By Vicky Villena-Denton
Mary A. Burnham understands the key ingredients in any business deal.
A resident of Dallas, Texas, U.S.A. since she was five years old, she was a stay-at-home mom before she ventured into trading with Fidelity Investments, then PetroQuest Energy. In 2013, Burnham struck out on her own and founded Burnham Green Oil. She brokers deals between buyers and sellers both nationally and globally on various products, from liquefied natural gas (LNG), No. 6 fuel oil, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), rerefined base oils and white oils, as well as crude oil.
She wants to do business with China, the world’s largest lubricants market. So in April, she attended the China-U.S. Private Investment Summit in Austin, Texas, hoping to strike partnerships with the 50 or so businesspeople in the Chinese delegation.
Events such as these are held around the United States to stoke interests among Americans to partner with the Chinese. Burnham sees these partnerships as an opportunity to participate in China’s economic growth.
“China wants to put its money on U.S. soil and we want to put our brand over there,” she said. “That is why we attended the summit.”
Burnham said that Burnham Green Oil is already in talks with a potential buyer of 40,000 metric tonnes of LPG per month out of Houston. “We are on the threshold of developing a relationship with China,” she said.
China is the world’s biggest consumer of LPG. The shale boom has led to a surge in the production of LPG in the United States. The first LPG deal between the United States and China was made by small private firms, like Burnham Green Oil, in 2013. Last year, however, a major LPG deal was signed between China’s largest oil refiner, Sinopec Corp. and Phillips 66, a Houston-based oil refiner. Sinopec, which is also China’s top ethylene producer, wants to use LPG as petrochemical feedstock. The U.S. government restricts exports of crude oil and has slowly loosened exports of LNG, but there are no limits on LPG exports.
Burnham brokers these deals, matching potential buyers with appropriate sellers. She’s had partners in the U.S.A., Mexico, Spain, Nigeria and Asia.
So how does she know when a deal has potential? “When you have something that the other person wants and you can get it to them at a fair price,” she explained.
Determining a fair price sounds straightforward when Burnham describes it. “You know what it’s trading at, you know what your logistics are going to cost you. You develop the relationship and the deal… there is always enough money to take care of everyone on both sides.”
Specialty products like lubricants involve smaller volumes. “You’re not going to make the same amount of money in lubricants as with commodities. It’s a whole different ballgame,” she admitted.
Nonetheless, Burnham said there are other factors at play. “Again, it goes back to you have to have fun, you have to love what you’re doing, you have to be with good people.”
Business deals are just like any relationship, she said. “The point is to make the relationship [work]. They want us and we want them. And we all make a little bit of money.”
Logistics are important, she said, because shipping by railcar from the the U.S. Gulf Coast to the West Coast for example would be expensive. And sometimes a deal is just not possible because the seller’s asking price doesn’t match the buyer’s expectations.
Burnham said that although it’s not easy to walk away from a deal, it’s important that she keep her integrity. “I believe it is the number one quality someone should have.” She said this is why people continue to do business with her. Likewise, she makes sure that her partners “are people with integrity. They have to pass the litmus test.”
As a woman in the still male-dominated oil business, in the heartland of oil country, she sometimes encounters some resistance. But she is relentless and has proven that hard work really does pay off. Her days can sometimes start as early as 6:30 am and she could be closing deals at dinnertime on Friday nights.
Burnham sometimes competes with oil majors on contracts, which is not easy. “Mary A. Burnham works Monday through Saturday, maybe Sunday. But I love what I do,” she said.