Mike Howard, 39, knew he wanted out of Agua Dulce, Texas, the tiny town he grew up in some 40 miles west of Corpus Christi. In fact, by the time he was 9 years old, he knew he didn’t want to live there for the rest of his life.
But how does a kid whose folks didn’t have much money, whose dad was a school teacher and mom a school aide, how does he get from there to anywhere?
He knew the answer to that question was education. “I was good at math and chemistry,” he explains. So in high school he asked an adviser what undergraduate major would get him to the highest-paying jobs.
Think of the famous scene in the 1967 film The Graduate, when businessman “Mr. McGuire” tells Dustin Hoffman’s character, “Benjamin”:
Mr. McGuire: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word.”
Benjamin: “Yes, sir.”
Mr. McGuire: “Are you listening?”
Benjamin: “Yes, I am.”
Mr. McGuire: “Plastics.”
Benjamin: “Exactly how do you mean?”
Mr. McGuire: “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
That high school adviser told Howard, “Chemical engineering.” And Howard took that advice and ran with it. As a teen he talked his way into an internship with Union Pacific Resources, where he learned about energy, pipelines, natural gas and a whole lot more. That turned into his first full-time job. And the guy who hired him then has worked for Howard since 2005.
Howard went to Texas A&I in Kingsville, where he studied chemical engineering. Out of college he zeroed in on natural gas processing plants. And by the time he reached his early 20s he was managing hundreds of people and many thousands of dollars in equipment and more. “I had a tremendous amount of responsibility. And I was making a lot of money,” he recalls. But bottom line, Howard explains, he was just an employee, not an owner.
The stress of doing what he was doing was also taking a toll on his life and his marriage. He was living on airplanes and out of a suitcase. He ballooned to 260 pounds. His blood pressure went through the roof. He was killing himself, and he knew it. He now weighs around 225 pounds, and his blood pressure is great, he says. “I figured out I needed to work smarter,” he says. And he needed to own a business so he could realize not only the profits he knew he could generate but the lifestyle he wanted for himself and his employees.
He recalled what turned out to be his wake-up call. In 1997, at age 24, he saw several co-workers who were much older than he was get laid off. They were devastated. They really had nothing else they could do other than the work they were doing, and suddenly that was gone. “None of them had an education. None of them had taken vacations or had really done anything to enjoy life,” he says. Their work was their life, and suddenly it was gone.
He vowed never to let that happen to him.
Today Howard is the chairman and CEO of Howard Energy Partners (HEP), a multimillion-dollar company that, among other things, owns and operates natural gas pipelines throughout much of South Texas in the Eagle Ford Shale Formation. At HEP he put his more than 16 years’ experience in natural gas companies to work for him, his associates and their customers.
HEP opened its doors in June 2011 with no staff. Today the company has more than 1,000 employees, miles of pipeline and several natural gas processing plants, including one near Agua Dulce.
Howard is HEP’s leader. And he credits Future Farmers of America — FFA — with building those leadership skills, helping to make him who he is today, a remarkably successful corporate CEO. Remember, he’s just 39 years old.
“I was almost always younger than the people who worked for me,” he laughs. He sees his job as he always saw it, “to give the people who report to me the tools they need to do their jobs.”
And while work is still very important to him, he has learned to devote time to his second wife, Meredith Anne Hargrove, and his daughter from his first marriage, 9-year-old Jaden Marie Howard.
“I insist that our people take their vacations. Get away. Enjoy life. I know I do,” he says. And in doing so he recalls those guys who got laid off in 1997.
But while he insists on time away from the office, he also is a believer in a strong work ethic, which he says he got from his folks and that small high school in Agua Dulce: “From the time I was 14, my parents never gave me money to buy the extra things I wanted. I learned early on if I wanted it, I had to earn it.” In high school, where he lettered in football, basketball and track, Howard also played in the band and did a whole lot more. He was driven even then.
That drive to succeed is very much a part of him today. Whether it’s building a successful natural gas company or taking his family on trips around the world, Mike Howard wants to do it all. And despite the fact that he is still under 40, you get a sense that he wants to do it all right now.
And I wouldn’t bet against his succeeding in anything and everything.
By: Ron Aaron Eisenberg
Photography: Casey Howell