Julie Brown: Mentors Have Helped Guide a Lifelong Career
Many successful women in the propane industry have benefited from having at least one mentor who has guided, inspired, and empowered them in their careers. Julie Brown, president, chairman of the board, and owner of Southern LP Gas has been fortunate to have several mentors throughout her career, but the strongest and most influential mentor was her grandmother, Lou Ellen Gray.
“When I was in high school, my grandmother didn’t ask me, she basically told me, I needed to come learn the business when I got out of college,” she said. “My grandmother was a typical matriarch. What she said went. She had the final say in any big decision.”
Not thinking twice, Brown went to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Immediately after graduation in 1993, she returned to De Queen, Ark. to work at the corporate headquarters of Southern LP Gas.
Her grandmother, who went by Lou, and her husband, Eddie Gray, founded Grays Petroleum, a wholesale supplier of propane in De Queen, in 1946. In 1960 the company became Southern LP Gas. After Eddie’s death in 1982, Lou ran the company, continuing to come into the office and personally answer phones several days a week until her death in 2009. “She always said if she retired, she’d die,” Brown said.
In addition to running the propane company, at one point Lou and her husband also ran a restaurant, motel, and owned First State Bank, where Brown now sits on the board of directors.
Although she has four siblings, Brown was the only one who entered the family business. “The president, Ron Moore, took me under his wing and gave me jobs no one else wanted to do,” she said. “I really went around and learned new jobs every few years. A lot of long-term employees helped me as well. I listened to them and learned hands-on.
“I still don’t know all I need to know about the propane business,” she said. “You have to learn to delegate. I have good managers.”
In 2011, Ron retired and Brown became president. Today, Southern LP Gas has 12 locations — nine in Arkansas and three in Louisiana and approximately 16,000 customers. It is owned by Julie, her brother Jason Brown, her sister Jinger Brown, and her mother Eddie Lou Watson.
“We have a lot of agriculture — overall agriculture is 40%, residential is 50%; other commercial clients make up the rest. Chicken farms — that’s where most of the agriculture services are — trying to keep them chickens warm,” she said.
When she became president, Brown said she knew the company needed to make some changes to be more efficient. With the help of Jason, who is a computer engineer, the company upgraded its computer system and remodeled the corporate headquarters. “It was a whole new process. I had to learn everything about the system so if someone called in from a retail location with a question, I would know the answer.”
The transition was challenging, she said, but the primary challenge of a running a propane business is the weather. “It can be very tough when your business depends on weather. Last year was horrible, but you plan for the bad years.”
As the company continues to grow and profit even during years when the weather doesn’t cooperate, Brown is giving back. In 2016 she started an endowed scholarship at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in honor of her grandmother. Her initial gift of $25,000 supports full- or part-time undergraduate students who attend high school in Sevier County where De Queen is located. To qualify, the students must have a minimum 2.5 overall GPA. Financial need is also a strong consideration.
“I thought the world of my grandmother. She was very big on education. She helped many people though the years pay for education.”
“My grandmother was there all my life. She was here [at work] at 7 a.m. every morning and she didn’t leave until 5 p.m.,” she said, adding her grandmother’s mantras were to “treat people with respect” and “take care of your customers.”
Brown continues to run Southern LP Gas with the same philosophies as her grandmother. She takes very few vacations, although she does make it to Atlanta a couple times of year to visit her sister. She is fortunate, she said, to have many employees who have worked for the company for a long time — the longest employee has been there since 1970, the year she was born.
“They know their jobs, and what they need to do. When you have good people, it makes it a lot easier.”
—Karen Massman VanAsdale