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CWJJ Episode 141: Tal Centers


Thursday, November 10- The guys are joined by Tal Centers from Centerpoint Energy and he shares his passion for natural gas and also his work with the Texas Gas Association.

Quick Links:

Tal Centers on Linkedin

Episode Transcript

Jim Schauer:  [0:23] Good morning, everyone. It’s great to have everybody here for “Coffee with Jim & James.” It is a very special day for me, James. I don’t know if you know this.

[0:32] Before we bring Tal in, I want to tell a little story. That I would not be here today on this podcast ‑‑ where I am ‑‑ had it not been for a lot of interaction or whatever from Tal in 2008.

[0:49] Want and hear more? I was in Minnesota’s CenterPoint operations, had the opportunity to come down to Houston with a group called Alternative Fuels, which was one of Tal’s group.

[1:00] Tal at the time was VP over GETS, Gas, Engineering, and Technical Services, so half the company reported up to Tal. I got to have the opportunity to relocate to Houston, started my career there with turned into Mobile Energy Solutions, which led to me being more and more into CNG and LNG.

[1:20] Literally, Tal, I’m serious. Thank you, my friend, that…

James Cross:  [1:23] Hold on, Tal. This is your fault.

James:  [1:27] That’s what I’m hearing.

Tal Centers:  [1:28] When I first met Jim, look, like myself, he has a lot of passion.

Tal:  [1:29] I needed somebody to come in and help jumpstart that whole side of the business. Hey, he was a little reluctant about coming to Houston. The guy’s from the great white North, he was used to tromping around in snow shoes, and why not?

[1:56] He was like, “What the heck am I going to do down here in Houston.” I said, “Hey man, get a pair of short pants. Man, learn how to barbecue.” As soon as he got that, he was a Texan after that. He’s a natural Texan now.

Tal:  [2:11] Jim’s welcome in Texas anytime. He’s welcome in Texas anytime.

Jim:  [2:12] Thank you, my friend. Thank you. Tal, is great to have you here today. Absolutely.

James:  [2:28] Welcome to the show, sir. Tal, do me a favor. We always start with an origin story and I couldn’t wait to hear yours.

Tal:  [2:38] I’ll go back a little bit so you understand a little bit of my background. You maybe understand the bias that is just built into me from the beginning. I grew up military. My dad did the whole Vietnam thing and I moved around a lot as a kid.

[2:57] I had to learn how to make friends at an early age. I was the kid that went knocked on doors, “Do you have any kids that live here?” I was that guy.

[3:11] We moved around a lot. We finally settled down in Northeast Texas, where my mother grew up. That’s where I spent my time. Over the years, we skip forward…One story I do want to tell you is, I met my wife in the first grade. I have known my wife since the first grade.

Tal:  [3:39] We just celebrated our 39th anniversary. What a deal. I got two great grandkids now. It’s been good. I’ve known her that long. Not to fast forward, how did I end up in the gas industry?

[4:00] I went to Texas A&M. I got convinced by our friend. I did not want to go to a large college. I wanted to go to a small college. I was going to go to Lamar University in Beaumont. I did not want to go to a big college. I had visited Texas and I’m like, “That is not for me.”

[4:15] I had a friend of mine convince me. “Hey, you need to go by Texas A&M and look at that. You think you’d really like it.” I ended up going there. I was like, “Even though it’s a big campus, it had a small‑feel culture, fit where I’d come from.” I ended up going to Texas A&M.

[4:30] Back in the ’80s, you’ll remember, we’re a little bit like where we are right now. The housing market was…We’re not there yet, back in the ’80s, savings and loan debacle, you had the economy was in a bind.

[4:49] The jobs I had coming out of college was, “Go to California or join the Navy.” The Navy was like, “Hey Tal. We’ll pay for your last year of college If you’ll be on a nuclear submarine for six months out of the year.” I said, “I want to stay married to my wife, so I’m not going to do that.”

