S2:E2 Leveraging Tech in the Liquid Propane Business

Nov 29, 2022


Show Notes 

In this episode, VP of Energy East Eric Adair and Eastern Region LP Director John Leedy discuss the work being done to improve safety and efficiencies for the team and give peace of mind to customers across the territory.

To learn more about Ceres Solutions Energy visit  https://www.ceres.coop/propane or reach out to your local Ceres representative.  


A Glimpse At This Episode

0:58 Meet our Guest, John Leedy

1:20 Tech advancements at Ceres

7:10 Responding to customer calls

13:04 Technology for a safer future

30:20 Career opportunities on the energy team


Morgan Seger (00:00):
Every day we rely on food, fuel, and fiber. But how much do you know about these industries we depend on? In this podcast, we dive deep into the production and processes of these everyday essentials. This is Field Points, an original podcast production from Ceres Solutions. Welcome back to Field Points. This is our second episode in our series on Energy. I'm joined today by my co-host Eric Adair, VP of Energy with Ceres Solutions. Our conversation today is focused around leveraging technology in the LP business. Our guest today is John Leedy. The work that John is doing not only improves efficiencies for the members of the Ceres Solutions Energy team, but it also is giving peace of mind to customers across the territory. We're going to talk through IOT sensors, smart dispatching and what Ceres is doing to keep their drivers safe and efficient. First, let's meet John.
John Leedy (00:58):
I'm an Eastern region LP director. I work with our branch managers and our employees to provide the safest, best service we can to our customers and our LP customers.
Morgan Seger (01:11):
John has been with Ceres Solutions for five years. He kicks off our conversation by explaining some of the work that Ceres has been doing in the energy division.
John Leedy (01:20):
We started out was like putting GPS on our trucks so we can track where they're at. If we have an emergency call, we can quickly look on a map, know who's the quickest one to respond and that just improves the timeline on how quickly we can take care of it of an issue. We've also invested in the last couple years we've installing monitors so we know absolutely the tank level rather than a projection of degree day calculations. So we have less run outs. We could be more predictable on our dispatching. The monitors are really kind of a key data for a lot of the things we do within our company as far as that goes. We also trying to go to paperless as by 2025. So we've adopted P3 safety as an electronic way to do our system checks with photo documentation. It's just a lot higher level of detail. It's more transparent for anybody in the company. If we need to see something about a particular customer's set up, we can quickly go in and see how it was installed, the location of the tank to the house, just the area that just makes it a lot quicker and better information for us to have available.
Morgan Seger (02:47):
The tank monitors that John mentioned are taking the guesswork out of managing your tank level. This means not only can the fleet of energy vehicles be more efficient when they're trying to fill up the tanks, but it also means peace of mind for those customers who are expecting those tanks to not run empty. Before implementing this technology, the Ceres team used to have a calculation to figure out what energy needs might be
John Leedy (03:10):
Degree day calculations based on the burn rate of the appliances they have within the house. And then we can calculate and tell us approximately how much they should have used based on the three days, which that's not an exact science.
Eric Adair (03:25):
Does it take account affect wind? Yes. Which could be huge. We 20 mile an hour wind, it's gonna cool your house a lot faster than no wind <affirmative>. But the calculation we used to use would not pick that
Morgan Seger (03:38):
Up. By the end of 2022, all scheduled filled customers will have these sensors in their tank.
Eric Adair (03:45):
So John, he said earlier today that it's the hardest thing to do is to talk about yourself. Well I can talk about John A. Little bit here cuz I knew John from my previous role and he was just had such an impressive situation when I walked into his work one day and he oversaw a concrete company that I don't know, I think John at one time told me they had about a hundred trucks on the road and I walked into one of the offices that he had set up and it looked almost like a air traffic control tower is how I pictured it as far as how the routings were all done on the trucks and what was going on. And I just thought this was incredible. So when John was interested in coming here, I said, I told him, I said, I don't know how I'm gonna do it but I gotta figure out how to get you hired.
So <laugh>, that was my process. So John's here and he had been a blessing for us for sure. He talks about the GPS on the trucks. What else John, I know you said is we've had incidents here where an employee has gotten hurt and one I can think of right now. They fell off a ladder they didn't know where they called us but they didn't know where they were at cuz they had hit their head <affirmative> and we used that truck to locate where they were at. So we could send help there. We've used the truck, someone had cut themselves before badly. We used that GPS to locate them as well. So there's been things there. But they also do other things as far as tracking maintenance on the trucks. Correct,
John Leedy (05:16):
Yes. We track our DOT annual inspections. We have to do our PMs. In fact we can put in anything that we want to track by time and time and hours and track it in our system and it, it'll send an alert to the driver, the manager, whoever needs to have this information to know that prior to it becoming due and they can schedule it and get it taken care of. Crews are our maintenance a lot. We don't go over on our intervals of safety checks and inspections.
