Positively looking ahead

Optimistic general manager leads Agrium through changes

Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2003

It has been 116 days since Bill Boycott took the helm as general manager of Agrium Kenai Nitrogen Operations in Nikiski. Despite the often rocky road the petrochemical facility has traveled in the past nine months, Boycott said he came on board June 1 with a positive outlook for the future and continues to maintain that attitude.

"I'm an eternal optimist," he said. "What I recognized on day one was that I was coming out of an organization that needed to continually push record volumes and drive for low costs.

"Here, there isn't an unlimited supply of raw material. We've got to drive efficiency with a changing picture every day. And we can't stand on the crutch of 'our gas is down, so we're inefficient.'"

The facility has seen significant reductions in natural gas delivery, its principal feedstock for producing the nitrogen-based agricultural products urea and ammonia. Boycott said getting a handle on the ongoing changes the gas cutbacks have created -- primarily, losses of between 35 and 50 percent of productivity -- requires an aggressive approach.

"We need to lead the organization through these changes, not just let the changes lead us," he said. "I recognize that there are challenges for gas supply for this facility and I looked at the opportunity and the challenges, and I felt that this was a good fit for my background."

A chemical engineer with nearly 20 years in the oil and gas industry in operational, technical and commercial capacities, Boycott's most recent role was director of refining for Williams Petroleum Alaska. There, he oversaw the refinery in North Pole and the company's Fairbanks and Anchorage airport facilities.

He has bought a home in Kenai and plans to move his family here from Fairbanks in May after his 18-year-old son, Josh, graduates from Lathrop High School. Currently, his wife, Sue, remains in their Fairbanks home with Josh and their younger son, 15-year-old Ben.

"Next year, we'll have a junior at Kenai Central and a college student," he said. "Now just wasn't the right time to move."

Boycott initially was tapped for the position in January while he was on the Kenai Peninsula for the Alaska Schools Activities Associa-tion state hockey tournament at the Soldotna Sports Center. He was watching Josh play a game during the tournament when he was contacted. He said the irony was not lost on him.

"It was interesting that someone was talking to me about an opportunity in Kenai, and I was at a hockey game in Soldotna," Boycott said. "When I had the initial call about the opportunity, I was pretty interested. But I finally canceled the call because (Josh) was having a very good game."

However, subsequent conversations with Agrium officials led to Boycott's hiring. He started work during negotiations with the Paper Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers Local 8-0369, and said he gained plenty of knowledge about the facility and the people just by following outgoing general manager Mike Nugent to those meetings.

"Mike and I had a two-week overlap," he said. "I learned a lot by sitting through those meetings."

Rather than erecting lofty goals for the organization when he started, Boycott identified the staff and facility's potential and said he focused on building upon those strengths. On a white board in his office are spelled out the things that were most important to the organization:

"Relentless efficiency, flexibility, communication and no one gets hurt," are the words there.

"As we look to get the organization through the changes we went through this summer, those are the things we need the organization to be good at," he said.

Trimming operation costs was essential to survival, Boycott said. One of the first steps involved implementing vendor management inventory. This process calls for those outside companies that sell supplies, like safety equipment and uniforms, to the facility to restock their products inside the facility and maintain their own records of how much has been used and how much to bill the company. It frees up Agrium employees to focus on production.

In August, when the gas supplies dropped to 65 percent of the 155 million cubic feet needed per day for maximum capacity, one of the plants was taken off line for two weeks to allow for extensive maintenance. Those operations employees who might otherwise have faced job cutbacks were put to work on the maintenance project.

More such flexibility is expected, Boycott said.

"Currently, the facility is running at 65 percent of full capacity," he said. "We're anticipating gas flows will go up for the balance of September and the month of October."

During that time, the plant is expected to be operating at around 75 percent.

"It looks like we've got some spot gas available in November that'll get us back to 60 or 65 percent levels," he added. "December through March, based on current gas availabilities, we'll ... run at about 50 percent."

Again, Boycott predicted that expected gas reductions won't impact employment because the two plants that will go offline (one urea plant and one ammonia plant) are due for extensive maintenance work. Instead of hiring contractors to do that work over a short period of time, as would normally be the case, he will use the staff available.

"We're looking at April 1, the gas will be available to restart those units," he said. "A lot of what drives winter gas availability is the temperature. It's possible when we get into December and January that, if the temperature stays warm and spot gas is available, we may not shut those plants down. We may keep them running and then start to compress that time frame that we do the work in. We're trying to develop contingency plans based on ever-changing gas availability."

With regard to safety, Boycott said he is working to engrain a strong penchant for safe procedures into the organizational culture. Even near accidents are to be reported.

"I don't believe in getting bitten by the same dog twice," he said.

Because Agrium has owned the facility for only three years and many of the employees there spent many years working for the plant under Unocal, Boycott said there is work that needs to be done in truly adapting the employees to Agri-um's culture.

"One of the challenges is trying to really incorporate this facility into the Agrium system," he said.

He said the company will strive to build a culture that pulls everyone together as members of the Agrium team. In the meantime, he is working to smooth out relations with P.A.C.E.

"I'm trying to set up periodic meetings with them so we can address concerns before they become major issues," Boycott said.

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