[5:10] I had this company called Intex back then in ’85. Intex tell me, “Hey, come work for us. We’re a gas utility.” I had these grand visions of I wanted to work for Lockheed or General Dynamics. I wanted to do real hardcore engineering. I didn’t have an appreciation for that, but Intex gave me an opportunity to come to work in Texas.

[5:34] It forced me to think about what did I really want to do long‑term in my life. Did I really want to be in a cubicle doing engineering work my entire career? What did I really want to do?

[5:47] Intex at that time offered me and said, “Hey, listen, we hire engineers for engineers, but we also hire you to develop into leaders. That’s what we really want you to do long term is be a leader.” I’m like, “OK.”

[5:59] After about a couple of years, I was into the job. It really kicked into me on what this is. This business is not overly complicated. When you look at one main and one service and one meter to one house and deliver energy, it’s not that complicated. When you try to do it four million times, like we do, it’s a big deal.

[6:23] What I also came to an appreciation about was, if our industry, any gas company, any electric company, anybody delivering energy to society, if we don’t do our job every day very well, things don’t happen.

[6:39] This podcast does not happen. People don’t have jobs. People don’t have phone service. People don’t have lights. They can’t heat their water. They can’t take care of their families.

[6:54] When I told you about the bias I had towards a military background in that sense of duty, that kicked in and said, “You know, I really like what we’re about. I can come to work every day and feel good about what I do, is contributing to the betterment of my local city, the state I live in, and the country I live in.” It gives us as a country, a competitive advantage.

[7:21] I found a lot of pride in that. Why have I stayed in the industry so long? That’s why. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to move outside. What I do is I try to take the innovative thinking and creative thinking and scratch that engineering hitch on my personal activities, as well as, at work, and stay grounded in what’s important, and that’s delivering safe and reliable energy to our society.

[7:50] As I’ll say to our customers, but really, is to our society. Maybe that gives you a little bit of background on what I’m about.

James:  [7:59] Your passion shows. Tal, the innovation, again, you’re absolutely right, that a lot of folks think, “Oh, it’s just a meter set. It’s just a line in the ground.” All the things come about of that.

[8:12] We see so much news these days, where people are saying, “Oh, we can do everything with electric.” Personally, I like a diversified energy portfolio. There’s a lot of different things that can happen.

[8:29] I’d be wrong to say we could do everything electric, or I could be wrong, say we could do everything natural gas. We need to have that balance and all that.

[8:38] Getting back to Tal, what’s your thoughts on that with the diversity and a portfolio as the United States of not even the world? How we do need different energy sources.

Tal:  [8:51] I don’t want to get too political about somebody issues. You understand that, the way much of society is going and where some of the pressures are coming from.

[9:05] The investor community is putting more and more pressure on carbon. Eventually, people are going to have to come to the reality of physics. Understand that if we’re growing as a country, population is growing, energy needs are going up.

[9:27] You’re not going to solve this problem by being efficient alone. Efficiency is always important. I happen to be a conservationist. I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. I consider myself a conservationist. I believe in good stewardship.

[9:43] The point you made about having a diverse supply, that’s good for a couple of reasons. It’s good, strategically, for a country to be that way. It’s good from a security perspective to have that.

[9:58] A lot of people that make the arguments that we’re going to completely electrify everything are ignoring that aspect, as well as the economic aspect, there is no way that you are going to supplement the heating load in a place like Minnesota.

[10:12] With electricity, the actual grid investment would drive electric rates through the roof. We know that. We also know that through physics, using the energy at the source of consumption is the most efficient way to do it. Therefore, natural gas is a natural solution for that particular problem.

[10:40] Now, around energy diversification, look, I am all for wind and solar. I have no issues with that. It should compete in the market of ideas and compete in the economics face.

[10:53] To compete for that, is it part of the solution? Absolutely, I think it’s part of the solution. Does it meet our reliability issues? No. We cannot count on the wind blowing and the sun to come out, it just is not going to happen.

[11:07] As you know, when we were at TGA, the thing when I was the chair, there was natural gas, the backbone of energy delivery. You OK? It is the backbone.

[11:18] I would also argue that nuclear has a play in that space because it’s very reliable. It brings its own set of risks and concerns ‑‑ societal concerns ‑‑ about how to deal with that, the disposal of it if you will.

