Chris has been instrumental in the growth of the AmeriGas Cylinder Exchange (ACE) business and also drives the planning and execution of corporate marketing across all business segments. Today, we discuss Chris’ career journey and path to leadership, the AmeriGas brand today, and the impact of COVID-19 on the business. If you like our podcast, please subscribe! 

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Bill:

Greetings one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I'm Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique brand consultancy. Thank you for joining us. Today we have Chris Cook. Chris is the Vice President of ACE and marketing in AmeriGas. He stands for AmeriGas cylinder exchange and there's Chris tell you he is also overseeing the overall marketing program at AmeriGas and interesting career starting in finance twists and turns into marketing leadership and AmeriGas is interesting for a couple of reasons.

Bill:

One as a venerable stable large leadership brand in the pro paint industry. They've also shown a really impressive nimbleness and progressive spirit within the past couple of years. One such thing as the launch of Cynch, which was on a previous podcast. But Chris will talk about that and also these days COVID-19 AmeriGas is front and center for their customers as well as for others as Chris will also detail and there's a lot of thinking around how the AmeriGas customer experience and obviously their interaction with the full team at AmeriGas can evolve to fit both the particular moment today but also how consumer desire and behavior may change moving into the future. So enjoy hearing from Chris Cook.

Bill:

Joining us here on UberConference, the wonders of technology, which we're all adapting to during this incredible time is Chris Cook who's the Vice President of ACE and marketing at AmeriGas. Chris, thanks for being with us.

Chris:

Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Bill:

So let's start, I mean we definitely want to get into over the last couple of episodes of Real-World Branding we've spoken to different people, different types of companies and how this situation is shaping up for them and for their businesses. But let's start where we normally do. Could you take us a little bit through your own backstory and what led you to this company into this role and how your own professional journey has been shaped?

Chris:

Yeah, yeah. And certainly maybe not traditional with other people in my roles. So actually came up through a finance background, worked in different roles within financial planning and analytics and things of that nature. It was about 10 years ago, I went back to grad school and really just got interested marketing back in 2012, took a director of marketing role really within our ACE organization and combined the finance and marketing worlds together there.

Chris:

Started getting involved on the sales stuff as I think a lot of marketers do, and go back and forth between sales and marketing. About three or four years ago, took over our ACE business, our cylinder exchange business. And then about nine months ago I was promoted into the VP over our cylinder exchange and marketing business. So, yeah, it's been an interesting 15 years but what I've loved is being able to use some of my background within finance and analytics to really be a lot better from a marketing side.

Bill:

Sure, sure. Was there a moment along the way when someone who had been oriented to finance both academically and in your early career that the marketing flipped on or was there just a creeping sense that you wanted to round out your education and move in a new professional direction or how would you articulate how a finance person makes the moves that you've made?

Chris:

Yeah, I mean, I think everybody has that inflection point in your career, right? So for me, it came in grad school took my first real marketing class and just loved it. And that's where I thought, hey, maybe I can do something different with my career. I'm coming out of grad school, really, what should I be thinking about?

Chris:

And I also think that everybody who's built up their career has somebody that they've relied on internally. For me, it was our VP of sales and marketing at the time. And I always stress this with people that, hey, just be open and honest with people in your organization about what you want to do. So I walked into his office and I said, "You know, and I have worked together, but I think I want to work in marketing someday. So if anything ever comes up, just let me know."

Bill:

Yeah.

Chris:

Dead silence for two years. And he came to me two years later and said, "Hey, I got this role. You want to do it?" And before he could really finish, I said, "Yes." And, it's really just taken off from there where I just, like I said, I've always had the foundation within finance and analytics that has helped me. But my passion really is around how to grow business and really how to grow everything that we're doing within marketing in our organization.

Bill:

Yeah. I would imagine, and I think I've anecdotally observed a fair number of folks who have an analytical and a financial background moving into marketing leadership roles. A, because of the, I think strong, just business grounding and what drives the business that comes with that. But also as the world of marketing has gotten more measurable, folks who may be oriented that way seemed to find progressive joy in balancing those parts of the brain. So –

Chris:

I ask people, and actually I remember, Mike, my current boss and I asked him, does this make any sense to you? Because I did my undergrad work at Villanova and wanted to work on Wall Street and the stock market and everything like that. And I still love to track that thing, especially now with everything going on in the stock market. But a lot of people told me, "Chris, that makes perfect sense." And a lot of good marketers that they've seen in their careers also have that core of finance and analytics that has really helped them.

