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Q&A ’13: HollyFrontier executive offers insight into leadership, safety

10.08.2013  |  Billy Thinnes,  Hydrocarbon Processing, 

Jim Stump, senior vice president of refining for HollyFrontier, emphasized that engineers should get out of the office and collaborate more with the rest of the refinery staff.


By Billy Thinnes
Technical Editor

DALLAS -- Jim Stump has worked in all sorts of roles at refineries. His wide array of experience served him well as he evolved from being a young engineer, wet behind the ears with much to learn, to his present position as HollyFrontier’s senior vice president for refinery operations. During his 21 years of service with Frontier (this time encompasses pre- and post-merger with Holly), Mr. Stump has worked in operations, marketing and management. He has been in his present role since 2011.

Mr. Stump’s career progression offered him the perfect perspective to deliver a keynote speech on the subject of leadership and safety. One leadership challenge he faced early in his career was gaining the trust of a seasoned refinery veteran. For the sake of this example, Mr. Stump referred to this person as “Norm.” Norm taught him how crucial it is to “help your guys.”

“The second thing I learned was to be present,” Mr. Stump told delegates at the AFPM Q&A and Technology Forum at the Sheraton Dallas. “These days it is easy, with emails and technology, for engineers to sit in their office and do 90% of the job there.”

He emphasized that engineers should get out of the office and collaborate with the rest of the refinery staff. “During startups, shutdowns or upsets, our engineers should be present for these activities to make sure operators aren’t missing important data,” Mr. Stump said. “I can remember watching a cat cracker startup. Sitting back [and] looking at data, everybody felt things were stable, so we started introducing feed. Although we kept providing more feed, the temperature wasn’t changing. We weren’t flaring much, either.”

Since Mr. Stump was present for the startup, he was able to troubleshoot the problem and come up with a solution. “Without having an engineer present, that could have proceeded into quite a disaster,” he noted.

Mr. Stump also believes that leaders should “be there, but not [be] in the way.” He encourages team leaders to make sure their corporate support engineers have gold status in frequent flier programs. This was stated somewhat as a joke, but the point that even the corporate guys need to be at plants and have relationships with the workers there, was quite valid.

Ask, don’t tell. A key point in downstream leadership is to work collaboratively and not boss people around. Ask questions until team members can find a solution on their own. “They will leave feeling good, and will own the outcome,” Mr. Stump said.

The HollyFrontier VP learned this lesson while working at the company’s El Dorado, Kansas refinery, which has a crude oil throughput capacity of 135,000 barrels per day. Two months from a catalytic cracker turnaround, the fractionator would flood.

“We had too much gas oil inventory,” Mr. Stump said. “Nobody could figure it out, so I had to figure it out. Instead of giving orders, I sat with the unit board man and made some moves with him, and we concluded that we had a hole in the chimney tray. The great thing was that we solved the problem together. That was the first time I met Dan Anderson, the board man, and to this day, he will call me to talk. That three-hour afternoon in El Dorado made us lifelong friends.”

Practice humility. There is nothing noble in acting superior, Mr. Stump said. “A lot of us engineers can come across as arrogant. Success in leadership is not about knowing everything. I love that I work in an industry where not one human being can know everything.”

Mr. Stump worked as a superintendent in the Cheyenne, Wyoming plant. It was his job to discuss survey results. The employees said he was arrogant, but he did not believe them. Fortunately, some operators were in the room and they said to him, listen to yourself. They dissected Mr. Stump’s leadership skills, and it was a productive conversation.

“The way I was coming across was very arrogant,” he said. “Arrogance in our business is a death kiss; you will never have others follow you like you want.”

Learn from mistakes. Refineries are target-rich environments for mistakes. Instead of issuing blame, people should work together to find the true cause of a problem, and not fixate on fault.

“Investigate what happened without laying blame,” Mr. Stump advised. “I met Carolyn Merritt when she was the chairwoman of the Chemical Safety Board. She told me that when they first set up the board, they hired scientists and experts because we were investigating incidents.”