[11:37] The answer is in looking at all energy solutions, being a good conservationist, and being a good steward of the resource. I don’t care what the resource is, water, natural gas, oil, electricity, we should always be striving to be efficient. It’s in the best interest of society. It’s the best interest of customers.

James:  [12:02] Hey, Jim. Before you jump in, Tal, I just want to clarify something. How many years in the industry now, for you?

Tal:  [12:11] 37, next week.

James:  [12:16] This isn’t like a hot take from somebody who just showed up. This is Tal Centers, 37 years now. Awesome. Thank you, Tal. Just want to make sure people know.

Jim:  [12:28] Awesome. That’s a good clarifier. That’s a very clarifier.

Tal:  [12:31] I’ve had the honor of working in most of our jurisdictions at the CenterPoint and these legacy companies. I’ve worked in rural areas. I’ve worked in large metropolitan areas. I’ve seen a lot. Good and bad.

Jim:  [12:46] Oh, yeah. I’m sure you see it a lot. I want to hit on something that you hit on, the TGA. The TGA, the Texas Gas Association in the Southern United States, the state gas associations, are very big and very…Take an active role in a lot of things.

[13:04] You’ve been very active. CenterPoint’s been very active in the TGA for decades. Ever since I moved down in 2009, that’s what I loved. What is your thoughts about associations, especially the TGA? You were chair last year, correct?

Tal:  [13:20] Absolutely. They vary by state to state, certainly nationally. The AGA and SGA have a huge presence. AGA is probably more postured to be in the form of a lobbyist, if you will, and connected.

[13:37] They do a lot of good work around standards, benchmarking things of that nature. SGA has traditionally been positioned more of an educational organization, sales, and marketing. Does some great work in that space.

[13:50] TGA, like a local state gas association, those groups have been geared more of helping the municipal and small operators. You have to have some of the larger operators step up and take a lead role in helping them out.

[14:07] As you know, many of the small cities and operators that we have, they don’t have large staffs, they don’t have environmental staffs, they don’t have engineering staffs, and they don’t have a good conduit to participate on a national or regional level with SGA or AGA.

[14:22] They don’t have the resources that are funding to do that. State associations provide a good avenue for that. They’ve also been a good avenue to help raise awareness and help develop future leaders and future people into the industry.

[14:40] One of the biggest things that probably TGA has done an excellent job on, is around the scholarship program that they help facilitate. Certainly, they bring vendors in, new technology in, to allow those small operators to see it, and to help get better ideas.

[15:01] Around the educational space, locally, as well as the developing leaders, is probably one of its core benefits that it offers for the state. It doesn’t typically act as a lobbyist for state legislation and things like that.

[15:17] Usually, those are being worked through normal regulatory channels with specific companies in the state, but they try to stay out of that political aspect of it.

Jim:  [15:30] Which is always good. I want to hit on something you hit on, the scholarship. I believe you’re also in charge of the scholarship committee. Is that…?

Tal:  [15:37] I’m not in charge of it, but I am on the board.

Jim:  [15:40] Got it. Correct me if I’m wrong, aren’t there about 10, $2,500 scholarships a year given out? Is that…?

Tal:  [15:49] At least, yeah. TGA has done such a good job of fundraising in that space. That they’re closely approaching the ability to actually have it set up as a trust and be able to self‑fund itself, which is really a great accomplishment to be able to pull that off.

[16:08] It takes the pressure off of having to try to have fundraising events all the time to have to fund that effort. They’ve done a nice job there. Like I said, if I had to give AGA really big kudos on anything or TGA, would be on the scholarship. They really did a nice job with that.

Jim:  [16:25] I tell you, in for the audience, going to the yearly O&M conference for the Texas Gas Association, few times they brought in some of the recipients of the scholarship, so we get to meet them.

Tal:  [16:38] Very impressive. All of them are very, very impressive. Some of their stories are even more inspirational than others. I had the pleasure of being able to do that one year, reviewing those.

