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

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.

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