Eric Adair (05:52):
<affirmative>. From a DOT compliance standpoint, it's very helpful cuz it'll let you know, hey you have a truck that's coming up for DOT inspection. You need to get that done before it runs out of compliance. So from a safety standpoint, like John said, absolutely yes.
Morgan Seger (06:07):
Next John walks us through the P3 safety documentation system and how it works and how it's designed to help keep customers safer.
John Leedy (06:16):
Well the level of documentation, photo ID on appliances and install it makes it quick and easy for us to respond and know exactly what we're coming into. If we get a call and there's a problem, we know exactly what they have at their house. I feel that the documentation in itself just makes us way more proactive and professional and ready to respond when we have an issue and as we move forward, there's more and more paper paperless documentation that we can add in from lease agreements to service work orders, which as it grows and evolves, we'll have all documentation of anything and everything we've ever done with a customer from a service standpoint available.
Morgan Seger (07:04):
When you say it helps you respond if there's an issue, what types of issues are you talking about?
John Leedy (07:10):
An "I smell gas" call when they call in first thing I wanna get another customer in the account. And the way it currently is, before P3 all you really had was tank size and an address and account number. Now we can actually go in and see maybe the install the area and have all the appliance documentation and sometimes even photos of the appliances so we know what we're coming into address. What
Eric Adair (07:41):
About checks and balances today versus before? So let's say I go into a leak check and it's not completed accurately it in our past what would've happened there?
John Leedy (07:52):
It would come back to the office and the office personnel would have to input that information into our system and they may or may not miss lacking a signature or date or a test time. Time and stop. If we're doing a leak checks where now it will not allow you to go to the next step without completing that information in that cell and going to the next one. So it actually monitors and if there's anything that doesn't get completed or it doesn't really fall into parameters, there's a dashboard that the manager will have end his office every day where he can see everything that was done, if it was completed, a hundred percent correct, it's fine if there's anything that needs priority follow up, maybe they need a vent or they need to move something, it's all documented right there and it just stays in front of him until he addresses it and clears it out and signs off on that it's completed.
Eric Adair (08:49):
And not only could the manager see it, you could see it, Phil Pirtle, our safety director could see it. So I mean our safety director could get in there and see that. So he could see at one time all the dashboards for all our drivers, all our delivery people and see, okay, what is a potential risk here for the company that's not being done properly? Where before we didn't have close to that type of checks and balances. Sure, from a customer safety standpoint,
John Leedy (09:18):
We would have to actually go and I'd go and inspect leak checks and the documentation and I'd look to make sure everything appeared to be correct, but it was a manual visit to the branch and there's a time lapse by the time you get there, it's not as transparent and available to know how the progress is going.
Eric Adair (09:39):
John had mentioned when you do a leak check, you need to hold that pressure for three minutes and let's say in the past that wasn't done well. The computer would flag that if it wasn't done and you would see that hey, this wasn't completed accurately and maybe there was the reason it wasn't right or the time was wrong is because there was a leak.
Morgan Seger (09:59):
Next we transitioned to the efficiencies gained by installing these tank monitors.
Eric Adair (10:05):
So last winter we had three departments on head tank monitors.
John Leedy (10:09):
Yes, fully yes, fully monitored and had, I don't bring the details exactly the date on how many hours less overtime, but we did have probably a 25% increase in gallons per mile and hours to do it was the gallons per hour was considerably higher. It's really not just any one thing, it's not just the monitors. It's also tied to recreating the design of our routes, reducing the square miles for each route day so they're have the least amount of miles they need to drive and get the maximum amount of stops available to do in a single day. And ultimately for the drivers, it was the ones that experienced it the first year that had been here for years. They could plan to go out to dinner with their wife. They had peace of mind that they weren't gonna have tanks running out cuz calculations were off and they're gonna get called out.
It always happens when they're in the middle of a family event. So the drivers that experienced it were just super pleased and the customers that weren't having unexpected run outs during their family events was extremely thrilled too. And it's honestly it, it's been a big conversion for people going from will call to keep folds. Just knowing that peace of mind that we absolutely are gonna be there when we need to be there. And from a safety standpoint, we've had several customers that when summertime comes to go to no usage, if they don't have a hot water or basically if it's just furnace only, their usage will go to zero. Well when we're constantly looking at our data or it'll tell us that one, if we have a rapid draw or even a change in the level for zero for a period of time and you start drawing, it'll notify you that, and we've had customers that had slow percentage of usage and we know they only had a furnace.
