be a difficult pull for the hose, but I had to get my truck turned around and pointed uphill. That task would be much tighter to make than it might have but if not for an obstacle in the driveway, a shiny late-model Ford pickup with a beefy snowplow attached to the front.
I cursed the truck and maneuvered the bobtail around, with it’s ass pointed at the propane tank and it nose pointed up a steep driveway. When I was done delivering the gas, I went to put a copy of the bill in a hanger envelope on the front door. I noticed for the first time the sound of a radio coming from inside. I looked in the window, and saw no sign of anyone inside, but got the feeling that somebody was. But if there was, I wondered why they didn’t clear the five inches of fresh snow that had fallen a couple of days earlier. Back in the truck, I aimed up the hill for the first switchback a couple hundred feet away. But the bobtail only made it a quarter of the way up, and bogged down even with double chains. I backed up all the way to the bottom, stood on the gas, and roared up the hill again, this time getting twenty feet or so farther than I had on my first attempt. Once again I backed down, and once more came back up as fast as I could, and gained another twenty feet. I did this several more times until I almost got to the switchback, and went backwards down the driveway for what I hoped would be the last time. Down at the bottom of the now well-packed trail, I was about to begin my next assault on the hill when I saw a man standing near the edge of his driveway, extending an arm. I lowered my window and he called out, “Would you like me to plow the driveway?”
I managed to respond with a smile and a pleasant-sounding affirmative, but in a parallel universe I got out and throttled him. Where had he been for the last forty minutes while I’d been trying to get up his damn hill? He put on his hat and gloves, fired up the truck, and while it was warming we exchanged pleasantries. His name was Frank and he hadn’t heard me out there, had I been there long? Only long enough to equal the sound output of an AC/DC concert, I thought. Frank spent five or ten minutes giving the driveway the once over, and I was able to finally get out of there.
One thing that made working for Ferrell so exasperating for those two winters was that I had no control over my schedule, and the person who did construct my route each day seemingly had no conception of esoteric ideas like “geography” or “weather”. Most days, my routes would involve going to opposite areas of the county. Even worse, I would often go to some of the same places a day or two later, instead of doing one area at a time. In addition, I would often go to low lying areas on dry days, and have to go to the high altitude places when it was snowing. It made no rational sense. Ferrellgas determined that it was time to go fill a tank when a flag came up in some computer program, and not by a human being who had eyes and a brain and who had to be the one to follow that computer program’s directives. Of course that algorhythm was too difficult for a mere mortal like me to comprehend, and try as I might I never got any amount of control over my schedule whatsoever. I could never even find out at the end of one day what I would be doing the next. There would be mornings that I’d get up extra early because of bad weather, and make the drive on unplowed roads to get to the shop by 7 am. Then I’d log on to my very slow handheld computer, and eventually see what my day was going to be like. Very often, that meant driving right back up through that same bad weather to go back up into my neck of the woods to deliver propane to my neighbors. For both of those years working for Ferrell, I frequently asked to be able to drive my truck home in weather like that to avoid both legs of that pointless commute. Each time I did, I was told that federal law wouldn’t allow it, and so extra winter driving was just needless reality.
Every so often, I’d see Lon plying the same back roads in his Amerigas truck, and we’d pull over and say “Hi” and bitch about our respective employers. Jim did get to pull a little overtime once in a while and I didn’t, but he also had to put up with having a video camera pointing at his face all day. One day I was driving up the River Road, and saw a Cross Propane truck parked in a turnout above a summertime boat ramp. On impulse I pulled over, and walked up the introduce myself to it’s driver. I knew very little about Cross other than that they were based over in Glenwood Springs on the other side of the canyon. The driver was sitting in the cab of his truck with the door open eating a sandwich, for it was lunchtime. I told him my name and he said that his was Jimmy. We started comparing notes, and I expected him to talk about what a shitty job he had, the way that Lonnie reliably would. But Jimmy didn’t play that game. He said that it was great working for Ray Cross, and that he was able to set his own schedule. In addition, his truck looked almost brand-new and even ran on propane, instead of diesel. It turned out that Jimmy did a lot of the vehicle maintenance for Cross, and raved about the drivability of the propane trucks, especially in the winter. I asked him how he was able find the time to both wrench and drive, and Jimmy said that it was easy to schedule service because Cross had two extra trucks. When one truck had an issue, a driver could just use one of the extras until it was fixed.
I finally had to go, before the GPS in my Ferrell truck noticed that I had stopped for awhile in a non-delivery location. As I drove up the road I kept replaying the conversation I had with Jimmy over and over in my mind. Everything that came out of Jimmy’s mouth made me think that I was working for the wrong company. I realized that it wasn’t my job that I hated, it was the company that I worked for.
