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August 8, 2016 / 2016 Women to Watch Honorees

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

PHOTo / Tim Greenway Deanna Sherman, president and CEO of Dead River Co., considers herself a lifelong learner, and that includes listening to concerns of both employees and customers.
PHOTo / Tim Greenway Deanna Sherman, president and CEO of Dead River Co., has worked her way up through the ranks over three decades with the company.

Deanna Sherman, president and CEO of South Portland-based Dead River Co., is known for her strategic thinking, integrity, team-building and communication skills.

She's is a lifelong learner who encourages the same vital curiosity and willingness to grow in everyone around her. Whether it's formal coursework, immersion in the business and its nitty-gritty, or simply talking with folks inside or outside of the company, education has elevated her over three decades at Dead River from an assistant manager to the top spot today.

“I believe strongly in education. I love to learn,” she says. “Any leader needs to be open to learning from other people and learning about new things that are going on.”

Sherman became Dead River's president on Jan. 1 and took over as CEO in mid-July, when previous President and CEO Robert Moore retired.

Her ascension is a natural outcome of deep immersion in a company that has been nearly the sole focus of her career. After graduating from Colby College with a bachelor's in government-and-public policy and French, she had a year-long internship as a research assistant at the Administrative Office of the Courts in Portland.

A goal-oriented leader

The rest of her career has been at Dead River, Maine's largest oil-and-propane company. She learned about the energy industry from the ground up. She started as assistant manager of procurement in 1986. Over the next decade, promotions followed, each offering greater responsibility and more challenges. She worked her way up to district manager, then region manager. During this time, she obtained an MBA from the University of Southern Maine.

Recognized as a disciplined, goals-oriented leader, she was named vice president of petroleum in 2007.

With a nod to the myriad changes in the home heating industry, her title was later changed to vice president of energy. As vice president, her initiatives included continued development of the company's sales and marketing structure and its strategic mission, vision and tactical goals, as well as a focus on understanding customer's needs and how the company's customer experience supported these needs. She's also been a key leader with the Maine Energy Marketers Association.

Sherman says that her journey has been driven by her personal foundation of constant learning. Back in college, she didn't envision herself working in business. But once she had that first position, her tendency to immerse herself in her work made her want to learn more.

She recalls, in her early days, enrolling in a 160-hour oil burner technician certification course, when she was asked to start a service department in the Biddeford office.

“We were in a growing mode, adding the service department, and the leadership thought it was important for the managers to take the course in order to understand what the technicians did, to increase our awareness and be able to ask questions,” she says. “It didn't mean that I became a technician. But it increased my knowledge and helped me get both the employee and customer perspectives.”

As it happened, that push for a hands-on understanding of the business melded with Sherman's own thinking. These days, she makes sure to stay in touch with employees, traveling across Dead River's multi-state footprint to personally thank employees for their contributions and solicit their feedback.

“It's important to me to do what I can to lead by example,” she says. “One way that manifests itself is that, when I see somebody doing something that stands out, I make a point of letting them know we appreciate what they're doing. A big part of leadership is recognizing people for their good work. Everyone is looking out for one another and for our customers.”

Customer contact

Sherman also contacts customers on a regular basis. Ultimately, she says, it's all about people — the customers who need the products and services for a comfortable life, the employees who daily interact with those customers.

“We receive customer comment cards that come back after there's been a service call, or maybe a new customer signed up, or somebody had equipment installed,” she says. “At a minimum of once a month, I'll call some of those customers just to thank them for taking the time to comment on how our employees are doing. And all of those comments get back to the employees. It's really important to them to know when their hard work is being recognized.”

The personal contact is important to her.

“I've been at this company for 30 years,” she says. “I spent nine of those years as a district manager working with the technicians, with the customer service reps, with the drivers, with the dispatchers. I was in the field with them, in the offices, interacting with them and interacting closely with our customers. I just gained a real appreciation for how important it is to show our customers we care. Sometimes that's all it takes to make a difference, to show that we're not just another service call. We understand our obligation to meet customer needs, and we're flattered they choose us to meet those needs.”

That kind of personal involvement might sound easy, she say, but it takes serious commitment. In this business, she says, employees and customers are bound together.

“Being out there and talking with people, they can see how serious you are about resolving issues,” she says.

Community service is a priority

Sherman is a great believer in education not only for herself, but for others. She was on the board of directors of Junior Achievement of Maine and continues to teach the curriculum to fourth graders in Westbrook as a volunteer.

“I talk about entrepreneurial skills and business,” she says. “It's just great talking with these kids and seeing how inquisitive they are.”

She just completed six years on the board of the Greater Portland United Way, where she chaired the human resources and organizational development committee, and continues to be involved in the organization. She serves on the board of Educate Maine and the University of Southern Maine Foundation.

“I was lucky enough to get my MBA from the University of Southern Maine while working at Dead River and it was very important in my career,” she says. “So I want to give back to USM. I also see that it's very important to our state and to businesses to do what we can to continue to help our youth gain skills to be our future leaders.”

Looking ahead

Sherman's vision for Dead River's future includes continual exploration and implementation of new energy and customer service technologies, the former focused on energy efficiency and the latter on customer care and convenience. She plans to expand Dead River organically, adding customers one at a time, as well as through acquisitions.

The company is investing further in the propane side of the business, which is growing more than oil for uses such as outdoor living activities, backup generators during electricity outages and fuel for vehicles.

So how does a leader stay current, educated and relevant in today's world?

“You need to be listening and exploring all the time,” she says. “Externally, it means staying abreast of new regulations or new technologies, staying engaged and staying involved with your industry's trade associations and, internally, with the people you work with because you can learn from everybody in your organization.”

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