Are We Done Learning?

Written on: September 6, 2023 by Paul J. Nazzaro

Many low-cost educational events are out there, but few people seize the opportunity to learn and grow. Those who do, however, can gain a significant competitive advantage.

Professional development and continuing education are critical in many careers, particularly those in which science, technology, laws and regulations are constantly changing. Take the medical field, for example. Imagine going to a doctor’s appointment to address your chronic headaches and the physician wants to drill a hole in your head—or consider your therapist scheduling a lobotomy because you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Those procedures were considered “state-of-the-art” at one time. While these examples are extreme, they illustrate just how important it is for those in the medical field to stay current with the latest techniques—not just because newer methods may be better and safer, but also because the old ways might simply be bad or dangerous.

Another industry positioned at the crossroads of ever-changing science, technology, laws and regulations is heating oil. Legislators are trying to regulate this business out of existence unless the sector can significantly clean up its act and reduce carbon emissions. The science and technology of Bioheat® fuel and more efficient biofuel-compatible equipment offer a solution to preserve the legacy of the thousands of local heating oil companies in this field, many of which are family-owned, generational businesses. Transforming this technology into concrete action, however, requires education, a willingness to learn and desire to—or better put, no fear of—change.

Despite numerous in-person events, tradeshows, webinars, websites and training materials offered throughout the year by folks like me and others with Clean Fuels Alliance America, the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA) and a variety of trade associations, there appears to be room for improvement in how we engage this industry’s workforce and businessowners to take advantage of these professional development opportunities. Following a recent customer service representative (CSR) boot camp hosted by NORA and Clean Fuels, an attendee wrote to provide a fair and balanced critique of the event. One of his observations was something I have wondered for decades—“I don’t know why more companies don’t send their people to a free event that will help their business.”

Long before Clean Fuels devoted millions of dollars to educate fuel dealers and their employees, commercial entities, including burner manufacturers, supply houses, State heating oil associations, NORA, Oil & Energy Service Professionals and others, committed to host and educate thousands of supply-chain participants, often free of charge or at a value commensurate with the level of education being offered. For educational events I am involved with, I spend weeks (and sometimes months) preparing comprehensive presentations about biodiesel and how it can be used to blend down the carbon in distillate fuel—a subject that was truly never discussed or understood before, and one that certainly needed explaining to earn the confidence of the industry contemplating this much-needed transition to low-carbon fuels.

On one occasion, my wife joined me at the event. She sat in the back of a room staged for 150 interested parties eager to improve their knowledge in hopes they could go back to their companies and begin to build home heating—21st-Century style. Unfortunately, only about 16 individuals joined me that day, scattered across the room with countless seats between them. For the record, at least six of those attendees were friends and close business associates, so basically it was a bust. After the presentation, in which I committed the same level of energy as though the room was packed, my wife asked me, “Where was everyone?” and “Why don’t those roaming the halls come in to learn?” I had no answer. Honestly, I still do not.

What I do know is that these all-too-frequent situations have been the norm. I call them “lost opportunities.” Who’s the loser? Well, those wandering the halls for starters, along with their employers, families, customers and the industry at large. One could easily argue that the ripple effect goes well beyond that, affecting soybean farmers, rural communities, and in some small but important measure, the environment itself.

Who’s winning? The competition, for sure. Utilities are banded together, emboldened with capital to share positive imagery and stories with customers looking for an energy source free of headaches while delivering optimum home comfort. These well-structured, well-capitalized utilities require employee participation in professional development training and continuing education classes to strengthen their knowledge, which then gets shared with their customers.

While preparing for this summer’s XBX Exploring Biodiesel seminars in Massachusetts and Connecticut, NORA and Clean Fuels organizers invested countless hours over months developing comprehensive subject matter that would make good CSRs even better through teaching them the core messaging that defines Bioheat® fuel: energy diversity, operational excellence, consumers’ right to choose and no transition costs. The courses offer deep dives into understanding consumer behaviors and constructing story boards that, when put into high gear, build confidence and trust with the consumer. These events give attendees insight that they can take back and use immediately. All this preparation was met with a reasonable attendance; however, one could argue that 85 CSRs is certainly not a strong cross section of the Massachusetts marketplace.