Late in February, I was on my fourth workday and got my first load delivered by noon. There were deliveries still scheduled on my computer, but they were way up the River Road up on top of Derby Mesa. The good thing was that I could make it all the way up there and back before dark, and probably deliver an entire second full load. The downside, at least as Ferrell saw it, was that if I went up there, I’d probably run an hour or two over my allotted forty hours. We weren’t supposed to do more than forty hours in a week, but I’d routinely go long an hour or two earlier in the week, to buy some time to ski on Friday afternoons. I tried to call Bob to see if he thought I should go or not, but got his voicemail, and so I made the executive decision to make the long but profitable drive up to Derby Mesa. The rate the rancher was paying for Ferrell to deliver to him was pretty high, and I figured that Ferrell would make about $4000 for the delivery. So I went up there, and dropped almost the entire truck into his six large tanks. I got back to the yard just as it was getting dark, proud of myself for hustling out that second load of propane.
On Monday afternoon I got a call from Bob, and he was steamed at me again.
“What are these two extra hours I see on your time card from last week?” he asked. I explained to him that I knew I could deliver a whole truck full of product to the Nottingham Ranch in one trip, so I went for it.
“You know that you have to get approval before you can do any overtime, don’t you?”, Bob said. I told him that the $4000 plus that Ferrellgas would be billing him should more than pay for the extra time, and Bob flipped out at this. “I’ll tell you what”, he replied, “why don’t you just stay home and take the day off tomorrow”. “Stay home?”, I asked, “well do you want me to work Wednesday instead?” I still hadn’t understood his point.
“No, we’re just going to give you an extra day at home without pay this week to think about it”, he explained, and with that his managerial machinations were complete. This pissed me off, which was of course the point. We were on the downside of winter, and I knew that all too soon I wouldn’t be getting forty hours a week any more due to lack of demand, and so every day we had left was precious.
In March, the mild winter we had turned into a warm and dry spring. The delivery schedule did indeed ease, and the hours each week began to drop. I got another call from my sister, and this time my mother had taken another bad turn which my sister feared might not be reversed. I called Bob again, and told him the news, and again his response was not one of sympathy, but simply to ask, “Well how long you gonna be gone?”
“I don’t know, it depends how long she lasts, and then there’ll be a funeral. So probably a week, maybe two”.
“Well we still got gas to deliver, so you can take a week but if its more than that we’re gonna have a problem” Bob said.
I couldn’t believe how callous he was. I wanted to call him worse than that, but bit my tongue instead. A couple of days later I was on the road to New England, making the drive in a couple of days. My mother died the day I got back, and then began the process with my sisters of arranging and enduring the funeral. It had been more than two years since I’d been back home and it was nice being there and seeing all the family and friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. It would have been great to stay over another week and catch up, but with Bob’s warning in my mind I was back on the road heading west a couple of days later.
I got back on Monday morning, and called Bob to see what work needed to be done. I got his voice mail instead, and left a message. On Tuesday he hadn’t called back, and so I called him a couple more times. On Wednesday he finally picked up the phone when I called, (probably by accident), and he told me there wasn’t any work to be done, they’d call me if they needed anything. He didn’t call me again that week, and when I finally talked to him again the following week I realized that my summer layoff had begun early. I had rushed back to Colorado for absolutely no reason, they didn’t need me anyway. Thanks, Bob.
A few weeks later, I drove to Carbondale to find some used tires for my Saab. The studded snow tires I’d been driving on all winter were so worn out, that most of the spots studs had been mounted were merely forlorn-looking holes. My searches through the discarded tire piles behind local tire shops had not borne any 15” diameter fruit, so I had to go the Mexican-owned used tire shop. This is where I can purchase used tires from the guys who had beaten me to the tire piles I had already looked through.
On the way there, I had passed the yard where Cross Propane was run out of. Everything there looked nice and neat, the trucks were clean, and the two bulk tanks painted a very bright white. It got me thinking that maybe I should just stop in on the way home, to see what their operation was like and let them know who I was in case they ever needed anyone. Jimmy had told me that everyone who worked for Cross had been there several years, and that there was very little turnover. This stood in stark contrast to Ferrell or Amerigas, who were hiring each fall because they were so lousy to work for. I thought that it would be worth meeting whomever was there, drop off a card, and get on their radar screen for the future.
I stopped off there on the way back with my new shitty tires, and saw that their operation was even nicer on close inspection than it was driving past at fifty.
There was a single story office that was really two double-wides attached end to end, but they were also painted bright white and there was a nice deck in the front that tied it all together. This was in stark contrast to Ferrell’s office, a cinder-block building painted blue many years ago allowed to grow dirtier and dingier each decade since. I walked up the deck to the door marked “Office”, and as I reached for the handle the door opened as if by magic, and standing there just inside was a courtly, silver-haired gentleman.
‘Why hello”, he said, nodding slightly. “C’mon in out of that heat”.
“Hi, thanks”, I replied.
“What can we do for you?” he asked in a soft, gentle voice.
“Well, my name is Jack, and I’ve worked for Ferrell for the last couple of years, and I’m not working for them anymore, and I just wanted to let you know who I was in case you were ever looking for a delivery driver”.
