Jim Cantrell is anxious to find out about life outside the world of the oil and refinery industry.
Cantrell’s retirement is official Monday after a 37-year career with Ashland Inc. and Marathon Oil. The plant manager at the Catlettsburg Refinery is ending that career where it started in 1975 as summertime college labor.
Between then and now, he has carved out a career that would make his mentors proud. He counts former Ashland Inc. icons Bob Yancey Jr. and Bob Welter as two of the most influential, although it was a high school teacher at Russell, Col. Blankenship, who set him on the path.
“We all stand on the shoulders of our mentors. I came out of Russell, I was 17 and had no clue what I wanted to do,” Cantrell said in a recent interview. “I had an iconic physics and chemistry teacher, Col. Blankenship — I loved that guy; most people didn’t — who told me I was very good in mathematics and sciences and to try chemical engineering. It was a very diverse field.”
Col. Blankenship was exactly right and it was the right choice for Cantrell, who attended his first year at University of Kentucky on a Kentucky Power scholarship. He was also a walk-on for the freshman basketball team in 1970-71 that was coached by Joe B. Hall. Ronnie Lyons, the hot shot guard from Maysville, was one of his teammates.
He played only one year of basketball “because I had to work fulltime to pay tuition. I took out a $1,000 loan and thought ‘How am I ever going to pay if off?’ I was on the six-year plan. The university went to 120 credit hours for a BS but the chemical engineering remained 128. Very few got out in four years.’’
When Cantrell looks back on his early years at Ashland Oil, he has to smile. He had no idea of the journey that was ahead for him and wife Vicki. Cantrell worked in St. Paul Park, Minn., Canton and Findlay, Ohio, and, of course, the Catlettsburg Refinery for stints as the operations manager and two as the plant manager.
He was promoted to plant manager the last time in 2007 and that’s where his career will end. It’s almost fitting considering how much time and how many jobs he maintained at the Catlettsburg Refinery.
“We’d been gone 10 years and it’s amazing how quickly you resink your roots,” Cantrell said.
Not only has Cantrell watched over the 24/7 plant in Catlettsburg but he has been extremely involved in the community, along with wife Vicki. They both serve on various boards.
Cantrell is on the board at King’s Daughters Medical Center, the executive board at the Paramount Arts Center, the board at Safe Harbor and others throughout the years. He calls it “an essential part” given his position in the community.
“Positions like the president of King’s Daughters, president of OLBH, this position and others have a responsibility to take a leadership role in the community,” he said.
Cantrell has received several awards for his community service including the prestigious Cornerstone Award from Ashland Alliance.
Meanwhile, the Catlettsburg Refinery has become a leader among the seven plants in the Marathon Oil family. Cantrell is proud of how the refinery continues to be a leader in the industry in several areas. He takes no credit for the success, however.
“I know how it is here at the plant: six months from now it will be Jim who? And that’s OK,” he said. “Running a facility like this, this complex and having so much time commitment, you have to have a good team. (Human resources manager) Greg (Jackson) and his peers are the best in our seven-plant system and that’s recognized in Findlay. I have nine department managers here who are not only technically competent at running their shows but running a good team effort. We’ve enjoyed a lot of success.”
Under Cantrell’s leadership the refinery was named the top award from the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers for Large Employers in 2012 and the Living Our Values Award and Ethics and Integrity Award from Marathon in 2008 and the Diversity Award for Organization of the Year in 2009.
Cantrell said the Catlettsburg Refinery’s workforce is “the best of the best” and among the 95 percentile of industrial workers in an 18-19 county radius “who continue to develop careers. We push responsibility and authority down to the lowest levels,” he said. “This is a 24/7 operation. Anybody who has the illusion management is running this place really isn’t thinking.”
Jackson called Cantrell “an excellent manager who allows his directed workforce to do their jobs. He provides direction and kind of backs away to get the goals accomplished.”
Cantrell’s experience in nearly every area of the plant made him an outstanding plant manager, Jackson said.
“He has a great business acumen with his understanding of the business from all aspects whether financially, operational or maintenance wise. Refining has been in his blood from day one.”
Outside the plant, Cantrell’s volunteerism and work ethic to make the community a better place shouldn’t be understated, Jackson said.
“He does an excellent job as the face of Marathon in the community with his volunteer work and promotes that with all the employees.”
As for the future, Cantrell says there will be nothing professional but a lot of babysitting his first grandchild, 15-month-old Jonah Cantrell, some golf and boating, learning a sport called “Pickleball” and maybe even coaching some AAU basketball in the future.
Jim and Vicki will be “snow-birders” who spend half their time in Ashland and half in Fort Meyers, Fla., where a large contingent of Boyd and Greenup countians call home in the cold winter months.
Rich Hernandez has replaced Cantrell as plant manager and started on the job last week.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648.