We called 'em and said, Hey, we're noticing you're losing about a percent a week and your tank has something changed, something going on. They said, well no. And we'd go out and we would find a leak, a small leak. Most of the time they're outside. But customers are just ecstatic that we could that one that we're monitoring their tank well enough to know that there's an issue and that we would notify 'em and come out and then address it for one, you know, could have a slow leak and if you didn't know that they could be using more propane a year than what they would ever normally use and it would be such a low amount you wouldn't know <affirmative>. So the monitors really, there's lots of things we can do with the monitor data to make a better experience for us than the customer. And safer,
Eric Adair (13:04):
Well everybody benefits. Ceres benefits, the customer benefits in our I employee group for sure. Benefits like John said, there's originally when we started trying to sell this to Troike cuz it is a substantial amount of money we spent on monitors and P3 in touch, all this stuff, what we've done here originally it was about hey it's gonna increase our efficiencies, it's gonna make us more profitable, all this. And I think the time it was all done, we went away from all that and it became about this is what we need for our customers and this is what we need for our employees. <affirmative>. Oh by the way, we hope it makes some money too. That'd be nice. But the reality is I think this is an absolute must for our future customer and our future employee. Like John said, there's employees that when they go to bed at night, they are very confident they're not gonna get a call at one o'clock in the morning that one of our key customers ran out of propane <affirmative> because they would need to go get that person and give 'em gas at one o'clock in the morning.
So it just creates an unsafe environment for the employee. I mean think about it, they're tired, it's late, real late in the evening. It makes it a much better experience for them and also for our customer in that example.
Morgan Seger (14:24):
So if they are keep full, does that mean that they have a contracted price or they're billrf when it gets filled just depending on when their monitor shows they're low?
John Leedy (14:36):
They could be on one of our programs whether it's budget, prepay, any of those things. They could be on any of those programs and it all would be a keep full customer.
Eric Adair (14:48):
<affirmative>. Okay. You don't have to be, they could be so they could be on a budget program with us. They don't necessarily need to be though. They could just be somebody who pays cash but they want to be on a autofill type program. Ideally those autofill customers keep full customers. We would like them to be effortless <affirmative>. I mean people that have natural gas at their house. I don't think, oh I mean should I call a gas company? Should I call Nipsco and asco? I mean it just happens. That's what we want their experience to be too is seamless. We talked about stock efficiencies. I know, I think this is right, correct me if I'm wrong John, but up in, I thought Doug's area last year with two drivers. I thought he had like 400 less stops last winter.
John Leedy (15:40):
Yes. Real close to that.
Eric Adair (15:41):
Yeah. So you gotta think you have 200 drivers, two drivers, 400 less stops in the middle of now that's for the winter times. You're talking October to March <affirmative>. But that's huge. And a lot of it is the reason they were stopping is they didn't want to get called out at one o'clock in the morning so they would stop and check tanks just because they didn't have enough faith in the computer system. Cuz like I said, it doesn't account for wind, it doesn't who it could have somebody, hey they're grandma moved home from Florida this winter and they didn't call us to let us know that there was a person there that wanted the home to be a little warmer. <laugh> the younger couple used to keep the home at 65 and now that grandma's there all a sudden the thing they moved up to 72. I will tell you right now that that house would run out of propane because our system did not know it adjusted that where today we would account for that action, it wouldn't happen
John Leedy (16:40):
In a lot of cases we could reduce a customer that would normally get three fills a winner, they get two. So if you have 4,000 customers and you can take a third of them and reduce them to two stops in the winter, that's a lot of hours and miles and time that we don't have to have the guys out on the road
Morgan Seger (17:03):
Going paperless is a goal that I have heard across Ceres Solutions divisions. John shares what the energy division is doing to reach that goal by 2025.
John Leedy (17:14):
That's a lofty goal. There's a lot of things to go paperless cuz your whole reason behind that is to make the customer experience a lot simpler all the way from when we come to the house to do service or an install, all they gotta do is sign a tablet and we email electronically, email them the information. Ideally paperless means you're not carrying and lots of loads of paper cause we actually had a time when I was inspecting leak checks, we had a whole bunch that were missing and lease agreements we're missing will come to find out they have to be carried from the customer's house to the truck back to the branch and documented and entered in the system. Well it's easy for paperwork especially if busy week it gets left in a box or in a folder somewhere in a truck and it doesn't make it into the branch and it doesn't get entered in and paperless just reduces the opportunity of loss of documentation and not having it into the system where we need it.
So it, it's gonna be a little painful as we transition into that cuz there's a lot of things that service guys and the drivers need to learn as far as how to manipulate through the documentation and get all the signatures not. But ultimately I will admit even our older group who aren't tech savvy, they've been blessedly pleased with how easy it was to maneuver through this and most have found it quick and easy to learn and ultimately they understand after using it that it is the way of the future and the direction we need to go as technology and our website grows and we have access to portals throughout our website for information and things, that'll be another avenue for them to get information and even on their own account or on propane in general.