[16:55] It’s amazing when you sit there and read the write‑ups on some of these kids and these young people who are coming up, very, very impressive. It gives you hope for the future when you see that kind of talent coming up.

James:  [17:08] Tal, it’s funny, you say that [inaudible] reviewed some of them this year, our CEO. I got to see some of them by proxy and you’re dead on. I was so impressed by the future that’s coming with this group, it makes you feel good.

[17:26] Tal, when we are at TGA, one thing we picked up on was just ‑‑ and you’ll laugh at this. Especially after the pre‑show ‑‑ how passionate you are.

Tal:  [17:38] Is that a code word for something passionate?

Jim:  [17:43] Yeah.

James:  [17:43] Tal, we joke about it and you can…

Jim:  [17:46] That’s a code word for opinionated and ball head.

James:  [17:49] I said loud. Yeah, ball head. I fall in that category too. Tal, where does that stem from? You’re a champion in natural gas. You’re a champion of leadership, sitting at the table getting involved. Where does that stem from?

Tal:  [18:10] It, fundamentally, comes from my upbringing and my faith. That’s where it comes from. Just internally. Inherently, I hate failure. [laughs] I hate wasted motion. I like to get to the point and get results. I also don’t like to leave dead bodies around.

[18:43] I don’t believe in that. I do believe that teamwork and collaboration, more heads, giving a thought, gives you better, better perspective, and gives you a better solution. For whatever reason, the good Lord bless me with a mind and a desire to solve problems.

[19:08] Once I have defined a problem, I don’t know, it just kicks in that we’ve got to get it solved, and we got to solve the problem. I am very results‑oriented. I don’t try to approach that through an authoritative style, but more through a transparency and collaborative style.

[19:34] I’ve fundamentally learned over my career that if you’re trying to get anybody to do anything or to get bought in anything…I learned this. It probably took me about 15 years in my career to actually learn this.

[19:50] As an engineer, you come out want to solve a problem. You just want to tell people how to do something and what to do. How and what, you just want to tell them how and what. “You got to do this this way and do this way, and your problem solved.”

[20:03] That works in the moment, but it doesn’t work to sustain a process or to sustain a change. What I’ve learned over the years, the important piece is to say, “Why?” Why first. Lead with why. Why are we even here? Why are we even having this conversation? Why is this even important?

[20:24] If people will buy into the why, if they acknowledge the why and agree with the why, the how, what, when, and all that naturally flow after that. They become facilitators of helping you achieve what it is you’re trying to do.

[20:42] If you lead with a how and a what, if you start saying, “What we’re going to do is this, this, and this, and we need to do this and we need to do that,” they don’t have any context of why we’re even having this conversation. What they do is they resort back to what their why is. They haven’t bought in.

[21:00] I think that’s where some of it comes from is I’ve learned over the years that that’s a good approach to build teamwork and collaboration and to get buy‑in and come up with a better solution.

[21:14] I have passion for solving problems, it comes out that way. I don’t know how else to explain it. It fundamentally came up became from my upbringing and in my faith. Taught at an early age about being somewhat self‑reliant, not accepting failure. Learn from failure, but not accept it. Be humble in your failures and your successes but don’t become a victim.

[21:59] Listen, I don’t believe in labeling yourself as a victim. Bad things happen to good people and bad things happen in life, but you, personally, have to choose are you going to let that dictate your outcomes or not.

[22:18] I think that’s learned at an early stage in life. Some people learn it later, but I think it’s something that has to be instilled early.

James:  [22:27] Two things…

Jim:  [22:29] That sounded weird. Is that on my side, or is that Tal’s?

Tal:  [22:33] That was probably me. I hit the table.

Jim:  [22:34] That’s all right. Two things for the audience. Tal, I’m going to take you back real quick. January 2010, does that ring a bell when the temperature in Houston went down at 25 degrees? Do you remember that?

Tal:  [22:50] It wasn’t 2010.

Jim:  [22:52] Was it ’09?

Tal:  [22:55] Well, the biggest cold weather that I remember in Houston was in ’89 and ’97. Then, the coldest, goddamn pretty cold last year, was last year when Winter Storm Uri come through. When you went of January of 2010, I was in Minnesota in 2010.