The silver-haired man smiled a little harder at this, and with a twinkle in his eye extended his hand and said, “Well, my name is Ray Cross, and we were just talking about you!”
The Mayor Of Eagle County
I was very puzzled by what he had said.
“You were talking about me?”, I asked.
“Yes, we were just talking about you this morning. Our driver in Eagle County is moving over to this side, and we’ll be needing a driver in Eagle. Jimmy mentioned that he met a guy on the River Road this past winter who worked for Ferrell, and we were trying to figure out how to contact you”, said Ray.
What timing! I had walked in the door at just the right moment in time. We exchanged a few more pleasantries, and inside he introduced me to the ladies who manned the phones and managed the office, and then to his operations manager Tim. Tim invited me back to his office to discuss the position, and I followed him there to where a deep, comfortable sofa awaited.
It was a hot sunny day, and the office was cool and dark. The air conditioning had gone out in the Saab long before I ever bought it, so the only cooling I could get with it was having the roof up and the windows down. Tim’s office felt great, and the model planes (he was a pilot) and swords mounted on the wall gave it a cozy mancave feel. We talked about the propane business, and working for Ferrell, and how Cross did things. Drivers for Cross managed their own routes, and had more contact with their customers. Each driver had route books with all of their customer’s contact info and delivery information, and could schedule their deliveries based upon when it made the most sense for them or their customers. The only real parameters were to not let any of your regular “Keep Full” customers run out, and to be available when the “Will Call” customers did.
I told Tim about my outfitting business, taking fishermen down the Colorado River, and he was fine with that. He said that they weren’t that busy in the summer, and that as long as I satisfied their two main criteria then they didn’t care how much or how little I worked, and that I could schedule my propane deliveries around my fishing schedule. This sounded perfect! I walked out of his office an hour later with a tentative job offer, pending background check. The next day I returned with various documentation, and thus began my association with Cross Propane, the best job I’ve ever had.
I began my Cross career driving around with Jimmy, getting familiar with some of my routes and seeing how he did the paperwork end of things. With Cross there was no computer – receipts were made out by hand, and deliveries noted in the route book, including date, amount of gallons, and price paid. The cost was determined by a price sheet which was updated whenever the cost that Cross paid for their gas rose or fell. Jimmy noted that some of the customers who were “Keep Full” would not get delivered to in the spring, because they liked to get their propane tanks as empty as possible in the summer and fill them then, when the price was low.
“We can do that?” I asked incredulously. “With Ferrell, we were told to fill whatever and whoever was on our list that day, unless otherwise noted”.
Jimmy smiled and said, “Well that’s not how we do things. We try to work with the customer, not against them”.
Working for Ferrell, I never had any influence on the price that customers paid, and so paid very little attention to it. Price was just a number on the little curly thermal print that came out of my balky hand-held computer. I would stick that printout into a door-hanger envelope, hook it onto a front doorknob, and try to get the hell out before the homeowner came out.
Thing about the price of propane is that it usually fluctuates quite a bit between its wintertime high and summertime low. Ferrell loves to have its drivers fill up propane tanks in the springtime when it makes a nice healthy margin on it. This is not in their customer’s interest, but they’re not interested in their customer’s interest. Cross was, and he had developed a lot of loyalty from both his customers and his employees by doing the right thing. The best way to serve your customers well is to let their tanks get as low as possible in the summer, when prices are cheap, and fill them then. In the fall, as prices begin to rise you keep the tanks topped off, because prices are going up. If the customer has a tank large enough to see them through the expensive months of January, February and March, you avoid delivering then. If not, then you deliver just enough propane to last them until springtime, when the prices begin to drop again. Finally, when you do deliver in the spring, you put in only enough to get them a month or two down the road, with an eye towards managing their tank volume so that they will buying the most possible in the summer, when the cycle begins again.
Cross also had something called a Pre-Buy program, in which customers would write a check in June and pay in advance for the propane that we would be delivering in the winter. This insulated the customers from the high winter prices, and delivered some revenue for Cross during the lean spring and summer months. Cross would then bundle those checks and essentially do that same thing on a larger scale, paying the refineries then for the propane we’d be taking delivery of in the winter. The whole system worked like a kind of co-op. The tricky part of the Pre-Buy program was trying to determine what price to charge people in June for gas you would be taking delivery of in January. If the price Cross paid got high in the winter, then it might eat into the profits that were needed to sustain the business. If prices stayed lower than what customers had agreed to pay in June, then they might feel taken advantage of. But Cross found a way to turn even this uncertainty into an advantage that built customer loyalty. During my first winter of working for Cross, a mild winter and healthy supplies had led to lower-than-expected propane prices. There were customers in the Pre-Buy program who had written checks for amounts per gallon that were higher than prices eventually got to that winter. At one of our monthly meetings, we instructed to go ahead and deliver at that lower price, even though these customers had already agreed to a higher price and paid for it months earlier!
