This year Phil Lee achieved his 25th year of working for Northern Energy.We took Phil out of his busy LPG tank management schedule to have a chat about his experiences over the last quarter of a century.
Phil is an unassuming, quiet man that exudes an air of confidence and trust. In recognition of this landmark achievement, we asked him some questions about his career with Northern Energy, his ups, downs and philosophy on being a successful manager, employee and colleague.Phil has covered multiple roles within the firm, giving him a vast knowledge of both heating oil and LPG from a delivery driver role and working (as he currently does) in the office.
Work Anniversary Interview
How did your career in LPG and Heating Oil start?
I started with the company on 20th May 1991 as a driver. I drove the company tankers for five years, doing multi-drops of heating oil and DERV, tractor diesel and petrol deliveries. I seemed to be the first driver in and the last driver to leave. At this point I decided to use my experience within the office environment. All the experience I had gained was transferable to an office role, so I spoke to Dave Illingworth and shared my thoughts. There was a position based in the lubricant part of the business and fortunately Dave saw potential in me and gave me a chance. Because of staff shortages at the time, I ended up working both in the office taking care of the drivers’ tachographs (a device fitted to a vehicle that automatically records its speed and distance, together with the drivers’ activity) whilst still loading and delivering oil drums and IBCs (intermediate bulk containers). At that time, we went as far up as Northumberland to reach farmers and small businesses and across to Ellesmere Port to fulfil contract obligations with the main Ford dealers.I worked alongside Diane in the Lubricants Department, who still works in the office today doing heating oil logistics.I was then asked to work at our Bedale site as operations manager which is where I began to learn about the LPG side of the business. I commuted to Bedale and worked with Steve Walmsley for two years, until the yard was eventually closed down, so I returned to working in Hampsthwaite.
What do you look for when new members of staff are introduced to your team?
I think the basics have got to be there, a person has to be smart and friendly. That goes for office staff and the drivers, in fact, particularly the drivers as our customers want to feel assured that they can trust the person making a delivery on their property. I like to work alongside local people, I think it becomes an advantage in winter because we know our team can get in to work and control operations so that the customer doesn’t suffer when the extreme weather hits. Obviously it isn’t everything I look for, but I feel these factors mean that we are able to offer a friendly, reliable service.
How important have good employees been to your success?
Northern Energy is a family run business and I think it is important our customers get that feeling on the other end of the phone. It is very much a team effort and we all try to carry on the family theme, one family talking to another. Without good staff, who understand the ethics of the business, we are just another energy provider.
What advice would you give to college students looking to sustain a long career?
You must show willingness. I would be the first to admit, I’m not the most qualified, but I have always been willing to have a go and having performed several different roles, it has given me a greater understanding of how others work. Without trying different areas of a business, you don’t know quite what you enjoy most. Enjoyment is a crucially important factor in your career. Once you enjoy your work, your career and family life will both thrive!
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
That is a tough one. I feel that I have learned along the way. If I had to pick something, I have always lived in rural areas and feel that sometimes this makes me a little naïve, I sometimes wonder if with my strong work ethic I should have worked for myself? I wish I had left my village a little sooner, but having said that, I might not have achieved what I have if I’d taken a different route.
What are some of the skills needed in your line of work?
My current line of work, being responsible for customer’s LPG tanks, means that I have to be able to negotiate. If LPG tanks have been in for years and they were originally sited in the wrong place or building work has since taken place, I need to negotiate how we are going to re-site the tank with as little disruption and concern to the customer as possible. I am keen on keeping the customer informed with as much detail as they require.You need a good sense of humour, especially when you are working as part of a team in an office. It’s amazing how much a happy work environment can rub off onto the customers that we speak to.
What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?
Sometimes you have to place your trust in others that can go against what you believe. I think it is important to be confident in your own experience and judgement. If it goes against your gut instinct, it’s usually a good indication that there is a problem.Depending on where you are in life, long hours and taking your work home with you isn’t always a good thing, sure you make more money if you work longer which was great when I was young and single, but when my family came along it took me a little bit too long to recognise I needed a less stressful job.My willingness to work hard and please has meant that I have struggled to ever say “no” to requests, you could say that is a failure on my part, however it has got me to where I am today.
Describe / outline your typical day?
