Member Spotlight: A conversation with GPSA President Ryan Rudnitzki

Ryan Rudnitzki entered the midstream industry because of his love of engines and stayed for two decades because of the industry’s importance to all aspects of modern life. He spent 19 years in various roles with INNIO Waukesha and is currently Senior Vice President of Sales with RPower.

He’s been a key association volunteer in varied roles, supporting membership, advocacy, and technical committees and currently serves as GPSA’s president.

He recently shared thoughts about his professional journey, work within GPA Midstream and GPSA, and his views about energy and the midstream space.

What brought you into the midstream industry?

Ryan Rudnitzki: In a word: engines. I grew up in Wisconsin. I went to school at UW Madison. I had no idea what I was going to do when I went to college, so I put chemistry down for my major because that was my favorite high school class, and I had to write something for my college application.

I lived with some engineers my freshman year, and they encouraged me to look into the degree. Fast forward, I ended up going to school for mechanical engineering. UW has a very good engine program and had partnerships with Ford and Caterpillar and GM and so on.

So when I graduated, I assumed I was going to Detroit, since that's where most of the automotive action was, but somebody reached out from Waukesha. It checked a lot of boxes. It was only engines, which were my primary interest. I didn't want to work on chassis or brakes or any of that kind of stuff. And it was 45 minutes from where I grew up. It just so happens that Waukesha’s main customer base is in the midstream industry and the rest is history.

What kept you in the midstream industry?

RR: I'm a meat and potatoes kind of guy. I like essential industries. My wife is a nurse, and I don't think anyone disputes that the medical profession is hyper-important. I view the energy industry the same way.

Working to try to help deliver reliable, clean energy turns my crank, pun intended, so it just kind of stuck. And as I moved my way from the engineering lab to the front end of the business as an account manager, it only stimulated my interest in what I was doing. What I’m doing with RPower — turning natural gas into electricity to help stabilize a growing grid — is an extension of that.

Describe a memorable professional experience.

RR: It's actually related to GPA Midstream. I had a customer reach out about some permitting problems they were having related to particulate matter emissions. Really nerdy stuff. Literally, within a week, somebody from another company also reached out about almost exactly the same problem.

Essentially, what we needed to do at Waukesha was test to see what the actual particulate matter emissions are out of a gas engine. For those not aware, when you see an old diesel dump truck or something, and the driver steps on the gas, or if somebody's “rolling coal,” all that soot is particulate matter.

Generally, natural gas engines are synonymous with having low particulate matter emissions because you're burning a gaseous product, not a liquid product. It is assumed what little emissions that are present come from the small amount of engine oil that can be combusted.

Because natural gas particulate matter emissions were minimal, it wasn’t really measured by the engine OEMs. But these companies needed the information.

So Waukesha put some money and time into measuring particulate matter in the field. Our customers who had reached out provided funding and expertise, as well. We put one of our field engineers out there to take readings at a plant in Wyoming.

We had an idea that particulate matter readings were going to be low, but we weren’t certain. We just had to take a risk, because if it wasn't low then it was going to be an about face.

Long story short, before we even had the data, we submitted a paper for the GPA Midstream Convention. And fortunately, we got all the data in and made the presentation.

It took some guts from everyone involved to cut a check and authorize the in-the-field measurements when we didn't really know what the outcome would be. We ended up getting a handful more engine sales. And I remember hearing more recently, from somebody at a large company who never understood how our customer was able to permit engines out on that site. I told them (with a smile, of course), “Well, if you guys would come to some of my presentations, you might have figured that out.”

That was definitely a proud, proud moment in my career, and it's related to GPA.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing oil and gas generally and midstream, specifically?

RR: Making the case for our place in the future energy landscape. Which should sound familiar because we talk about it all the time, and we’re investing in the Let’s Clear the Air Campaign as our way of engaging in that conversation.

A lot of people think that success is a world without fossil fuels. To me, success is lowering emissions to the point of sustainability, while also having reliable energy, solving energy poverty, and so on.

For me, natural gas is just about the perfect fuel to work alongside the more celebrated energy sources of solar and wind, and energy storage through batteries or other technologies. A lot of people just see any sort of carbon in fuel and say it's bad. And I think that's the wrong tack. It should be about getting emissions to sustainable levels while maintaining reliability and affordability, not about just completely eliminating a major source of energy.

How has involvement in GPA Midstream and GPSA advanced your career?

RR: Significantly. I started getting involved with the associations in 2016. I wasn't even in sales at the time. I was either still in engineering or just starting in a marketing role. My board predecessor at Waukesha was taking a job outside the company. For whatever reason, I don't know why, she looked around and said, “I think you would be good for this.”

I had no real commercial experience. I had some industry connections from supporting field test work and going to the GPA Convention a few years previously, but I didn't really know anybody. If you look at my account lists of companies that called on Waukesha, there’s a lot of overlap with GPA companies. That's not a coincidence, because I got to know people like Clark White, Mike Forsyth, John Poarch, etc.

Being able to meet these people and so many more and establish a relationship was extremely valuable. You generally want to have relationships with people that are in the facilities — engineering managers, rotating equipment experts, and so on, but having executive sponsorship helps, especially if you’re trying to convince a company to try your product.