Chris:

But yeah, I mean, like I said, I think other people come across those inflection points. And for me it was, about 10 years ago that totally reshaped how I was building my career.

Bill:

Yeah. You also mentioned sales along the way. I've I had an opinion for a long period of time that the best marketers once had some degree of sales exposure to just in terms of what that creates a new understanding where the customer's coming from, understanding how at the very last mile the brand expresses itself and what is it isn't working on the ground.

Bill:

So what a great grounding that you've had across elements of thought to cycle all of that together in a marketing leadership role at AmeriGas? So AmeriGas talk a bit about, this is a classic leadership brand in a category that has least the propane level has some challenges. I mean, energy as a whole is transforming in certain ways. But the marketing program at AmeriGas could you talk about what that entails and what the major leavers are and just how a lead marketer at AmeriGas sees the world these days?

Chris:

Yeah. And part of it varies across, we serve all types of different customers. We have the ACE business, we have residential customers, we have commercial customers, we have farmers, we have a number, propane is a great energy source because it's very portable. But for us, within AmeriGas and really how we try to come off as a brand and serve customers.

Chris:

There's obvious advantages of working with large companies in a space like this. And even in times like today where there's a lot of uncertainty in the country and quite frankly in the world is this is where AmeriGas is positioned really well. Yeah, we have a flexible organization, we have a lot of redundancies. We have a lot of resources that in times like this it's very nice to have a big company that you're dealing with payment programs, online experiences. It's allowed us to really serve customers in a pretty unique way. They quite frankly, is really hard to replicate with some of our competitors across the industry.

Chris:

So I think, while... It's always known that there's a lot of advantages of dealing with the big company, I think this is when customers need us the most and customers need all types of companies the most, but certainly within propane. We're a good company to do business with right now.

Bill:

Yeah, no doubt. So one of the previous topic that we've had on the podcast here was the launch of Cynch. When you think about AmeriGas again, a traditional leader in this space who's also doing some pretty innovative and interesting things and ACE in some ways that the business that you have managed is really close to the consumer, to the customer in terms of trading in and out cylinders and now the launch of Cynch, which is the on demand for delivery service for cylinders, the tech exchange.

Bill:

Talk about how to balance I guess the stability and responsibility of a leader. You talked about the benefits of size with some of the more contemporary elements of what AmeriGas is bringing to market and what the future may look like.

Chris:

Yeah, now, it's a great question because propane overall traditionally is not seen as an innovated sector. And what I've loved about what we've done at AmeriGas is really tried to innovate in a number of different areas, and you mentioned a few of them, Bill, like as you think about our cylinder exchange business, we've deployed vending to a lot of large retailers, the big one here locally in Philadelphia being Walla. And really producing them to propane. That's a great thing. The other thing you mentioned is essentially we have a home delivery business of propane exchange, which has done, quite nicely.

Chris:

And it's something that we really value as a company of balance where we have a longstanding tradition, but we're also not afraid to innovate, and it's things that we talk to the investor community about, which quite frankly separates us from a lot of our competitors. So that's something that we're all going to continue to look at opportunities that we can expand upon innovation, we went through a buy-in with UGI back in the summer that quite frankly just puts us in that much better of a position, from an economic standpoint, from an innovation standpoint and certainly UGI has looked at a company like AmeriGas to say, "This is something that we want to invest in."

Chris:

And the things that you had mentioned, Bill, like with Cynch like vending within our cylinder exchange business. I think you'll just continue to see some of those things. And it's obviously something that we're always looking at as a company.

Bill:

Well the product propane is a commodity, there are obviously elements of size in terms of buying power and all of that means in terms of the strength of the network. But it does seem like innovation opportunity has a lot to do with customer experience right now. Service is delivered and I would imagine that is an area of brand focus as well.

Chris:

Yeah, absolutely. I think, for us, and again it's tough not to talk about things without mentioning COVID-19 right? Because about, this is an area that we, that we shine, right? So if you go on our website, there's messaging about how we're responding to COVID-19 and also the fact that you don't have to come into our offices, you can order online, you can pay online, there's all these different types of payment options available.

Chris:

And in that way, we are trying to differentiate from a lot of local companies and think about how are we re-imagining the customer experience? And like I said during a time like now, is when I think all companies have to think about that. So we've had a lot of good touch points with customers in ways that we probably haven't had in the past, but really just letting them know that we're there for them and oh, by the way, there's advantages of dealing with a company like AmeriGas and I think the online experience and things we're doing in that area is one of them.

