Kelly Brett Roberts is accustomed to being one of the only females in the room at national fuel-supplier conferences. That’s because her company, Ricochet Fuel Distributors Inc., is one of a handful of women-owned fuel transportation companies in the country.
“I never see that as a disadvantage,” Roberts says. “I am the easiest one in the room to remember. And I find that in sales with my customers and dealing with my suppliers, if you’re just a little bit different and you stand out, you can actually use that to your advantage. … When you walk in there with confidence and know what you’re talking about, people accept you.”
And accepted she is. Roberts’ Ricochet Fuels, which generated $60 million in annual revenue in 2017, celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. It delivers millions of gallons of diesel, gasoline, lubricants, biodiesel, and diesel exhaust fluid to commercial customers around the country. The Euless-based distributor has grown to include operations in 13 states. Texas, of course, remains its epicenter.
“Texas is booming right now; there’s a bigger and bigger demand for fuel every day,” Roberts says. “The biggest challenge for our industry is figuring out how to keep up with that demand, which puts stress on pipelines and refineries. … Pipelines—they’re a long time coming, from obtaining permits and new regulations all the way to drilling the ground. There’s certainly no magic, overnight fix.”
Roberts got her start in energy at Texaco Inc. After graduating from the University of Texas at Arlington with a degree in marketing management, she worked with wholesalers and retailers to learn about fuel distribution from the corporate side. After five years, she decided to take a more hands-on job with a smaller wholesaler. “I got to do more. I got to learn more. And I got to see projects through from beginning to end—rather than just touching one small segment,” she says.
In 1988, Roberts took the plunge and started her own company. “After two years with the wholesaler, I just decided if he could do it, I could do it, too. … I jumped out there, and I probably did just about everything the business school tells you not to do.”
There were challenges in the beginning, like learning the hard way that you have to pay the state of Texas a cash bond behind projected fuel sales, in addition to state fuels tax liability. Learning the financing side of distribution and, more important, which clients to award credit, proved to be another early lesson for Roberts when she provided fuel to a truck-stop chain whose checks began to bounce. But the entrepreneur navigated the headwinds of her burgeoning company with confidence each step of the way.
“Fake it ‘til you make it—and eventually you will make it and won’t have to fake it anymore,” Roberts says with a laugh.
Early on, Roberts avoided one of the pitfalls she says limits many other fuel transportation companies: purchasing her own fleet of trucks. Outsourcing trucking “gives us a huge amount of flexibility because we’re not bound by geography the way that some companies with their own fleets are,” Roberts says. “We have multiple fleets at our fingertips, and it helps us get fuel to and from wherever it is needed a lot faster and more efficiently.”
That flexibility allowed Ricochet to better aid the transport of fuel to North Texas during Hurricane Harvey last year. When the refineries in Beaumont and Corpus Christi—some of the largest suppliers of fuel to Dallas-Fort Worth—were shut down in preparation for the oncoming storm, Ricochet’s activities in neighboring states sprang into action.
“When you shut down a terminal, it’s not just a switch that you can hit to turn it back on; it takes a while to get going again,” Roberts says. “When they shut down the Gulf Coast refineries and sent workers home, it really left Texas hurting for supply. Our company reached out and we were pulling in fuel from Missouri and Kansas, and really anywhere and everywhere we could find it.”
Roberts’ trailblazing influence is best evidenced in her ability to create a dialogue for the next generation of female leaders in energy. Because Texas’ fuel transport industry is dominated by family-owned businesses, many of her competitors are busy grooming their sons to take the reins. When Roberts meets other CEOs in her industry, one of the first things she asks about are their succession plans: “I often have to remind them, ‘Why not your daughter?’”