Ready For Anything: A Transportation Exec Says It’s All About Rolling With The Punches

October 2010 Vol. 237 No. 10

Erin Nelsen, Online Editor

Bruce Munro is a busy man. At 60, T.G. Mercer’s executive vice president of field operations is tanned and restless, juggling phone calls and emails even when he’s theoretically out of touch. Looking for a few moments of free time to answer questions, he suggested between 2 and 4 a.m. “Those times, I really don’t have anything going,” he jokes.

The rest of the day is crammed full with on-the-spot decisions for any of the 15 to 20 projects Mercer typically handles at a time, constantly monitoring the all-powerful weather, and getting in the family time that changed his life.

Instead of an early-morning interview, P&GJ caught up with Munro in Baytown, TX, at a Mercer-sponsored fishing tournament, an event the company hopes to turn into an annual benefit for area waterways. “We want to show people that there are companies in the oil and gas business that do care about the environment, that do want to protect the bay,” Munro explains. It’s a reaction against the massive spill then still gushing in the Gulf of Mexico, but also a celebration of the Gulf Coast lifestyle: slow grills, thirsty mosquitoes, heat waves and all.

Anticipating Problems
The tournament seemed due for a rough start when heavy rain hit the area the day before. But, on the first morning, sun and blue skies greeted the competitors, mostly Mercer employees, their families, and a few close colleagues. He’s nonchalant about the apparent close call, though: the power of weather is a constant in Munro’s life. “One summer in Florida, we had three hurricanes on a job. We were working on a Florida Gas project a little west of Okeechobee, and if we didn’t get the pipe off the train before the hurricane hit, no one could move any more railcars of pipe afterward—all the traffic would be coming from the north full of hurricane supplies. I grew up in Florida, and I’m an amateur weatherman, so we’d work until within 12 or 14 hours ahead of when the hurricanes would hit. Then our guys would go south. Everybody else evacuated north and got caught in traffic jams—the highways were jammed, people were running out of gas. Our guys just went south and hung out for a day or two, and then they were back on the job.”

Munro considers dealing with the unexpected to be his main responsibility. He’s been with the transportation and stringing company for nearly two decades, and he’s learned that there’s no other alternative than preparing for trouble. “You try to anticipate all the problems, but you can’t do it. I thought 10 years ago that I could anticipate everything, but it never happens like you think it will. All I can really do to prepare for a job is to know what can happen, or what I think can happen.” The time of year, climate, and state and environmental regulations all go into his considerations on what might cause trouble, along with information from nearly every weather-tracking application on the market.

“The weather is a very big factor in our business, no matter what time of year it is. I get up about 5 o’clock and start doing my weather reports from wherever we’re working, and I do them before I go to bed. There have to be decisions made as to whether we can work or not. When you’re hauling 80-foot joints of pipe, you can’t do it if the weather is bad. Usually we start unloading and stockpiling pipe in the winter so the mainline contractors can start to lay the pipe in the spring. That means we’re working in the worst weather of the year—dealing with snow, ice, sleet and rain. Then there’s the danger of lightning around all that pipe. You’ve got to figure out how much rain, and is it going to wash the pipe yards out? Is it going to affect the flow of trains that are coming? Is it going to wash the bridges out? Is it going to affect the movement of pipe?”

Munro takes Mother Nature’s vagaries in stride, though. “A couple of years ago, I was in Helena, Arkansas, and there was a tornado. I was sitting on a levee and watching, and it looked like it was coming right for the pipe yard. I grabbed my movie camera in case the tornado hit the pipe. I’ve always been curious what would happen if the tornado picked up all that pipe and started spinning it around. But the tornado came right up to the levee and turned away from it.” He’s disappointed.

Rough Beginnings
Munro’s tenure at Mercer seems no calmer than the weather that harries his crews. He joined the company in late 1993, a time when he says he was going through a midlife crisis. “I was working in commercial construction as a project manager on large condominium projects, traveling around the United States. I decided to move back to Florida and get a college degree, not travel, and raise my son. In the construction business, I’d be away from home for six months at a time. With so much travel, my first couple of marriages didn’t work out so well—because I was gone. When my son Bruce was little, when it was time for him to go to elementary school, I said, I’m just not going to do it. This is my last kid, and I’m going to do what’s right.”

