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June 27, 2016

'Dead River blood runs deep' in new CEO

Photo / Tim Greenway Deanna Sherman, president of Dead River Co., is set to take over as CEO in July.
Photo / Tim Greenway Deanna Sherman, incoming CEO at Dead River Co., talks to mechanic Randy Meserve at a Dead River site in Scarborough.

Associates of Deanna Sherman, president and soon-to-be CEO of oil and propane supplier Dead River Co., say she brings to mind the vintage E.F. Hutton TV ad in which a noisy room goes silent to hear advice from the stock brokerage.

That tagline, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen,” applies to Sherman, says Liz Cotter Schlax, president and CEO of the United Way of South Portland.

“Deanna was part of the search committee that hired me 18 months ago,” Cotter Schlax says. “She isn't the loudest person in the room or the one to speak first. But she raised some pretty penetrating and very thoughtful questions.”

Sherman became president of the South Portland-based energy supplier on Jan. 1, taking over for Robert Moore, who is making the transition to retirement. She stepped into his president role in January and, in mid-July, will take over as CEO. Moore has led the company since 2008.

Grew up in the company

Sherman is an anomaly in today's world of frequent job switches in that she has spent most of her career at Dead River. After graduating from Colby College with a BA in government/public policy and French, and then earning an MBA at the University of Southern Maine, she had a year-long internship as a research assistant at the Administrative Office of the Courts in Portland. The rest of her career has been at Dead River.

“I grew up in Dead River,” says Sherman, who has cropped brown hair and a relaxed demeanor. “The company likes to take in young people who like to learn and demonstrate what they can do. If you [had] good success, you got to the next step.”

Sherman started as assistant manager for procurement in 1986 and worked her way up to district manager for Biddeford and then Scarborough, then region manager supervising district managers in seven retail fuel offices and then vice president of the company's energy division. Moore sees Sherman's 30 years of experience at and knowledge of the company as strengths.

“She's a rock star,” Moore says. “Her knowledge of our business is unsurpassed. She's unbelievably disciplined.”

Moore adds that when Sherman became vice president of the energy division, she helped Dead River meet its goal to transition to a more customer-focused company. He says Sherman has had all the important jobs at the company.

“I never felt I had to manage her. I just had to give her a goal, task or end result,” Moore says. “And we've been getting out of commercial real estate and becoming more exclusively an energy company, which made her the obvious choice.”

“What makes Deanna special is that she has been with the company since her early 20s and did everything in the business,” adds Susanna Swihart, chair of MaineHealth and a board member at Dead River. “She says Dead River blood runs deep in her veins. She's transparent, straightforward and energetic. She knows the business through and through, and it's apparent.”

All in the family

Sherman credits her family for her focus on customers and her drive. Her parents started their own insurance and real estate business in Bar Harbor, so she was raised with a business mindset. Her sister still runs the real estate side of the family company, though her brother sold the insurance business.

“My parents were influential in my life,” Sherman says. “I learned family values working for them. Their mantra was, 'Integrity is foremost.' Our mantra [at Dead River] is 'Delivering on a promise.'”

The company, which is the largest oil and propane company in the state, does compete with regional companies, she says, but there is no head-on, statewide competition. She says Dead River intends to expand through organic growth, adding customers one at a time, but it also is looking to acquire other companies, such as smaller, family-owned competitors.

Dead River bought the home-heating division of Webber Energy Fuels in January 2012 for an undisclosed amount of money.

“We have a company of a size and resources to assure security of the supply,” she says, adding that the industry is healthy now because of the comparatively low prices of its product.

Sherman says Dead River is focusing on the core part of its business, oil and propane, and plans to grow them. The company sells primarily to rural homeowners, but also has business customers.

Propane business growing

In examining future growth, she says, “it's important to honor the past, but at the same time we need to evolve.”

Part of that evolution is pushing the propane side of the business, which is growing more than the oil side to include use in outdoor living activities, backup generators for use during electricity outages and even fuel for cars and trucks, including in Dead River's own fleet.

“The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes propane as a green fuel,” Sherman explains. Propane is a byproduct of natural gas processing and oil refining. “Propane is a domestic product, it is green for the EPA and so we'll continue to invest in it,” she says.

Dead River has some trucks that can run on propane, which she adds is a cleaner fuel, and thus makes it easier to maintain the vehicles. However, she says selling propane still is an education process for customers who might convert from oil. She also expects police cars, towns and people interested in the environment to consider it.

“Our major focus now is in expanding our oil and propane business,” she says. “We still see the delivery of heating oil as a very important part of keeping warm in northern New England.”

She also wants to expand the service aspect of the company, assuring service is available in the middle of the night and for regular tune-ups.

“To innovate in our industry, you must offer the best customer experience,” she says. “It is very hard to do. Our employees go into their customer's home. It's very different [from most businesses].

Sherman says some of her biggest challenges, and biggest rewards, are at times like the ice storm of 1998 and the flood of 1997, when it was tough to get to customers' homes. “The most rewarding time is when there are obstacles and customers need you the most and the whole team pulls together,” she says.

She's suited to handle difficult situations calmly, according to Moore. “I don't see her showing my flaws. She has a better handle on patience,” he says.

Gender incidental

Sherman is one of a few top female executives in a traditional industry like oil and propane: Maine also has two women presidents of family energy businesses, Susan Ware Page of Maritime Energy and Jinger Dureya of CN Brown. Dead River is family-owned, but Sherman is not part of the family.

“She is the most qualified woman for this job,” says Swihart. “But being a woman is incidental. Every time she's taken something on, she's left it better.”

MaryEllen FitzGerald, who sold her company Critical Insights Inc. in March but had Sherman as a client before that, says Sherman is at the top of her game.

“Her style is engaging in an egoless way,” says FitzGerald. “She's very smart and so well prepared for everything. She's never been in a situation where she's not sure. She always knows.”

Swihart says Dead River's board did search inside and outside the company for Moore's successor, but “we picked her because she undertook a major strategy planning process that culminated a year ago last spring and committed the company's efforts fully into the core energy business. She emerged as the best candidate.”

The list of criteria for the job: competency and knowledge of the business; leadership skills and experience; strategic thinking rather than just a tactical doer; good communication skills; and being connected, because Dead River is in the business of trying to buy companies.

“A lot of Dead River employees have been there a long time,” Swihart says. “The company develops from within, and that's a real competitive advantage for Dead River to keep, grow and nurture its people.”

Schlax adds that Sherman has had the chance to experience things at the ground level in the field, not just in the executive suite.

“She's strategic and tactical,” says Schlax. “It bodes so well for Dead River's future. The company is in fantastic hands.”

Read more

Women to Watch: Deanna Sherman brings her lifelong passion for learning to Dead River Co.

Maine heating fuel survey shows steady prices

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