Change is always difficult, especially in our space, which is generally conservative because reliability is the number one priority. Once you establish yourself as a go-to product, it's hard to convince somebody to change, even if you think you have a compelling value proposition.

Why do you volunteer at GPSA?

This goes back to my predecessor. She told me that representing the company with GPSA didn’t have a ton of required work. But she said it'd be a good idea for me to join a committee to get involved because the more you put in, the more you get out, which is something we echo when we get new member companies and board members.

So I took her place. That's when I met Jeff Stake and a bunch of other people who were active. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but the Membership Committee is the engine that drives GPSA. Without members, there’s no association, right?

In a lot of cases, recruiting members is a sales type exercise, because you're trying to convince people to join. So as I moved on in my career to be a salesperson, there was more overlap between what I did in my day-to-day and what I was doing as a volunteer.

I see the Advocacy Committee as being another major driving force behind GPSA, because that is one of the bigger value propositions — banding together to advocate for our industry. That’s easier for GPA companies, who tend to agree on policy because their interests and issues are typically aligned. The diversity of GPSA companies makes it more of a challenge because the companies are different in size and focus and everything else.

But the one thing we all can agree on is that our industry is enormously valuable. So if we can work together to push that message to other people who don’t see the value but are willing to listen, that’s worth the effort. And we’re right back to Let’s Clear the Air.

Why do you think people should get involved with GPA Midstream or GPSA?

RR: One of the things I was guilty of earlier in my career was having the mentality that if I wasn't talking to a customer, I wasn't doing my job. And certainly you need to do that. But I've gained a lot of benefit from getting to know other GPSA board members like Jeff Stake,  Dave Bardeen, Mark Ruff, Chris Lindenberg. Just great people to know, who can teach you a lot about a lot of different things.

And so it's not just about getting in front of customers, it's also about getting to know other people and learning from them, establishing relationships, and friendships.

The more involved you get, the more you get out of it. Somebody asked me how important being a board member was. And it is important, and I'm glad I've been able to be one for the past eight years, but really, the ticket to all the benefits is just being a committee member, because that's where you get more focused face-to-face time with people you want to meet and know.

Board member or not, being a committee member is the best move you can make. There are some great committees doing important work. Like the Environmental Committee on the GPA side with people like Doug Jordan, Melanie Roberts, Ryan Newcomer, Kirsten Derr, and Laura Higgins.

What's something you wish the general public knew about the midstream industry?

I would say a couple of things. One is that I believe people would have a less idealistic opinion about intermittent renewable energy sources if there weren't dispatchable power generation technologies like natural gas peakers or other energy storage mechanisms to close the gap when the sun goes down, but electrical loads stay high. The average person (myself included) would likely not be happy if their lights, air conditioning, and refrigerator went out for two hours every night.

That gap that is one of the things we're focusing on at RPower, because that’s where supply shortfalls can happen and power subsequently gets expensive. This aligns with the midstream industry in general because it's midstream infrastructure that supports the reliability and growth of our energy ecosystem.

Now, I am absolutely not anti-renewable energy. I believe we all benefit from diversified sources of energy that best match the needs of a geographic region and their unique power demand curves. Natural gas based power sources are one technology that's helping to shape the energy landscape, and it can definitely be a strong decarbonization tool. I’ve heard multiple people reference America’s progress on meeting the Paris Accords and the strong link to switching out coal for natural gas for power generation.

I think another point to highlight is that many of the stereotypes related to the hydrocarbon production industry are inaccurate. If you take a look around, you’ll find a lot of people in our industry who care deeply about the environment. There are of course great people working in solar, wind, and other low carbon energy spaces, but there need to be great people working in the gas industry as well, because this is an energy source that will be needed for the foreseeable future. And you can have an impact on overall emissions by optimizing facility designs, or choosing better equipment that minimizes greenhouse gas and permitted emissions.

So just because I work in the gas industry doesn't mean that I don't consider myself to be an environmentalist.

It's a pragmatic argument. If I didn’t work in this industry, it's not like suddenly there will be a reduced demand for natural gas. I know the kind of work I’ve put into being environmentally responsible and striving for sustainability. The finger is often pointed at companies that are supplying energy, but if supply is curtailed, prices will go up, even if demand remains flat. Then the finger pointing happens for high prices, of course. If you really want to reduce supply, you need to reduce demand, but that’s a political football, unfortunately.

What's a fun fact about you that people would never guess?

RR: My wife Theresa likes to give me a hard time about the fact that I was in synchronized swimming for a month during my senior year in high school. There was a synchronized swimming group called The Dolphins that was (I believe) all females. During senior year, they would invite the male side to audition and then do two numbers. One routine was all guys and the other had us paired up with the female seniors.

So I was like, yeah, why not? I auditioned, and got on the team. And my wife thinks it's funny to share that with our friends when she needs an icebreaker.

But I had a lot of fun with it. I ended up meeting a bunch of people I didn’t know very well, even though I went to high school with them and ultimately made some new friends. I bet there's a VHS tape of it out there somewhere. The guys’ number was to Intergalactic by the Beastie Boys, which was right in my wheelhouse as a big fan of 90s hip hop. The co-ed one was to a song from Grease (You’re the One that I Want), which was a little less my style, but it worked.