After a year of investigating, however, they realized they hired the wrong people. It was human behaviors, not technical issues, that were causing problems. “Find a way to be humane to our people when discussing mistakes,” Mr. Stump said.

He also advises engineers to not attempt to be a hero. “I see motivated young people that want to solve our problems and get credit for doing that,” he said. “Our refineries are too complex for any one person to solve problems. Leverage coworkers, request help and accomplish more working as a team.”

Mr. Stump recommends calling and consulting colleagues. “Get some help,” he said. “We are not in this business to grab the limelight.”

See it, own it. Another bit of advice was if you see a problem, you need to be the owner of the problem. Do not assume someone else is taking care of it, and do not write a procedure and assume an operator will read it, he said.

Mr. Stump concluded his remarks by encouraging the audience to be courageous. “You have every right to question a lead operator’s decision,” he said.

Have your say
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Sudhakara Babu Marpudi

Excellent article. LLF (Look, Listen and Feel) is the name of the art. I have about 20 success stories (unbelievably true experiences) to share on the subject. One such story is about "how the brekafast of Refinery operators affected the refinery performance (lead to frequent reduction in CDU thruput)". I would like to share these to demonstrate how simple the problem solving could be. Using the LLF I have solved aged old problems some as old as 10 years in about one hour. The One such probelm was 33 years old when I resolved it when I am 31. Please guide me how to share these experiences.

Sudhakara Babu Marpudi

Excellent suggestion. Feeling the equipment (look, LIsten and feel) will teach most of the techinques of problem solving. Engineers must understand that the guys employed in a Refinery are not designers they are application Engineers. One must understand the design intention before defining a problem. Identification / definition of the problem will almost solve 90% of the problems.


Glad someone else gets this. The two comments below are lucky they have not seen more incidents. Procedures and documentation is critical but im my 15+ years of Engineering and Refining , open communication and close team work by all is the most important. Engineers, Operations, Management and Safety as teams, have solved and prevented more probles than any procedure ever has. Communicaition and team work is the key point to be taken from Mr. Stumps address. NICE JOB!!


Amazing - yes ALL engineering, management, etc. personnel should be actively involved in actual facility operations. I started in a refinery 60+ years ago and we had to work as helpers, technicians, etc. with the personnel actually doing the job. Many years later, I visited a plant, stopped in a shop and had coffee with the personnel. I was told I was the first Senior Manager they had ever actually talked with in over 20 years. Most walk through and say hello.

1910.119 has helped.

Francisco J. Hernaiz

With all due respect to Mr. Stump, while I agree with some of his comments, in general, it reflects the typical old fashion culture in refineries. It is sad when a Plant Manager does not trust or empower their operators. In my experience of 20+ working years in refineries, when you empower operators, give them decision rights, train them and make them responsible by making them accountable for not following a procedure, operators do an excellent job starting up units, managing upsets, etc. In such an environment there is pride. Usually they do a far better job "operating a unit" than any engineer. Obviously Mr. Stump work experience has been in refineries where engineers are too arrogant to realize that operators are very capable of managing a plant. Engineers should be doing the job of engineers and not operators. Putting an engineer to follow turnaround work for example when he can be dedicated to solve reliability issues is usually a waste of time (just a high paid mechanic). Operatos in the proper environment can and will do an excellent job and will be the first ones to report issues or correct procedures. The type of mentality that Mr. Stump has, is in my opinion backwards and keeps refineries from progressing into a more advance environment in which people is in the role where they have a competitive advantage. Saying that you can not assume an operator will read a manual is borderline arrogant. Just train him, provide him with decision rights and held him accountable and I guarantee you that the operator will "operate" the unit much better than any engineer. By the way, just to avoid any confusion, I am an engineer ... and ... treat people like incompetents and they will behave as such ... raise the bar and miracles will occur ...


Why would you write a procedure and assume that the operator will not follow it? Procedures are written to be followed; procedures are the first line of defense against the big incidents. Smart field engineers are not the only solution; accountability, discipline and enforcement of procedures is absolutely required in the refining operations environment.
Training operators on the proper reviewed procedures should be the focus...

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