Her strawberry blonde curls and cheerful disposition challenge the perceptions of a rugged, male-dominated industry, but the Dakota Prairie Refining (DPR) plant near Dickinson seems to benefit from a woman at the reins.
“It’s still a bit of a man’s world, but I do think women bring something to the table,” plant manager Mary Trost says. “We seem to be a calming influence. And you really need that in this type of environment.”
It seems appropriate for DPR to boast a leader just as non-traditional as erecting a new oil refinery – something unheard of in the U.S. in nearly 40 years. The plant, which processes 20,000 barrels of Bakken crude daily to meet regional diesel fuel demand, is owned and operated jointly by WBI Energy, a subsidiary of MDU Resources Group Inc., and Calumet Specialty Products Partners. Working with oil produced locally is a refreshing change for Trost since her previous experience was at Washington and Texas coastal refineries.
“In both places we took waterborne crudes, so you just had no feel for it. The oil came in a big boat or a pipeline,” she said, “and to be out here where all these wells are – you have a much closer interaction with the people doing the drilling and production than you do in a sort of normal refinery set up. That’s been fantastic.”
Trost considered the move to Dickinson a bit of a homecoming. She grew up near Minneapolis and her husband’s family farms near Park River in northeast North Dakota, so when she became aware of the refinery position, she was hopeful she and her husband would be able to return to the area. Trost earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley and began her career in research at Amoco’s Naperville Research Center in Chicago.
“It was fun for five years, and then research got kind of old,” she laughs.
Since she spent significant time at plants doing experimental research, Trost began to enjoy the environment and decided to pursue a refinery career. Twenty-five years later, she said the DPR role is allowing her a chance to make an impact in the local community as well as the state’s entire oil refining business.
“An opportunity like this only happens once in a lifetime – to be at a new startup refinery,” she said.
While most refineries have been modernized over the years, DPR offers the advantage of working with an entirely new system.
“Everything was built at once, everything was sized correctly, it all fits together,” Trost explains. “You don’t have a lot of the problems with an older refinery where material is undersized relative to something you’re putting in and you have all this work to do.”
Trost was preceded at the plant by Calumet’s Superior, Wisconsin, facility manager Dave Podratz who was contracted to lead the refinery through organizational development and the overall start-up process. Since Trost took over seven weeks ago, she has focused on training employees to help them understand what is involved with operating a refinery, but she’s also committed to educating the general public.
“We spend quite a bit of time out in the community working with people to make them comfortable with having a refinery as a neighbor,” she said.
The refinery is still hiring maintenance positions and will soon begin seeking candidates for entry-level work such as mowing grass, assisting in the laboratory, and other general purpose tasks in hopes that those employees will become familiar with the refinery business and move into full-time operations positions. Trost said while there are slightly more women working in refineries than in oil production jobs, she would like to see more women apply.
“Don’t be intimidated by it,” she advises them. “It’s easier than you think.”
Trost’s management style involves decision-making through a collaborative effort by everyone who has a stake in the outcome, demonstrating that the best way to build relationships is often through a shared endeavor.
“I strive to keep everybody pretty well informed as to what decisions we’re facing so that people can provide input, or just know why things are happening and why they’re important to us,” Trost said. “I think that’s a big part of running this and having good employee satisfaction.”