My dad was a petroleum engineer, and being good in math and science, I knew I wanted to be an engineer, too. But when I was in high school, petroleum engineering wasn’t the rage that it is today, so I went into mechanical engineering.
Rodney Watts: Career Highlights
1991: Graduates from Lamar University with an engineering degree and joins Occidental Chemical as a project engineer
1993: Gets promoted to maintenance engineer and then maintenance supervisor in 1995
1997: Transfers to Occidental’s Houston chemical complex as maintenance superintendent
1998: Joins Valero Energy as maintenance manager at its Houston refinery
2001: Moves to Valero corporate in San Antonio as the maintenance services and materials supply-base manager
2003: Leaves refining to direct maintenance at Valero’s 1,030 company-operated retail stores
I started working for Occidental Chemical as a project engineer and a maintenance engineer, and then I was promoted to maintenance supervisor. I was responsible for keeping things running on the mechanical side, including planning for plant shutdowns and turnarounds. I also did small projects. It was a small facility, and I had to be a jack-of-all-trades.
I transferred to Occidental’s Houston chemical complex as maintenance superintendent [and had worked there] for about a year when I got a call from a recruiter for Valero Energy. I had never heard of Valero, but the chemical industry was struggling, and refining seemed to be picking up, so I made the switch. I’d heard the term “cat cracker” but didn’t know what that was, so there was new lingo and new process units to learn.
I was promoted to Valero corporate in San Antonio as maintenance services and materials supply-base manager. That meant I supported the needs of all the Valero refineries for their maintenance, projects, turnarounds, materials, etc. I’d been in that role two years when Valero Retail had this director-level position open up.
Some of my coworkers in the chemical and refinery industry thought I was crazy when I went into retail. That’s not a common career path, but I saw it as an opportunity to gain more experience and make myself more valuable to the company.
I’m responsible for maintenance at 1,030 company-operated convenience stores across nine states. I’m talking about fuel systems, refrigeration equipment, HVAC, food-service equipment, lighting, roofs, painting, plumbing, canopies, electrical, concrete, doors, and a little over 180 car washes. I’m not responsible for new store construction or remodels, but we provide feedback, and they’ll tweak the design or specify a different type of equipment if we find something in maintenance.
It’s hardly the same day twice. With that many stores across that many states with different customer bases, it’s always different, always new. The thing I enjoy most is working with the maintenance-management team, whether it’s trying to solve problems, dealing with contractors or people, dealing with products. I travel probably 30–40 percent of the time, and that keeps me fresh.
We’re going more into food programs now, putting in more equipment for cooking sandwiches, kolaches, donuts, cookies, breakfast tacos. That equipment needs to be installed and maintained, and as you add more equipment, it adds to the heat load in the store. It’s not uncommon, then, to need more air-conditioning capacity.
I would love to progress higher. There is no current progression above where I am in maintenance, so it could be many different jobs in retail. Valero is in the process of spinning off the retail division as a stand-alone company, and that will create opportunities. To me, it’s exciting to try something new that I don’t know about, take my strengths over there, and hopefully make an impact. ABQ