For example, this meant that if a customer had agreed to purchase one thousand gallons at $2.49, and had already written us a check for $2,499, we could deliver three hundred gallons in February at $2.29 and save them sixty dollars. This was something that Ray wasn’t obligated to do but did anyway, and I never let an opportunity slip by to let a customer know how we were doing right by them. The best part was, it never really cost Ray any money out of pocket, because instead of a refund, the customer would get a credit, which was usually then applied towards the next year’s Pre-Buy. It was a brilliant way to build customer loyalty through both emotional and financial bonds.
Once I began to realize just how much discretion I had in terms when I could deliver to people and at what price, I really started to love what I was doing. Even though we were supposed to deliver a minimum amount of gallons to people to give them a discount, I would give people that discount even for smaller amount of gallons. If I were up some back road and saw a rancher or homeowner out in there yard, I was free to stop and chat with them as long as it took to get them to try us. And that was true even if I didn’t sell them any at all that first encounter, sometimes they would want to buy some and I wouldn’t sell it to them. If their tank had enough to last them until summer, I’d recommend not buying it until them to save them money. Then I’d come back in August, and top it off then, to a very grateful (and wiser) customer. By setting my own schedule and having the responsibility for servicing these folks, I began to take ownership of “my” customer’s tanks, which made me feel much more vested in the company I worked for. I would write my home phone number on most of the business cards that I handed out, to stress that I was local and would give them great service. People knew that they could depend on me to help them out with whatever issue they had.
The bobtail truck that I got to use for Cross was much nicer than the one Ferrell had. It was clean and I could park it at home if I wanted to, and best of all it ran on propane instead of diesel. This meant that not only was it much quieter and cleaner than Ferrell’s diesels, I didn’t have to deal with any gas stations. There are only a couple of places to get diesel in Eagle County, and none of them had much extra room for trucks. With my Cross bobtail truck, since it ran on propane I was my own gas station. I’d get about two days of driving in with my 80 gallon tank, which gave me plenty of time to fill myself back up while I’d be parked somewhere, doing something else. This was the first propane-powered vehicle I’d ever driven, and didn’t know what to expect from the experience. The trucks were a little more underpowered than their filthy diesel brethren, and since they were based on gasoline-fueled models, they don’t have as much engine compression to help slow the truck’s descent downhill. But other than that they were much better than diesels.
Since a power train setup like that was a bit unusual, not many mechanics really know how to work on them, at least in a holistic big-picture way. The extent of some mechanic’s diagnostic prowess is only as good as the diagnostic computer program they are running. Its like the way that GPS location finding programs have eroded people’s map reading abilities and even basic directional sense. But Cross had an ace in the whole where it came to keeping the trucks running, and that was Jimmy. He had learned about the idiosyncrasies of propane fuel systems and did a great job at keeping them running. Also, since Cross had two more trucks than drivers, there was always an extra one you could use if Jimmy needed to do some repair on yours. With Ferrell, there were no extra bobtail trucks, and so if yours was out of commission you weren’t working, and thus not earning any money. It didn’t really give one much incentive to have their truck’s basic maintenance done or small repairs attended to.
My bobtail truck was far from perfect, and some chronic issues. One problem was an air compressor tensioning pulley would frequently break or wear. Once I had one or two break on me, I began to identify the warning sounds they would make before they did, and call Jimmy to come replace it. If it weren’t replaced in a timely fashion, the belt could jump off the pulley and whip around the engine compartment, cutting coolant hoses or worse. The pulley was easy to replace, and Jimmy could do the swap in about ten minutes, or five if I were helping him. On my truck alone, the tensioner was replaced two or three times a year for the three years I worked for Cross.
The first time that one failed on me, I was up near the top of Bellyache when I noticed that the air pressure (which primarily keeps the brakes functional) had started to drop. Every time I touched the brakes, the pressure dropped a little more. I got out to look under the hood, and noticed that the belt which should be turning the compressor had fallen off. I was able to use my windshield ice scraper as a lever on the pulley to get the belt back on, and began driving down the hill. Very soon I heard a noise from up front, so I pulled over again, opened the hood, and saw that the belt had come off again (but not before it had rebuilt pressure in its tanks).
I called Jimmy and Tim, and they said not to try reattaching the belt due to aforementioned collateral damage issues. Jimmy would come out the next day to replace it, and I told them I would see how far I’d get down hill with my current compressed air pressure. Turns out, not too far. Since the bobtail doesn’t have enough engine compression to simply gear down and control speed that way, some braking needs to be done and that uses up what the compressor pumped into the two tanks. If you don’t use the brakes, the engine overrevs and that’s a more expensive repair than the brakes are. I tried to get down from the top of Bellyache Ridge without using my brakes, but it was impossible. I was trying to keep one eye on my gauges and the other on each rapidly approaching switchback. By the time I got to the entrance to Red Sky Ranch, the needles were just above the red area of the gauge, and when it gets below that the brakes lock up. I was finally able to get back to my overnight parking spot at a nursery in Dotsero by putting on the belt, building tank pressure back up, removing the belt and then driving. Once I got back down the hill I was on the interstate, and from there I was able to get all the way back to Dotsero on the tank pressure I had. Another time the pulley broke when I was up on top of Derby Mesa, thirty miles away from my regular parking spot in Dotsero. The spring in the tensioner was broken, but I was able to bungy cord it to apply pressure to the pulley, and ran the truck until the pressure built back up. Then I removed the bungy cord, and was able to get all the way back with to Dotsero. Just as I pulled into the nursery, the Low Air alarm was just starting to go off.