Eric Adair (19:26):
Lots of benefits to that that it could be email, text, lots of different ways but it's just something we know we gotta get to. It's our goal. I wanna circle back on safety here just for a minute cuz I just feel real strong about this. I mean I've shared with our insurance company, I think we are the safest propane company out there on how we operate and what we do. I do know a lot of other companies that do not have near the technology we have today to bring us to the level of safety that we're dealing with. John could talk about this mean we talked about P three but John mentioned the cameras. So we're taking, when we install a tank at a customer's home, we're taking pictures of what we're installing, the regulators, the tank, the location, all this stuff. All that information then is not only is the paperwork reviewed by the manager and saw that there's any flaws, it would flag it, the machine would flag it on top of that. But on top they're also looking at the pictures. So you have a manager there that is oversee, I mean before we just didn't have that <affirmative>. I mean a man, there's no way a manager's gonna go out to every location that these techs are doing work at and approving something or not approving something on how it's done today. They're actually visually seeing that being done and it's either approved or not
John Leedy (20:55):
Approved. They have to approve every photo that's entered into the system that they agree that.
Eric Adair (21:00):
So we've created a lot of accountability and for that, I mean it definitely increased expectations of our employee group <affirmative>. And again, not only could the manager see it, John could see it. I could see mean our Phil Perle, our director of director of safety anybody in the company could see it and review this stuff. And I can just tell you that I don't know what percent of company propane companies out there have that technology. But I would say under 25% of the ones that I'm aware of, it's a small percentage. So this is a big deal. It's huge. And I mean propane obviously there is risk in it, it's a gas. So yeah, there's a lot of liability and we've taken it extremely serious and we've just feel very, very confident in what we've done to make it a safer place for our employee group and our customers. So you talked a little bit about the employee group. Talk about the challenges for the employee group too. I know you said hey, they've liked it. It's been a challenge also you've taken, we've in, we have moved their cheese a lot and I just told you we set higher expectations, increased accountability. So they, they've done a fantastic job adopting to this but we've had challenges.
John Leedy (22:23):
It does take longer on a busy day, you know got a lot going on and you gotta spend this extra time taking these photos and uploading it does get to the service tech cuz we were adding more to their job. But on the backside we are also not having to have an admin person and all this information manually into our system and potentially have errors, tank serial numbers, not quite referenced exact and all of that is time that they don't see. But they are providing a reduction of admin time to process a new customer. We have all kinds of things that our guys have to do during the day that maybe isn't considered the norm but the drivers
As they move forward and we got this as we build this database and we have this high level of detail information when they go back to the customer for interruption of service, they just pull the customer up in it, pulls all that information into their current interruption of service documents so they don't have to refill all this stuff out. They just gotta verify that the appliances are all the same and go through the system and see no changes a lot quicker. So down the road the information they're putting in now is gonna make their future visits to these customers a lot easier than it ever was in the past. So it's a little pain for a lot of gain down the road and it kind of goes into it like our drivers, all the technology we're putting forward as they come on board, probably the biggest frustration I've ever seen with a new driver is how am I ever gonna figure out my route?
I've got 1200 customers and I gotta figure out every day how I'm gonna to get to them. They're thinking, I don't know where all these addresses are. Well we give them an optimized list in the order that you would run it plus turn by turn direction. So their peace of mind for all they could do is come into work and what they have to do for the day is a, it's on their phone, give 'em a copy of it, it makes anyone coming into any area or any branch a simple seamless transition into a driver position.
Eric Adair (24:47):
We've taken drivers that a branch last year had the whole, seemed like the old branch got at the same time and we took drivers from other locations and put 'em up in that they never have been in that territory and not again, we only had three locations that had turn by turn direction, hand tank monitored the drivers that we sent to that new area that they had never been, if you ranked the drivers on a daily basis, they were some of our highest delivery drivers and they'd never been in the territory. I mean it is really incredible, amazing that you could take somebody who's never been in the area and they're cranking out that kind of gallons, it was so impressive to see that this made you feel like, wow, this is worth ever <laugh>. And like John said, the younger generation, I think they expect it.
