As a fitting tribute to Pat Riley’s three decades-plus of contributions to the natural gas industry, he was recently named recipient of the Tennessee Gas Association’s coveted Silver Flame Award. Riley, the long-time general manager for Gibson County Utility District – covering about 500 square miles and serving 12,000 natural gas customers – sits on the executive and full board at the TGA as well as the energy subcommittee of the state Chamber of Commerce.
In this interview, he discusses what he considers some of the biggest changes faced by the industry – including increased federal regulation and the rise of technological innovations – the importance of succession planning for the workforce and his passion for natural gas vehicles, which he hopes to make the staple of his company within the next five years.
Riley also offers aspiring natural gas industry professionals some tips on what their future bosses may expect of them, and mentions the possibility of a partnership between the TNA and the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
P&GJ: What led you to choose the energy industry for your career?
Riley: I wish I could say I knew from the start that I wanted to be in the energy industry, but that wasn’t the case. A good friend encouraged me to get into the engineering field, so I did.
I started my education at State Technical Institute in Memphis in civil engineering technology. I finished with high honors in 1980 and was hired by a local engineering firm, Allen & Hoshall Consulting Engineers. That’s where I began my natural gas career, as I was hired into their Natural Gas Department. I worked there seven years and went to school at night to get my B.S. in civil engineering technology at the University of Memphis. Then I landed a job at the Gibson County Utility District and have been here for 26 years.
P&GJ: What are the biggest changes the business has undergone since the early 1980s?
Riley: Without doubt it has to be all the changes in federal regulations that we now have to adhere to, from Order 636 (interstate industry deregulation) to present. I’m not saying they are not necessary, but there have been a lot, including Operator Qualification, Public Awareness and DIMP (distribution integrity management program). It makes running day-to-day operations more challenging.
Another big change has been technology. At Allen & Hoshall I was drafting with ink on Mylar in 1980. Now we can sit at a computer screen and take measurements without going into the field. We have GPS for all our mains, services, valves and meters in the system.
The power of technology has been incredible. Look at meter reading: no longer do service personnel have to keep bulky paper logbooks and take readings in all kinds of weather. Our personnel can read meters in a nearby town that used to take three days and now do it in 45 minutes. This technology has helped us to do more with less. It has also has made us a better company by letting us become more adaptable.
P&GJ: What is a county utility district by definition, and how does that make it different from other gas companies?
Riley: We are a political subdivision of the state and a nonprofit, answering to our customers. We are governed by a five-member board. I have served under a self-perpetuating board, an elected board and now a county mayor (presides over county commission)-appointed board. I believe I am the only gas manager in the state who has gone through all these forms of governance.
Although we are nonprofit, we still have to turn a profit to stay in business, so we are always looking for ways to do things more efficiently. One thing that makes us different is that we set our own rates and service fees. We are located in a very rural area and everybody knows you. Questions at the grocery store are not uncommon and I welcome them.
P&GJ: As a local company, focused on a specific county, what do you see as Gibson County Utility District’s role in the community?
Riley: We’re a big part of the economic and community development of the county. In the last 10 years, we have invested more than $8 million in system improvements and main expansions within the county. These are dollars that did not have to come from city or county government budgets. Recently, we invested more than $1 million in a system improvement to an industrial park to accommodate two new industries that came to a local town. They are going to generate more than 300 jobs and would not have located here if we could not have served them. Recently we helped the agriculture community by supplying gas to farmers’ irrigation pivots.
P&GJ: What do you see as the most significant short-term challenge facing gas utilities? How about biggest long-term challenge?
Riley: The most significant short-term challenge involves succession planning. You have to keep a well-trained workforce as things have grown more complex with regulations and technology. As baby boomers exit, gas systems have to be ready to pass the torch to meet future challenges.
Another short- and long-term challenge is looking at and investing in natural gas vehicles (NGVs) and infrastructure. Our industry is going to take a quantum leap in America’s energy picture. In fact, it’s already taking place, and is a passion of mine. NGV use represents more than a huge potential profit maker for LDCs; it also represents energy security for America through less imported foreign oil while leading to a cleaner environment. NGVs are an alternative energy now and we need to realize this.
P&GJ: We understand that you have driven a natural gas-powered truck for some time. How has that worked out for you?
Riley: It’s been a year. We’ve got three in our fleet, including mine, and are about to add two more. The goal is within the next five years to convert all 25 trucks over to CNG (compressed natural gas) with the gasoline component. We have bought more than 18 acres of land right across from our company with the hope of building a fuel station. I’m trying to get a one-island station built that would have a card-swipe with different codes for AT&T, Waste Management and our company.
As far as performance, I’ve not had any problems whatsoever with the one I’m driving. It’s an F-150 that I had converted and I’ve got plenty of power in it. Nobody else I know has had any problems either.
P&GJ: How much of a financial challenge has it become to replace distribution mains and other aging infrastructure that does not necessarily bring in new customers, compared to years past?
Riley: Our system has been pretty much an all-steel system and we embrace it. Yes, we have some plastic in our system, but we operate at such high pressures throughout the county, it really makes steel the better choice for us in the long haul. At the pressures we operate (primarily 409 MAOP and 182 MAOP), you have to build and maintain a regulator station to use plastic, and you have to figure in the upkeep of that station for a long time.
In my 26 years here at Gibson County Utility District, I cannot think of any long sections of main that have had to be replaced due to corrosion. Succession planning – making sure we have a NACE-certified person on board – has made all the difference to our system.
In fact, we’re going to all of our 45 regulator stations and taking an inventory. We’re replacing older equipment with new equipment, but this has not caused a hardship. We are also looking at the surrounding areas around the stations for any dangers that could occur like falling trees or heavy traffic.
P&GJ: What would you advice someone with long-term career aspirations just starting in the natural gas industry that might make his or her career path easier to negotiate?
Riley: At the outset, know that change is a way of life, like it is for most businesses today. You need to embrace it. I have heard that a recent college graduate will have up to 10 jobs in his or her career. We are not your father’s gas system anymore. Get a good education not only in engineering but also in finance, marketing and a foreign language. Try to intern with a local utility while in school; it looks very good in conjunction with your degree. Also be a people person. Never lose your interpersonal skills. An iPhone is great, but human contact is always going to be better. Always be open to change and innovation.
P&GJ: What would you consider your biggest successes or moments you are most proud of over the course of your career?
Riley: We made the cover of a magazine years ago that wrote about innovative equipment we installed that had never been tried in a rural application before, and it has worked perfectly. This got the attention of the television show, “Pat Summerall’s Champions of Industry.” We got a 15-minute spot on the hour-long program.
Most recently, I received the Silver Flame Award. It is the highest honor our Association gives. It is voted on and given by my peers, and I am very humbled. I love this industry and continue to have a passion for it. I am also very blessed to have been married to my lovely wife, Julie, for 30 years. We have no children, but we do have three cats.
Pat Riley may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.