Jim:  [23:20] Maybe it’s 2009 was right after I moved down from Minnesota. I was thinking like you said, “Buy some golf shorts, you don’t have winters here.” I remember you’re still here and that’s when…It was probably 2009. I remember going down to the tower, and we were running CNG trucks, and you were dressed [inaudible] . It was like a war room. You had Maps out. You were looking at…

Jim:  [23:46] We got to close this valve. We have to open that valve.” We’re getting people in the room saying, “What do you think about going over here?” Your style was very much, “What do you think? How can we do that?

[23:56] Here’s the problem. We don’t have gas in the nice neighborhood over here because there is running their pool heaters.” Remember that?

Tal:  [24:03] Yeah.

Jim:  [24:03] Anyway, you are a great leader, Tal.

James:  [24:07] Passionate leader.

Jim:  [24:08] Back to that day, I remember being a part of that and witnessing that. That’s the first thing.

[24:15] Second, I can’t take it any longer. I keep looking at your screen, and I see this beautiful car behind you. What is that? Did you go to an auto show? Is that one of those things that are on auction for a million dollars? What is that?

Tal:  [24:32] No, it’s not a million dollars. That’s my car. It’s a 69 Camaro, originally was a Rally Sport, so it has a flip headlights on it. I built it back as a restomod, so it’s got all…It looks generally stock from the outside, but there’s nothing stock about that car. It’s a 570 horsepower motor with a five‑speed and tricked‑out suspension. It’s a nice ride.

[25:00] I built that car myself. It’s easier to say what I didn’t do on that car than it is what I did do. I did not install the exhaust because I don’t have a pipe bender at the house. I did not put the headliner in. I had a upholstery shop do that. I did not literally stitch the leather seat in it. I had an upholstery shop do that.

[25:26] Everything else, I built, I painted, I assembled. It turned out nice. It was a nice build. That took me two and a half years to build it. I got the car out of Des Moines, Iowa, and then had to fix a bunch of rust on it, new sheet metal, and whatnot.

James:  [25:45] Jimmy, we’ve got to hook Tal up with Chris Isaacson.

Jim:  [25:48] Oh, yeah. Chris loves to rebuild cars.

James:  [25:50] Chris restores old Broncos.

Tal:  [25:54] Those are hot right now. Broncos are hot right now.

James:  [25:56] I’ll send you some pictures afterward.

Tal:  [25:58] Broncos are really hot right now.

James:  [26:00] I’ll have to pull some pictures and send you away. I’ll hook y’all up. Y’all can geek out about it. I had some…

[26:06] [crosstalk]

Tal:  [26:06] I started a build on a ’66 Chevelle and got the frame back from powder coat last week.

James:  [26:13] Wow.

Tal:  [26:13] I’ve got the body over at Brenham, Texas right now, getting dipped and getting all the rust and painting stuff off of before we start doing that one.

Jim:  [26:22] Did you say ’66 Chevelle? Chevelles are one of my favorites.

Tal:  [26:25] Yes, a ’66 Chevelle. We’re going to make a street cruiser out of that one.

James:  [26:29] This might be our number one episode just because of this little portion.

James:  [26:33] We may have to edit this portion out.

Jim:  [26:36] Just keep it down of this.

James:  [26:38] We’re just going to have Tal or cars for it.

Tal:  [26:42] Look, I got involved in cars in high school like most people. After school, I worked in a body shop. I started off sweeping the floors, changing out windshields, doing inspections, and eventually ended up in the paint room, learning how to do bodywork. That resulted in me building racecars and learning how to do all that.

[27:04] I pretty much did all that even after I was married up through my second, third year of college. Racecars and worked on that stuff until got out of college and then had to get reality kicked in.

James:  [27:20] Sounds like children.

Tal:  [27:24] Exactly. No, I always had a passion. I want to go back and build another 69 Camaro. I guess you call that my midlife crisis. You know what I’m saying?

James:  [27:37] good one.