So Munro enrolled at the University of Central Florida to finally earn his degree, after more than 20 years in the construction business. “Then I started thinking, what am I going to do with the rest of my time besides just go to school? I was standing in the admissions line and I looked at the bulletin board. There was a flier there that said ‘part-time work, experience in construction, accounting, payroll.’ It was right by my house in Winter Park, and I’d done that stuff all my life. And I said, well, this is interesting.”

The flier was an advertisement for T.G. Mercer, soliciting help in its new Florida office. The company had landed the job to build Florida Gas Transmission Phase III for Enron, a 830-mile, 36-inch pipeline from Mississippi to West Palm Beach, FL. Tommy Mercer Sr., the current patriarch of the long-lived family business, interviewed and hired Munro and set him to work. Two weeks later, one day before the company began construction on Florida Gas, Tommy Mercer died. “Then I met George.”

Mercer’s son George took over as CEO, with the shock of his father’s death fresh to him and the company. “As far as the office went, it was just George and me. It was kind of straight into the fire.” Munro had two weeks total experience in the pipeline industry. And the Florida Gas job was massive, intensive, and moving ahead at full speed.

Fueled by challenge, adrenaline and responsibility, the partnership took off. “We had foremen and people who had worked for Mercer longer than George and I had, but they went from project to project and then went home. They showed us what to do, but then George and I wanted to do more.” Munro quickly lost sight of the fact that the job with Mercer was supposed to be part-time and low impact. Although he continued on with college for another few years, he argued with his professors over conditions in the field that didn’t match what he heard in the classroom. He never did finish his degree.

Pipelining was similar in many ways to Munro’s experience in construction—the career he’d left behind in frustration. But now he loved his work. The distinction was in part due to differences in attitude within the two industries.

“Back in those days, there were not a lot of things done the way they should be in the condominium market. It was more of a job than something you could accomplish that meant something, that you could be proud of. Most pipeliners are very proud of the job they do and the quality of the work they do.”
George Mercer puts it differently: “The first thing I noticed about Bruce was his work ethic. He wants to do things right: measure twice and cut once. He’s almost like an engineer in that trait. He really gets into the minutiae of things.” The relationship between the two has only grown over the years. “I consider everybody here a partner, but he would be the main partner.”

For a man of Munro’s tastes, though, the unpredictable nature of pipelining work helps too. “It’s a lot more fast-paced,” Munro says. “Every day there are problems that have to be worked out. You have a line sheet to tell you you’re going from A to B, but it doesn’t really tell you what you have to do. There are so many variables. It’s constantly moving every day, and that makes it challenging, makes it fun.”

Keeping Family In The Business
Allowing the kind of family-centric life that Munro had envisioned when he left construction was problematic, though. “I left construction thinking I’ll go back to school, and get this job in pipeline, and little did I know it was the same thing: traveling all the time.” The lengths of his trips went down, but Munro realized he had to make internal changes too. “I just needed to figure out a way to make it work with my responsibilities as a father and a husband, instead of running from that situation, to figure out a way to make that lifestyle work.

“Most of us in this industry work so darn much—once a project is started, you basically live it until it’s over. We just finished the Fayetteville Express in Arkansas,” a joint venture between Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP and Energy Transfer Partners LP, “and that was seven days a week, sunup to sundown,” he said. “You don’t have a lot of time you can spend with your family. That’s one of the reasons we promote events like this fishing tournament. We want people to bring their families, their kids. We discourage talking business—you can trade business cards, that’s about it.”

His family is along on this trip; his son Bruce Jr., now a college student, is hanging with the younger generation of Mercers. Munro’s wife is also present, and competing in the quest for the biggest fish in her own right. Munro says that’s a fundamental reason why his relationship works. “In my previous marriages, it was the old thing where you fall in love and your beliefs and thinking don’t really fall in line. Then I found a woman who liked the same things I do. I didn’t go out looking for somebody, like ‘I’m going to go hang out by the water and see if I can’t find a girl that likes fishing’—but we did have a lot in common, we enjoyed the same things. So we do a lot together. Instead of trying to change my lifestyle, we incorporated it.”