My truck also had another mystery issue that never did get resolved. When things were wet, either due to weather or from a trip to the car wash, a Check Engine light with a small downwards pointing arrow in the middle of it would appear, and the bobtail would only rev up to about 1600 rpm. This was just enough power to get off the road in most cases, but not enough to go up any kind of hill. For the last six months I drove the truck this would happen, and I learned to be very careful about how I washed it, and to not drive too far in the rain. When this problem would occur, it would take anywhere from fifteen minutes to five hours to clear itself. This was a problem that even Jimmy had no success fixing, nor did a couple of other mechanics it was brought to. It was a problem I just learned to live with, and when it would happen I was glad my truck had a big bench seat to stretch out in.
Other than having to deal with sometimes unreliable trucks, working for Ray was wonderful. In the first winter that I worked for him, we had a Christmas party at an upscale sushi restaurant that was a lot of fun, there was a trivia contest with prizes and a gift exchange. Near the end of the evening, Ray gave out some Christmas cards and when I opened mine, I was shocked to find seven crisp, hundred dollar bills inside! This being a time of year when money was very tight, it was a very pleasant surprise indeed.
The three years that I worked for Ray Cross were among the happiest of my working career. I was the only employee of the company who lived and worked in Eagle County, and was able to pretty much run things there as I saw fit. I got to meet many of the residents of the area, and can’t go anywhere now without running into people that I know. I’m known and recognized and appreciated and that’s a good thing. Since people have to get their propane from somewhere, I felt like what I did was more than just a job, I was doing a public good. I was able to do lots of little things for people to save them money and we succeeded by putting them first, not some distant shareholders. Sometimes I felt like the Mayor of Eagle County, for there was a sense of belonging to a community that I never felt living in Denver or Aurora.
This past winter, one of our rancher neighbors had a unfortunate incident that caused most of their livestock to die, and there was a community fundraiser for them to help out. I went to the event, and out of a few hundred people that were there that night I felt like I knew half. It felt really wonderful to be part of something that positive. My wife and I have lived up here in Eagle County for a dozen years, but that was the first moment that it was driven home to me that I was finally part of a community. And working for Ray Cross was a big part of why I knew so many of these people, and why (hopefully) they thought well of me. That evening, I felt moved and touched and a small part of something much larger than myself.
Here Come Those Dark Clouds…
In the spring of 2015, things were going pretty smoothly. After three years of delivering for Ray, I had all of my customers delivery schedules pretty much dialed in. Factors that determine when each tank got delivered to were subject to such variables as price, weather, driveway sun exposure, pre-buy status, owner’s financial situation and time of year, among others. But I had seen each tank of mine through several seasons, and could probably guess to within 10% of how much each tank would have in it at any given time.
Then I went into a local auto parts store, and saw Mike there. Mike was the guy Ferrell hired the autumn after they let me go. The first time I saw him, I was already working for Cross but stopped to introduce myself. He seemed like a nice enough guy and about my size, so a couple days later I stopped by the Ferrell office to drop off everything I had that had “Ferrellgas” printed on it, for Mike. Over the next few years, when Mike and I passed each other on the road we’d give each other a friendly wave.
But now Mike was at the auto parts store not as a customer, but behind the counter as an employee. I said Hello and asked him why wasn’t out delivering propane. He said that Ferrell had fired him and Dick once the heavy delivering season was over. He also told me about some HOAs that were unhappy with Ferrell, and recommended that Cross go after that business. After a bit more bitching about Ferrell from both of us, I left and got thinking about the opportunity that there might be in Eagle to woo some of Ferrell’s unhappy customers. I contacted two of their biggest customers, and found that one wasn’t interested in switching yet but that the other one was. Excited, I Iet Tim and Ray both know about this potential high volume, high margin customer, and they seemed excited about it, too. Over the next couple of weeks, I tried to arrange a visit to the ranch with as many of Cross’ brain trust as possible, but then things seemed to stall.
One day in mid-April, it became apparent that propane prices should be dropping soon, and maybe by a lot. The price of a barrel of oil had plummeted over the previous nine months, and propane is refined from oil. It is the major fundamental difference that distinguishes propane from natural gas. Gas comes out of the ground pretty much ready to burn, and its physical and chemical properties are very similar to propane. But propane has a much longer and more interesting journey than gas. Propane is a by-product of oil refining, and until a hundred years ago was simply vented away as oil was transformed into something more useful like gasoline or diesel. Then someone realized that this “waste gas” that had been allowed to just float away actually had some useful purpose, and the propane industry was born. The regular Cross price for propane was $2.09 a gallon, which wasn’t that high, especially since the price was a dollar more the previous winter. But with oil prices so low, and a mild winter behind us, I knew the price would drop a lot by summer.