Tal:  [27:37] Some people have a midlife crisis. Mine was going to build a car.

Jim:  [27:40] That’s a great question.

James:  [27:41] I need a boat. That’s what I’m going to shoot for. I think I’m going to go boat when I got to mine.

Jim:  [27:46] A boat? Bring that out.

James:  [27:46] It’s coming quick. Coming up.

[27:48] Tal, we always wrap up with one question to our guests. Today’s no different with you being so passionate about things. I’m really excited how this is going to turn out. One thing we do, Tal.

Tal:  [28:07] Let’s set the expectation a little lower. Let’s set it a little lower.

James:  [28:12] You can talk about cars, and we’d listen. I tell you what. Tal, we live by something on the show. That’s that when we leave this place, we can’t take anything with us. Our goal is to give it all away, whether that’s helping out our future generation of leaders or helping spread the gospel of whatever it might be.

[28:32] Tal, you’ve got the floor. If you could give it all away, what’s one thing you want to leave our audience with?

Tal:  [28:38] Look, a lot of people in today’s society lack courage. They allow fear to either cause them to give up their freedoms and liberties, or they cause fear to keep them from exhibiting the courage to make a change, make an influence.

[29:11] People need to not do that. I believe that we’re not given a spirit of fear but of sound mind. We need stand on that as individuals and have the courage to self‑valuate ourselves, understand when we make mistakes, understand we’re not perfect, understand that it’s a process and that we should never let fear…

[29:40] In other words, I don’t care what you’re doing in life. There’s always points in your life, I don’t care what it is. It could be something very simple, or it could be something very complicated where you will be hesitant. I would tell people to test that hesitancy to see if fear is the motivation of the hesitancy.

[29:58] Now, if you’re hesitating because you need more information or it’s not clear, that’s not fear. That’s good common sense in getting the information. A lot of times, people are hesitant because they literally are fearful of either being challenged or avoiding confrontation, afraid of how they might be perceived.

[30:26] You need to test that. If that is the motivation, you need to review that and you need to move on and understand.

[30:40] I’ll be honest with you. That was a big point in my life that changed when I finally got to the point because I know y’all joke around and say, hey, I’ve got passion and all these other things.

[30:53] Coming from East Texas and growing up the way I did in a rural area, I literally could not speak in front of anybody, more than two or three people at a time. I would not be capable of even doing what we’re doing here today.

Jim:  [31:08] Really?

Tal:  [31:09] Absolutely. It was fear. It was driven on fear. I had a fear of a microphone, fear of a TV, fear of speaking in front of anybody. It wasn’t until I came to that realization and second Timothy of it that that fear was not coming from a good place. Once I realized that, I got past a lot of my issues as far as that goes. [laughs]

[31:35] I think that passion started pouring out more and more. I would encourage people to not be driven by fear. Get the facts, understand what the issues are, make rational decisions.

[31:46] Emotions are good. We’re all given emotions and they’re great, but we shouldn’t make decisions on emotions. Emotions are good precursors to ask questions. They’re good precursors to investigate. They’re good precursors to discover new things, but they shouldn’t be the core of how we make decisions.

James:  [32:17] Jimmy, you heard it here first from Tal Centers. Be brave.

Jim:  [32:20] That’s awesome. Those are [inaudible] . This has been great. Tal, thank you so much for joining us today. Absolutely.

Tal:  [32:26] Appreciate it, guys. Enjoy it.

Jim:  [32:28] All right.

Tal:  [32:29] Thanks for having me on today. You all have a great weekend.

James:  [32:33] You bet. All right. For those joining us, thank you for joining us. Thank you, Tal. I hope one day I get to ride in that car. Goodness, gracious.

Jim:  [32:45] I apologize.

James:  [32:50] Jim’s falling apart.

Jim:  [32:51] It’s so emotional after that whole give‑it‑all‑away part.

James:  [32:51] A little choked up.

Jim:  [32:56] Anyways, thank you for joining us, everybody. Thank you, Tal, for joining us. I appreciate it. See you next time with Coffee with Jim and James. You all stay safe.

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