Since work life takes up so much of his time, he also joins in to the Mercer tradition of incorporating family into work. “When World War II ended and families came off the farms, they lost a lot. The dad went off to work and came home, and then the mom and dad both went off to work and came home. You had this total disconnect where a lot of kids these days don’t really know what it’s like to work. But as a family business, we have a responsibility to bring them in and show them.

“My son works at Mercer part-time while he goes to college. George’s older daughter works there in the summer. We try to get them involved, not so they can take over the company, but just so they can see what we do and how we do it. And not just our kids, but our employees’ kids. We have kids come in to pick up the trash in the office in the afternoons, take the trash out, put the water in the iceboxes, do the mail for us, pick it up out of the mailbox and send FedEx packages. So they can see how the world works: we have to work for a living.”

Munro’s version of teaching involves more than just a wage for labor, too—it’s an education in human interaction. “I don’t close the door to my office, ever. I want everybody in the office, including the kids working, to hear how you deal with people and how you treat people and how you expect people to treat you.”

Munro learned the construction business from his own father, and there were some hard lessons in it. “I remember when I was 19, I framed a building for him. The first wall was about 200 feet long and I framed it up on Friday afternoon and part of Saturday. I came back Monday morning and the wall was lying on the ground. My father had pulled the wall down with his truck, because he said that in that 200 feet, it was out of level a half inch. His way to teach me to do things right was not to level it, but to start over.”

What You See Is What You Get
Munro’s philosophy brooks little patience for pretense of any kind—with a special disdain for battles over status. “That whole corporate ladder thing, that corporate survival, that kissing ass to make yourself look better at the expense of somebody else, I don’t agree with it at all. I think that everybody’s the same whether you’re the CEO or the guy working in the ditch.”

But his professional respect hinges on clean dealing. “I don’t like the smoke and mirrors thing. I think in these big projects, where there are so many problems in it anyway that you can’t foresee, that everybody ought to be open and honest. If we all know about the problem, we can try to solve the problem. If you don’t have all the facts, it ends up costing somebody money. I believe in what we do and we do the best we can. We aren’t perfect. Nobody can be perfect in this industry. Too many things change every day. But that’s what makes it interesting.”

That attitude may endear him to customers or cause friction, but he doesn’t worry about putting off potential business. “It’s a small industry,” he says. When people hire him, “They know up front the way it is.”

Shale And The Future of the Industry
After Tommy Mercer Sr.’s death and the completion of the Florida Gas pipeline, George Mercer moved the company headquarters back to Weatherford, TX, where he’d grown up. And then, as Munro tells it, “We were in the right place at the right time. The shale plays came along, and we just happened to be sitting right in the middle of the Barnett Shale.”

The company took the opportunity to set up a line-pipe yard in the area, modeled after the drill-pipe yards Mercer had deployed in Houston in the 1950s and 60s. “It’s a very tedious, hard thing to do.” But the idea worked out for Mercer and the producers, and, Munro says, “As soon as our competitors read this article, they’re probably going to say ‘How did we miss out on that?’”

However, like many, Munro is seeing a disconnect between the domestic supply of natural gas and the demand for it, and he’d like to see that gap closed. “Here in Texas, all our school buses should be running on natural gas. Every city, all our vehicles, all our factories should be run on natural gas. But there hasn’t really been anybody pushing the technology. Do you have natural gas at home? I’m jealous. It’s not even available where I live. I live in the middle of the Barnett Shale, and I have no natural gas to cook on in my house!”

What will it take? Munro would like to see a government research program on the level of NASA investigating the best options for natural gas. “I think there’s a place for alternative energies, but natural gas will become much more prominent. It’s clean-burning and we have an abundance of it—yes, wind power is great, biofuels are great, but how much can you produce? Natural gas is there. I’m hoping, I think we’re all hoping, for it to really take off.”