Bill:

Yeah. So let's get to it. Whenever I do an interview during this period of time, I try to timestamp it verbally. So we're recording this because the world changes so fast.

Chris:

Yeah.

Bill:

We're recording this on Wednesday afternoon, the 8th around three o'clock. You've touched Chris on a couple of the things that have been part of the company's response to this from contact list service for those who obviously many of us are really focused on that, flatten the curve, everything else. There's a lot of different demands I would imagine from, obviously the company needs to be protected, your teammates, the customer. Could you talk a little bit more deeply about the COVID-19 response and what some of the dimensions have been and you mentioned that AmeriGas is shining during this period. Tell us more.

Chris:

Yeah. I mean, I think first and foremost is our interaction with customers, right? Allowing them to get to know us and in probably a deeper way interacting with them, messaging them and letting us know, hey, we're an essential service, we're here for you. And reminding them all the valuable things that we have to offer as a company. And I think our team's particular within marketing and communications and really our field leadership has leaned into that nicely.

Chris:

I think the reality is that every company including AmeriGas has had to rethink the way we interact with customers within social distancing. Certainly within our facilities, in our plants we have a lot of people working remote right now. And the beauty of that is how quickly we've done that as an organization and how the customer experience is good as it's ever been. But yeah, I think, I mentioned of social distancing. That's something that we never really thought about, "Hey, do we need to be going in everybody's home or do we have to ask a customer if they'd been sick or somebody in the house been sick."

Chris:

We do a lot of business at retail. There's people lined up outside of stores. There's times when stores are closed or we're delivering after hours. But again, I can't stress enough about how, we as an organization have leaned into that really nicely with the customer being at the forefront of that. And I think we're seeing the benefits of that and offering a lot of value at a time that quite frankly, a lot of just people and certainly our customers included, are dealing with a lot of uncertainty. We provide a lot of certainty during this time.

Bill:

Yeah, definitely. And I know some of the things that have been part of the response payment programs that customers can apply for with based on hardships, the suspension of late payments and other elements of the relationship that AmeriGas to its credit is getting ahead of what we all know to be a significant economic disruption.

Bill:

And you're right, the essential service of energy, the power... We're all stuck at home here. The, hopefully the weather's been a little nicer, but that isn't true everywhere. And the need for energy to power the things that are essential to everyday life. It's a different proposition than I guess a retailer who might be selling something that, or offering dinner or whatever the case may be. I mean, you guys are really on the line.

Chris:

Yeah. And we've seen, it's funny, like we always think about different things that happen in the world and certainly in the US and how it affects us. And I think what's interesting about this pandemic is, it's allowed us to even see other things about how propane is used. For example, we're providing temporary heat to a lot of testing facilities, right?

Bill:

Got it.

Chris:

Whoever thought that in a Walmart parking lot, there'd be testing facilities for a virus.

Bill:

Sure.

Chris:

Not a lot. And then whoever thought that AmeriGas would be a leader. We've always been a leader within temporary heating around the country, but we have salespeople out there and quite frankly, a lot of great stories about how we've helped in an area that even we couldn't imagine. Well it's been chaotic and we've changed a lot of things and like I said a lot of uncertainty. It's also quite frankly been fun to see how our organization has responded to some of these challenges and been a part of the effort that you really wouldn't traditionally think that propane or the propane industry really fits in.

Bill:

Right. Yeah. And to find simultaneously not only the strength of size and stability, but also the nimbleness and the flexibility that this situation is demanding of companies and of leaders. I would imagine to your point, there'll be changes in the way that we all live, but I think one of the potential benefits to companies large and small and to leaders is we've used some new muscles here that we can potentially use in the future.

Bill:

I mean, why should it take a crisis for us to... And it didn't in AmeriGas this case to your credit with Cynch and other things to think differently about the customer experience. Maybe social distancing is new, but AmeriGas had found its stride in terms of nimbleness and a progressive outlook even before this happened. But now events are even pushing that innovation further.

Chris:

Yeah, and it's a great point that you bring up and I think every company is going to start thinking about that. We'll all digest this at some point about what is the new normal look like? We've had a lot of great discussions within leadership about things that we're doing that, hopefully we'll lend a better future for how we do business. And like every other time, right? The customer patterns change, customer behaviors change and certainly, all good companies want to be on the leading edge of how do we serve that customer with his or her changing needs.