Once March turned to April, I needed to start putting some propane into customer’s tanks that I had avoided delivering too during the winter due to peak prices. I started to hold off on delivering to my routed customers, not wanting to deliver to them one week and have the price go down the next. In the mail one day I got a postcard from Ferrell advertising prices of $1.69, and by April I heard that they were offering prices as low as $1.29. Ferrell sends though postcards out to pretty much anyone that’s ever bought gas from them, including former employees like me and Ray, who got one too. So when my customers began asking me if we could match or come close those prices, I had tell them I couldn’t yet but that very soon we should be that low too. I told customers that propane should be at least as low as a buck and half by summer, just be patient and get it then.
The price point difference was really gnawing at me, and finally near the end of March we lowered our price to $1.99, which was at least under the two dollar mark but not really competitive. I was only getting one day a week in delivering out of the Glenwood office, because the only people I was delivering to were pre-buy customers or those running very low. But one day in mid-April I was in the Glenwood office and saw Tim there. I showed him the Ferrell postcard, and asked him when we would be lowering our price to that range. He responded with some vague references to our margins, and what pre-buy gallons we still had left to deliver, and then said something that struck me as a little weird.
“Ray doesn’t want to leave any dollars on the table”, said Tim, before going into his office.
I puzzled over the meaning of “leaving dollars on the table” for the next week. I didn’t like the sound of it, even if I couldn’t figure out exactly what it meant. The following Monday, Tim called to let me know about a compulsory company meeting at 8 am the next morning. When we hung up, the comment about the dollars on the table made sense. Cross Propane has been sold, my brain told me. In the three years that I worked for Cross, we had many meetings, but none of them were compulsory.
When I got home, I told my wife about my suspicions, and she told me that I was worrying about nothing. I hoped that she was right, but my gut told me otherwise. That morning I felt a sense of dread all the way to Glenwood. When I got to our yard, I saw a number of shiny rental cars there I’d never seen before and knew that my suspicions were correct. I went into our small office and found it full of unfamiliar faces, wearing suits or neatly-pressed blue shirts with the words “Amerigas” embroidered on them. Everyone packed inside the office and Ray asked for our attention. He announced that he had decided to retire, and that he had sold Cross Propane to Amerigas Corp. He thanked us all for our service, and said that this was the best crew he’d ever had, and when he started to tear up a little, some of us did as well. With that, he turned over the floor to our new regional manager, and said goodbye, and with that the Cross era was officially over.
The new regional manager was a genial-looking gentleman named Brian. He had neatly trimmed silver hair much like Ray’s, and his initial comments gave one reason for hope. He said that we had all been doing a great job working for Ray, and that he wanted us all to keep doing exactly what we had been doing. He said that weren’t going to change very much about how we did things. He also said that reason Amerigas wanted to buy Cross was that they just couldn’t compete with Cross. “If you can’t beat’em, buy’em!” my brain told me.
The rest of the Cross crew and I spent most of the rest of day filling out forms, and viewing a short powerpoint presentation about the history and corporate philosophy of Amerigas. Turns out the Amerigas is a multi-national, and though there were corporate offices in Valley Forge it was in reality had European ownership. “It should be called Eurogas” my brain snarked.
By the end of the afternoon, most of the high hopes I had for this acquisition having some kind of silver lining had dissipated, except for one. Amerigas did offer good benefits, and would make it affordable for my wife to get insurance, as well. That was a positive thing, no doubt. But the rest of the “Keep doing things the way you’ve been doing them turned out to be a forty yard dumpster full of malarkey. Driving our trucks home?, no more of that. Parking my truck down at the gated nursery in Dotsero was also done, for my bobtail’s new home base and parking spot would be north of the Eagle County Airport. When I pointed this out to Tim, he said that he had already looked into it, and it was only 12 miles further away. That might be true, but it was going to change my commute from zero miles if I parked at home, to 14 if I parked in Dotsero, to 26 miles each way which also include seven miles of interstate and five of a small but busy town. When I asked Bruce about it, he at first made it sound as if it was out of Amerigas’ hands, it was due to 9/11 and new safety concerns. But the law says nothing to that effect, it just says that trucks need to be behind a locked gate. My yard across the street has a gate which could be locked, I offered to have Bruce come up to my place to check it out himself. In the end I was told to start parking at the airport location, end of discussion.
There was also going to be reams of new paperwork we’d fill out everyday, per Amerigas company policy. I was resigned to that. Then late in the day I realized that Jimmy wasn’t around. Turns out, for some reason he was not coming aboard. I began to think about the full-time job Jimmy had keeping all six trucks running and wondered how we could do without him. Not too worry, Brian reassured us. Amerigas has a full time mechanic who is very good”. “Does he work out of your Carbondale office?”, someone asked.