They you're like, what do you mean I gotta figure out how to route myself. Cause I can tell you right now, in the past you would take a driver, they would go home in the evening, some of these individuals and they would spend 30 minutes an hour figuring out where they're gonna run the next day, how they're gonna route themselves. They weren't getting paid. I mean I think this is on their own <affirmative> to create theirselves, make themselves more efficient. And the ironic thing is some of those individuals don't want the new tech, Hey you don't need to tell me where to go. Where the younger generation are like I don't want to think about it, just tell me where to go and we're in to turn the truck and I'll do it. I can tell you right now, last year during Covid that the one branch I'm in particular I'm thinking of, if we didn't have dispatch with full routing and tank monitors, it would've, I don't know, it would've been a very bad situation I think. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, just because you're taking someone in a territory they have no idea where they're at and trying to keep up with the amount of effort it's going to take to keep these tanks full When, I mean we were in the dead of winter.
I don't, I'm not saying it couldn't happen, I think would've been a wreck and we made this work pretty seamless mean they did really, they did a fantastic job and I can't say enough about it and I'm thankful that Jeff has approved this and he's seen the vision of what this needs to happen and he's allowed it to happen for Ceres cuz it's made us a better company for sure.
Morgan Seger (27:11):
Well thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate you sharing the behind the scenes on the technology and energy and I feel like I learned a lot. Again, I'm loving this series because energy is something relatively new to me. I obviously I'm a consumer, but this is great. Yeah,
Eric Adair (27:28):
Well appreciate inviting me, just glad to be
Morgan Seger (27:31):
Here. Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Field Points. As we wrap up that conversation, it really sticks out to me that Ceres is working to change and evolve their systems in the energy division to better serve their customers and make a better employee experience as well.
Eric Adair (27:49):
Propane has been nonstop movement and change over the last probably two to three years for us, the technology that we've implemented there. Absolutely.
Morgan Seger (28:00):
And it sounds like you are well on your way to having this totally implemented. Is there anything that's kind of like next?
Eric Adair (28:07):
Yeah, that would be. So the biggest thing that I think again, it would probably be more obviously we're always focused on employee experience. I continue to want to press the customer experience. We need easier bill pay easier apps to order propane easier ways to fill out the contracts that we've talked about Bruce talking about, or the budget programs or prepaid programs, our flex programs we sign up for. Very little of that can be done that, for example, our budget programs online today. And that is just something that is a must to happen. I know it's going to happen as part of our 2025 also, but I just really think there's a lot of things we can do there that will be fantastic for again the customer and our employees. Because we send out, think about 20,000 of these forms, I forget how many, I wanna say they have 10,000.
They all come back into branches. That's all paperwork that everyone in these branches are handling that would become seamless. There's gonna be headaches, there's gonna be customers calling with problems that we already get that they already call us today. They're still gonna call us when they're signing up online. And oh by the way, a lot of customers wanna sign up online and think that will we continue to grow with the future? And we think that here and we know we need to get there. We're getting there. I just always tell Drew, I just would like to get there today. <laugh> be nice. So is there more coming? Absolutely. And there's gonna be more after that. I mean that's part of our jobs I think in leadership is to figure out where do we go next and what do we need next to make it the best for our employees and our customers. But I really think though the safety, I don't know, probably I talked about it a lot, but I just am really so proud of what we've done from a safety aspect here of how we've made us that much better of a company because let's face it, boils right down to it. That is the most important thing is nobody gets hurt.
Morgan Seger (30:20):
Before we wrap up this conversation, I just wanted to share one more thing. The energy division is always accepting applications for talented individuals who are interested in being part of this team. I feel like through our conversation, John and Eric really talked about how much they value their employees and I actually captured a clip of Eric talking about his experience as a Ceres employee.
Eric Adair (30:44):
This is a great company to work for. I believe it to be absolutely true. I mean I've worked for other companies and I just think it's amazing how well I, I hope our employee group feels that way. I think most of 'em do. <affirmative> we have a very low turnover but that doesn't still hard to recruit though. So cuz they don't know our story and it's our job to tell our story. But you gotta have their ear too to be able to tell that story and until you're here or until you've left. So I can tell you right now, we've had numerous employees leave and then ask to come back. It's almost surprising actually. It's not surprising to me because I've been outside this company working for other companies. I thought I can't believe the difference here.
Morgan Seger (31:37):
To learn more about career opportunities at Ceres Solutions, go to sir dot co-op and click on our careers tab. The show notes for this episode will be available at ceres.coop. If you enjoyed this deeper dive, be sure to subscribe and leave us a review. Your review and feedback will help other listeners like you find our podcast and we are so thankful for that.

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