Chris:

So it'll be interesting just to see how, well not only within procaine but just the whole country in the world sort of operates maybe a little bit differently and certainly in the short term, I think that'll certainly be the case.

Bill:

Yeah, no, I do too. And hopefully it'll be something that we all get to learn about sooner than later when things go, at least it's somewhat back to normal, but probably never exactly as it was.

Chris:

Yes.

Bill:

You mentioned in your discussion of your career, the degree to which you had identified a potential interest in marketing and you put that out there and you said yes before the sentence was even out as to what the role might be. For those who've been inspired by your career path, whether it is the transition that you've made or just all that you've accomplished. Any words of wisdom that are fortifying for you as you approach the twists and turns of an incredible career?

Chris:

Yeah. And I've had a couple of people, ask me, I think the biggest thing is just don't be afraid to take risks. And I know that sounds can sound cliché, right? Don't do anything stupid, but don't be afraid to take calculated risks. Align yourself with people in your organization or friends or family that you really respect. And if it's one thing about AmeriGas that I've been there since 2007 is that have some of the best people, the best mentors, the best leadership, quite frankly, that I've ever seen.

Chris:

And I think there's just been like set points in my career where I've been willing to take some calculated risks and really just follow a passion. And what I've seen of other people in successful careers is when they're taking those calculated risks and really seeing a light at the end of the tunnel of what they're doing. I think in terms of yourself, there's things that you're good at and then there's things that you're really passionate about. And I learned, a while back that while I was really good at finance, and quite frankly, if he asked me 15 years ago, I'd say I want to be a CFO.

Chris:

And that that has changed because I found a new passion and quite frankly it would have been probably a lot smoother, maybe a lot cleaner to go up, try to go through the organization, get my CPA, do things of that nature. But I just had a passion that was in a different direction that got me reading Wall Street journal articles and even today trying to read what other CMOs are doing within companies and I still have a lot to learn but also I'm just super passionate about it and like I said, take a calculated risk, don't do anything stupid, but be willing to take a risk even if it doesn't really look traditional.

Bill:

Yeah. Well you listened to that voice. I mean you... This is not maybe the right analogy, but my daughter is excited about Frozen too. And I mean one of the key themes in that was somebody who had it all figured out, also did and then there was that voice that was calling it. I mean, it's easy to sort of shut that down, Wall Street was the path for you and that was what it was going to be and that's how it was preordained and you were really good at it and all those things.

Bill:

But part of the calculated risk that you took in the risks that you've taken is that you listened to something that was calling to you from the marketing realm. And obviously it's been a tremendous journey since then.

Chris:

Yeah. And I think, certainly for me, and I'm sure for other people, right? You know, deep down what gets you out of bed in the morning and despite what other people might say or think deep down what's going to get you excited to go to work. And I think for those that see me operate, they see that passion come through.

Chris:

And I think if I didn't make that move, who knows where my career could have went. But I wouldn't be at the stage that I'm at today where I worked for a great company and I love what I'm doing and I'm really fortunate to be in that situation. But it didn't come without taking a little bit of risk and a little bit of something that if you were to look at my resume, you'd have to say, "Well, what happened here, Chris, why did you decide to do this?" And unfortunate enough that it all played out in the end.

Bill:

Yeah. Well that's a perfect place to leave it. Plus we don't want to keep you over the time that we promised the Chris Cook, Vice President of East and marketing in AmeriGas. Thanks for your time.

Chris:

Yeah, absolutely appreciate the honor.

Bill:

Many thanks to Chris for his wisdom and his time and his insight AmeriGas both for teammates and certainly for customers is really taking decisive action in a challenging time for so many people. Hopefully, you though this time I know is challenging in a variety of different ways, have at least found some solid sense of value in what we've been doing here our goal has been the to have a new episode every week during the situation. And I guess being stuck here at home helps that.

Bill:

I've actually found out how to use the technology a little bit to get these recorded as opposed to Catherine having to have you to ride me through it all. So I'm proud of that. But if you want to help us and support what we're doing here at Real-World Branding, three ways has always want us to give us a rating and a review that helps us get found.

Bill:

The second is a subscribe. Click that button to make sure when a new one of these comes live, it flows right in the podcast app. And then the last way is let's keep a dialogue going on Twitter. That's probably the best way @billgullan or at @finchbrands we love ideas, we love feedback, we love guests, topics as well as a guest ideas as well. And so we'll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.