“No, he lives and works down in Montrose” said Brian.
We drivers all looked at each other with slightly-opened mouth expressions. Montrose was a hundred miles away over a high mountain pass. I couldn’t wait to see how that would work out!
Then there was pricing. When the buyout happened, our price had just dropped to $1.99 a gallon, but most years it would have already been lower than that. There were a lot of customers I had who needed a little delivery to get them through until prices bottomed out in the summer, and I was waiting on prices to go down a bit more. In the afternoon of that first day, Brian was standing off by himself for moment and I thought I’d ask him about pricing. “Do you know when we’ll be dropping our price?” I asked. “I’ve got a few customers that need some, and Ferrell is out there advertising $1.69”.
“Ferrell will never honor that price, they have all kinds of strings and restrictions” Brian said assuredly.
“Actually, they did with the sale they did last year. One of my customers went back to them for a fill-up and they did honor that price” I replied.
“What is Cross charging now?” Brian asked.
“Let me get you our price list and I’ll show you”, and I went inside to get my copy.
When I handed the price list to Brian, his eyes visibly widened, and stayed wide for an extra beat. I leaned in and pointed out some of the key numbers, like our normal credit price, our dispenser rate, and the cash discount. (I found out later that the cash discount we used to give to drum up business along our route was also finished). When Brian saw our rack price, he sputtered something managerial about margins and costs and said that, since Amerigas’ price was already sixty cents more a gallon than ours, odds were our price might already be at the ‘bottom’.
This made me confused. Was he saying that, $1.99 was going to be lowest we would go for the year? Over in Eagle County, Ferrell was already thirty cents a gallon cheaper, and it was only April.
I told Brian that I had been telling folks for the past month that propane prices would get much cheaper this coming summer, maybe as low as a dollar and a half. Now how was I supposed to try and get them to buy it at a much higher price?
Brian switched his handsome smile back on and related an anecdote that would put my mind at ease regarding pricing. A couple of days earlier he had fielded a call from a customer irate at the fact that Amerigas had stuffed his tank full, (which in April is great for the deliverer but not for the deliveree), and that they were charging him $2.69 plus fees for the privilege. He had seen those $1.69 Ferrell postcards just like everyone else had.
This might be a good time to mention one of the business practices that Amerigas does which if not illegal, should be. When Cross or Ferrell does a propane delivery, a receipt is generally left behind. In Ferrell’s case is a small thermal print with delivery, product and customer information printed out. In Cross’ case, it was one that I hand-wrote. Amerigas drivers also leave a printed receipt behind, and in some ways there receipts contain much more information than Ferrell’s, and way more than mine. They list temperature of the propane, the drivers six digit ID number, the exact time of day, and maybe even the psi of the bobtail’s tires. But no where on that receipt does it list the price that the customer just paid for their propane delivery. Amerigas is so ashamed at the way they do business, they try to hide their pricing from the customers who pockets they are fleecing. Of course, you can call them to find out, and if you are an even minimally educated about propane prices you are not going to be happy with what you hear over the phone.
This where a guy like Grinnin’ Brian comes in. He gets the calls from customers like that after they demand to speak to someone higher up the food chain than Rashpour at the call center. Brian told me about a call he had just gotten from someone who noticed a delivery, called to see what it had just cost him, and flipped out when he found out. He had just bought too many gallons at the wrong time of year at too high of a price. Brian told me how he had tried to reason with the customer, and even offered to lower the price a bit, but not enough to satisfy the customer. Eventually the call ended with the customer still unhappy, and Brian just shrugging it off. Brian said, “Can you imagine a customer choosing another propane company over us for forty cents a gallon? Screw’em, who needs them?”, he asked me, looking at me to commiserate.
“Well, forty cents is a lot to my customers” I said, failing to play along with his Aren’t Customers Idiots routine. “If you buy five hundred gallons, and pay forty cents a gallon too much for it, then you’ve just overpaid by two hundred dollars. That doesn’t sound like nothing to me”, I told him. Then he told me the real reason our prices wouldn’t go down. It was because the price differential between Cross’s price and Amerigas prices was so large. Either they could lower theirs, or we could raise ours. Guess which one it would be?
For the rest of that day, everything I learned about the way Amerigas did things made me feel worse about it, and by the end of the day I was feeling disillusioned. The best company I had ever worked for had been replaced overnight by one that I knew I would hate. All of the customers I had spent the last three years wooing would be gone once they realized how much higher our prices were. All of the freedom and flexibility I had to create my own schedule and manage my own routes would soon be a thing of the past. Soon I would just be another cog in an evil corporate machine, one that existed only to serve its shareholders, and not its customers. Of course, to buy the fealty of the employees of the companies it buys up, decent pay and benefits were offered. This was meant to offset the knowledge that you knew that your customers were getting the shaft, and to not tell them.