Considering the number of full-serve and call-on-demand (COD) fuel dealers, as well as equipment-service providers, suggesting that at least two people from each company attend the event should fill the room with hundreds of people. We wondered whether the lower-than-expected attendance was because of the heat and humidity that week or maybe because July is beach, boating and surfing time. Was it the COVID-19 pandemic that led to the reasonable, but sparse, attendance?

Policy leadership certainly doesn’t waiver or use the above excuses as it continues to work diligently to abolish combustion in favor of its preferred energy source (heating oil need not apply for that moniker).

Is this industry done learning? I hope not. Has it reached the pinnacle of being a total, perfected energy package? I think not. Is our product stale and stagnant? With increasing blends of Bioheat® fuel, surely not.

What makes the heating-oil industry and its acceptance of Bioheat® fuel—or in some cases the lack thereof—special is that, unlike Big Oil where decisions are made at the top, we’ve got thousands of individual and oftentimes family-owned businesses making decisions that cumulatively affect their industry in ways they probably couldn’t have foreseen. This entails a lot of different attitudes, thought processes and brains at play, none of which think alike. However, the good—or bad—actions of a few companies can have a profound influence. I’ll give examples of what I mean.

Take a well-known New England energy company that, many years ago, saw what I see today—market erosion. Then, however, the fuels eating into heating oil’s market share were natural gas and propane, whereas today, that energy source is electricity. This particular company saw evident erosion and, with foresight, decided to establish a position in propane to be prepared to sell this fuel option to its existing account base. To maximize its diversification, the company transported crude by rail and excelled in railing shale oil back East to refine and sell to its customers.

Another example is my own company, Advanced Fuel Solutions. As biodiesel became more popular, we saw decreased lubricity-additive sales and adjusted by assessing and investing in new markets to offset our losses. I saw that biodiesel was the future, so we encouraged our upstream collaborators to set out to develop effective, modern chemistries that would address potential needs on that side of the equation. A very recent example of this is the cold-flow improver we pioneered with Clean Fuels, NORA, Clariant and Innospec to reduce the pour-point temperature of B50 blends.

I’m not a mad scientist, but with 40 years of experience, I know how to adapt, evolve and grow businesses. I would like to think these two examples of individual companies making good decisions could positively influence others to do the same—to learn, adapt and change for the better.

On the flipside, bad actions by a few companies can also negatively influence others in ways that are counterproductive to change and can only be curbed through professional development and continuing education. All it takes is one misinformed technician on midnight service calls telling customers that biodiesel is bad for their systems, and that they should find a dealer who doesn’t sell “that stuff,” to initiate the domino effect. This is why we need to get the entire supply chain in lock step, from CEOs to service technicians.

In the end, it doesn’t make a difference where you are in the supply chain or how much revenue you bring in; you can either stand static on the ground while the world around you keeps moving and respond reactively, or you can recognize your disadvantages, empower yourself and channel energies to increase productivity, revenue and good will.

Experience tells us that many believe there is no reason for improvement—legislators count us out, technology and the fuel we have used for decades is good enough to get by and, honestly, some in this space are just too busy to pause for improvement.

How can all this education be out there and very few take advantage of it? Whatever the reason—and frankly none justifies avoiding educating ourselves—we all need to move toward better utilization of the many programs offered by NORA, Clean Fuels, equipment manufacturers, vendors, and everyone and anyone willing to share knowledge. Good parents don’t let their kids skip class, so why should good business owners let their employees miss these educational opportunities that stand to benefit the company, its employees and its customers? Just grab the chance. The decision will be valued once you begin moving your company to low-carbon liquid fuels. ICM