Solid job experience, clear vision, company knowhow, hard work and the ability to roll with the punches have made ChE Karen Bowsky successful. Last August she became VP and general manager of the Houston, TX refinery of Valero Energy Corp (San Antonio, TX). It was only six months after she first came to the plant as ops director. "I'm in awe that I'm a plant manager," she says.
Bowsky is Valero's only female plant manager. "I'm not used to the limelight," she admits. "I just want to do my job."
In her general manager position, Bowsky oversees safety, environmental controls, day-to-day operations and financials. She balances department needs and information. She hires people, and makes sure they're motivated and nurtured in their careers. She knows most of her employees by name.
"All functions report to me: operations, maintenance, environmental, health and safety, human resources, community relations and technical support," she says.
Valero is a Fortune 500 company with 22,000 employees and assets worth $33 billion. It's the largest North American refiner with a network stretching from Canada down the U.S. West Coast to the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean. Its eighteen refineries can process 3.3 million BPD of crude oil and other feedstocks.
The company is modernizing its Houston refinery, remediating all grandfathered emissions with a $500 million, two-year project. The plant produces about 60,000 BPD of gasoline and 35,000 BPD of distillates, enough to fill up 100,000 cars every day. Total throughput, including gasoline, fuel oil, jet fuel, sulfur, kerosene, diesel fuel, asphalt and liquefied petroleum gas, is 135,000 BPD.
When Bowsky took over as general manager, field work on the emissions reduction project had just begun. "It's going to help us reduce nitrous oxide emissions and pollution," Bowsky says. "We'll be able to produce ultra low-sulfur diesel." That's a necessary improvement, she notes, because the new spec for automotive diesel drops to 15 ppm of sulfur this June.
The financial investment is huge. "We already have 1,200 contractors and 330 employees, and that will grow as we get more into construction." Target completion date is the end of this year.
In 2003, the Houston refinery entered the voluntary protection program of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a Star site, one of the safest. Bowsky says OSHA has recognized the plant's programs as exceeding expectations.
"Houston is one of ten Star sites in the Valero system," Bowsky says with pride. "Only twenty out of 149 U.S. refineries have achieved that status, and we have half of them."
Her number-one goal is safety excellence, she says. "We instill these values in our people and overall business through safety meetings, recognition programs and hazard teams."
Safety in the refinery setting is a challenge, she admits. "Once the unit is built you've got to start it up safely and successfully, minimizing downtime and disruptions. We run at more than 93 percent capacity."
The plant's environmental compliance is part of its emphasis on health and safety. "We install controls and develop procedures and practices to minimize releases. We're continuously maintaining and improving," Bowsky notes.
Science from the start
As Bowsky grew up in Southern California, science was her focus. "I always entered the school science fairs," she remembers. Her parents, both school principals, encouraged her on the science track and were glad to see her working hard.
"My mother got her doctorate while raising kids and working. I saw what it took to multitask like that. She was very driven, focused and ambitious," Bowsky recalls.
Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) offered six engineering programs, and Bowsky thrived there. "I loved the classes. Once out, I loved the work. I've been lucky," she says.
After graduating in 1990, Bowsky returned to California, working as a process engineer for Unocal's Los Angeles refinery from 1991 to 1996. Then she joined Basis Petroleum's Texas City, TX plant as a gasoline blending engineer. "I learned about all the process units doing that," she says.
Valero took over a year later, and the new management offered her a position as senior economics engineer. "I was tickled pink," she remembers. "VP Rick Bluntzer and I met for about thirty minutes. He liked my business perspective."
In 1999 Bowsky moved to a job at corporate HQ. "You're interfacing with VPs, the marketing group, traders and people buying crude and selling products. You're in the thick of decision-making," she says.
Back to the plant
The corporate work was exciting and she learned a lot, but Bowsky really wanted hands-on plant work. Getting back
wasn't easy, though, since Valero plant managers generally do their own hiring. But the next year Bowsky returned to Texas City as complex manager, a training ground for the next level of management. "When you're chosen, the expectation is that you're going to perform and move up," she notes happily.
Complex managers are responsible for processes in a specific area of plant ops: cracking, for example, where crude oil components are reformed for further processing. Bowsky managed forty-eight people and many projects. By 2003 she was complex manager for the Texas City's catalytic cracker unit.
Learning from everyone
The hands-on experience, she says, was worth a million management courses.
Bowsky learned from everyone. "The frontline guys were supportive and knowledgeable. They've worked in maintenance or ops for fifteen or twenty years and have the technical piece down pat. As a manager, you're just fine-tuning and tweaking."
In July 2004 she became facilities director at Valero's Morgan's Point/Mont Belvieu plant (Baytown, TX), starting what was expected to be a two- to three-year project. "We bought a former Enron plant, intending to restart it, convert it and make iso-octane."
Unfortunately, feedstock costs were too high versus final product income. The company decided to sell the operation, based partly on Bowsky's six-month analysis of its numbers.
Analyzing the data was painful, Bowsky says. "The people were at that plant for so long and really wanted it to stay viable. Having them worry for months was taxing." But Valero was able to find jobs for most of the workers within the system, and the new owner offered jobs to others. "No one went without a job," Bowsky says.
Bowsky wasn't at loose ends for long. In January 2005 she was named special project director of the Houston refinery, assigned to a unicracker startup project. The next month she was promoted to ops director, and in August she was named general manager.
Life after work
Bowsky's busy life includes friends, athletics and travel. She's a runner and plans to rejoin her canoeing team. She values her family. And she's gradually learning to get away: "I have a lot of good people to rely on here at the plant."
Nevertheless she often arrives at the refinery at 7:00 a.m. and leaves after 9:00 p.m. "I still have a big learning curve. I need to know everything. The more I learn the more comfortable I'll feel," she declares.