In the yard, Amerigas instituted policies that made filling up there more of a pain than it needed to be. Where we used to hook up our trucks to begin the twenty minute fill, and go into the office to check messages or check in with Tim, now once our trucks were filling we were required to stand right beside them when we did. Even though this reduced the efficiency of my work day, I tried to justify it by thinking that at least I was getting paid for the extra time I was wasting every day.
Before that first day was even over, we were scraping off the ID numbers off the trucks to reflect the changeover in companies, but not the big “Cross Propane” decals off the truck cabs and tanks. Customers didn’t mind seeing Cross trucks coming down their driveways, but “Amerigas” was not a popular company among most people who had done business with them. So Amerigas leaves the names of the companies they buy out on their trucks as long as they can. The longer it takes for customers to figure out who they are really dealing with, the better for Amerigas.
That first night I got home late, for I had promised people deliveries that I couldn’t even begin to do until the Amerigas indoctrination was over. I told my wife what had happened, and how my worse fears had been realized as to the reason for this mandatory meeting. By then I was tired and shell-shocked and disappointed and a hundred other negative feelings. I wanted to drink an entire bottle of scotch, but my aging body can’t process alcohol very well, and the idea of feeling the same way tomorrow only hung over to boot wasn’t very appealing. So instead of alcohol, I had two bong hits of some Colorado medicinal marijuana, and that calmed my mind even if it didn’t lift my spirits.
I tried to do my job to the best of my ability, and tried to keep a positive attitude about the new reality. When customers asked about it, I told them that Amerigas had promised to keep things the same as they had been, but I could already see that they were different already. I was hoping that over time, I could get used to the New Way, and that there might be some hidden benefits for me and my customers that weren’t immediately apparent. If not, then I hoped to be able to put up with things as they now were for at least three months, so I could collect the $3000 carrot that Amerigas dangled in front of their new employees noses to get them to stick around.
The next week, I was asked to stop at Glenwood Medical on my way out of town to take a pre-employment drug test. It occurred to me that I’d had a couple of bong hits the previous week, but wasn’t too worried about it. I’d taken numerous drug tests over the nine years that I’d had a commercial driver’s license, and always passed because smoking weed is something I don’t do often. It’s something that I wouldn’t mind doing more, especially since it’s now legal in Colorado, but it gives me a splitting headache. Plus, I had a bottle of masking agent that’d been kicking around in my truck for many months, that I kept on hand just in case. So I stopped at the clinic on the way out of town that afternoon, and saw Tim in the waiting room doing the same thing.
That Friday, I got a call from the lab that does the testing, which had never happened before. They told me that my sample had some up positive, and that they were going to test it again before contacting my employer. I went on-line to do some research at what the ramifications of a positive drug test would be, and learned that it was basically up to the company as to what would happen next. Legally, I could give another sample for a re-test, and be subject to more random tests in the future, but an individual company could also fire you for it if they wanted to.
The following Monday, I got a call from Tim telling me about the positive drug test, and that I was now longer no longer employed by Amerigas / Cross Propane. He would meet me in Gypsum at the Amerigas depot to give me the pay they still owed me, and that was that. I pointed out to him that getting fired for it was not what the law required, but he said that Amerigas corporate policy was that failing a drug test was grounds for immediate dismissal, and that there were no exceptions.
And that was the end of my five year career delivering propane to the residents of Eagle and Garfield counties. To make matters even worse, when I tried to apply for unemployment to help tide me over to when I could start doing fishing trips again, Amerigas blocked it so I couldn’t even do that. Their case was that I violated company policy by failing the drug test, and was fired for just cause, and the state unemployment agency upheld that view. So even though I was fired for doing some legal, and that Amerigas was not legally compelled to do so but did so because of their company policy and not the law, it didn’t matter and that was that.
On top of that, I’ve been getting a bill every month from the local clinic that did the drug test, expecting me to pay for it. This seems somewhat analogous to the Chinese government billing the family of people it executes, for the price of the bullet they put into their loved one’s head.
So even though my career as a propane delivery driver appears to be over, I can’t say that I really miss the work much. It was much more physical than it appears, for climbing in and out of my truck a hundred times a day took its toll, as did dragging a heavy hose through yards filled with thigh-deep snow, and chaining up several times a day. What I do miss though are the relationships that I built up over those years, and being able to do the right thing for people and save them money. After all, if you want your house to be warm in the winter you have to buy your propane from somebody. Working for a company dedicated helping people afford one of their biggest expenses, as opposed to one that actively views its customers as a patsy to be fleeced, was very rewarding. I loved being the guy that people depended on, though I wish that I could have ended it on my terms and not theirs. I would not have been able to work for a company like Amerigas which operates in the interests of its shareholders, and not its customers, for very long. It’s a shame that in our current economy, companies like Ferrell and Amerigas continue to grow like cancers, while the smaller outfits that do the right thing get pushed aside.