My current role means that I liaise with all areas of the business. I do the occasional tanker driving. I work with Operations who organise the delivery of LPG to the new tanks and tank exchanges following completion. I also take care of tank inspections, maintenance, uplifts / pump outs and tank testing. I work with the drivers and the LPG engineers, ensuring they know where they are going and exactly what the customer requires. I really enjoy speaking with customers face to face and over the phone. We discuss their LPG requirements, making sure we are all fully aware of any action required concerning their LPG tanks whilst abiding to the LPG Code of Practice.I attend regular meetings to make sure we are aware of any changes and improvements to the business.
Do you have a good work / life balance? Why?
I do now, but it is something you have to work towards and be aware of. As mentioned before long hours can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal circumstances. When you are into your work it is easy to let it run away with you, which is what I felt happened to me.
What motivates you?
I feel that working hard can improve your quality of life. Like anybody, I like to be praised for doing a good job, but I also like to be able to stand back and be proud at what I have achieved and the level of commitment I have applied.Call it a downfall but I’m not the kind of person that is solely motivated by money.
What is your greatest fear and how do you manage fear?
Fortunately, I don’t really suffer from any fears or phobias but I have a small fear of work appraisals. My ambition has always been to work hard and receive credit for it. The idea that I had not achieved what I had been asked to do gives me fear as I don’t like to let anybody down.Working with a volatile product such as LPG can give me fear, which is why we are so stringent about adhering to rules, regulations and recruiting the right drivers.
How do you define a successful career?
That one’s simple. You must be happy in your work.
How do you build a loyal customer base?
You must be honest with customers, you must listen to them and meet their needs. A customer can be retained or lost, dependent on how you react to their problems and concerns. If you do everything you can for the customer, hopefully they will tell a friend, who will tell their friend and it goes on and on. I do my upmost to please every customer.
Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful manager?
I’ve never considered myself as a manager, more a work colleague, perhaps I think I am possibly too soft to be a manager, but it seems to have worked. I like to be able to look everyone in the eye and truly understand where they are coming from. Because I may have done their job before them, I feel that I have a good understanding of day to day issues that may arise.
Has there been a figure from your career that stands out as someone you admire?
An influential character from my past was David Low, before joining us he was the manager of an Esso terminal in West London. David was always there to listen and advise me and due to his enthusiastic nature he inspired me to learn and master my job role.David was an eccentric but ever such a charismatic gentleman, with a skill to write the perfect health and safety letter, although no one else could actually read it. Perhaps he should have been a doctor!He was a strong mentor and gave me great confidence to know that he believed in me and he was always there with constructive support.I enjoyed working with him both in the work place and at his farm.Despite nearing retirement, David had a passion for learning new things such as French and numerous commercial qualifications whilst still running his small holding in Richmond.David was a privilege to know and will never be forgotten.
Who or what has been your greatest inspiration in your line of work?
I have always been inspired by Howard Illingworth. We have worked together for so long now and has always been there with an open door to offer advice and to listen. I think the next generation of Illingworth’s, James, Stuart and Ted, are following in their family’s footsteps, which gives me great confidence and excitement over the longevity of the business. I was honoured to be a part of the company’s 75th anniversary celebrations in 2006.
Do you consider yourself successful?
Where I have come from, with a lack of qualifications, I do consider myself successful. It’s been hard graft but it’s been worth it, I’m chuffed.Success is marked in different ways. My mum brought four of us up properly and kept us out of trouble after my father sadly died when I was three. I consider my mum successful.
What has been the most satisfying moment in your career?
Howard and David Illingworth placed their trust in me to run a depot based in Newcastle, I remember sitting back and being really flattered and proud that I had been asked. But the most satisfying moment, I’d have to say was passing my HGV test and getting my licence.This is something I’d always wanted to do since I was a kid.
In one word or phrase characterise your work life.
Enjoyable with a bit of stress.
What are your hobbies? What do you do in your non-work time?
I like to go camping, walking and canoeing. I love lots of outdoor activities, I recently bought myself a motorbike which I take out to The Dales. I love D.I.Y and gardening too.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I will be nearing my retirement age. I hope to be in a similar role to the one I’m in now, possibly with less hours. When I’m 70, hopefully I might be sweeping the yard, cleaning windows and cutting back hedges. I don’t ever see a time when I will not be busy around Northern Energy.
What risks do the LPG & heating oil businesses face?
Price is always going to be the most important factor, which is led by supply and demand. The availability of the product may be a factor in the future and strong competition from renewable energy seems to be gathering momentum.