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Liz McKinley: Fueled for Success

The founder and CEO of Huntington Beach-based fuel and petroleum products distributor Pinnacle Petroleum Inc. chalks much of that up to her days playing tennis where her competitive spirit was balanced with a philosophy that, even after a bit of a tumble, all is not lost.

“I’m very competitive and I like to win,” McKinley said. “I played [tennis] all throughout high school and a bit in college. The thing I always liked about tennis is [if] you screw up, you’ve got a chance the next point to make it up. It’s a good analogy for life. You get up every day and you may screw up one day, but the next day is a whole new day to attempt to do better.”

McKinley, who was one of six executives honored by the Business Journal late last month with a Women in Business Award (see stories, pages 1, 4, and 8), said she always knew she wanted to be in business for herself—an anomaly in a family where both her parents were in education.

She put herself through college at Oklahoma State University studying finance and marketing, originally accepting a job with AT&T. Her university at the time sent out a book of student resumes to various employers, one of them being Koch Industries Inc., which was looking to hire an oil trader.

The company took a look at McKinley’s resume and gave her a call.

“I was so intrigued with the company and the jobs that they were interviewing for, and so when I got the interview with them, I rescinded the job acceptance with AT&T,” McKinley said. She said she was the first female hired by Koch Industries at a commercial level.

That decision would send her on a path that played out over the next 30 years as she opened a Birmingham, Ala. office for Koch and then transitioned on to work as a commodities trader at other fuel companies, before starting her own business.

Turning Point

It was 1985 when McKinley launched Pinnacle Petroleum.

“For about a year or two, I was just getting by and paying the bills and making some money,” McKinley recalled of Pinnacle’s beginnings.

About two years in, the company was awarded a $10 million construction contract on the Eastside Reservoir project in Hemet, where Pinnacle was supplying as much as 10 loads of diesel fuel a day.

“That was my big break,” she said of the deal. “From that point on, we just kept growing. Business begets business.”

A lot has changed, she pointed out, after some three decades now operating in the industry. Certainly, improvements on the technological front have helped make running a business a lot easier. Widespread social change has also dramatically altered the operating landscape.

“I feel like less of a unicorn being a woman in a male-dominated business,” McKinley said. “Twenty-seven years ago, I was absolutely a trailblazer and [now] I feel that I’m less of an anomaly.”

The change didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen that long ago.

“Maybe five years ago, things started changing,” she said.

“Supplier diversity became more of a concern to larger corporations. For the first major part of the company’s years, we definitely downplayed any of the supplier diversity and even felt it was a handicap in a lot of ways. Our webpage didn’t mention it. Our logo was very masculine. Black and gold were our colors and we were attempting to look like a law firm—old and stable and male when we first developed the company. For the longest time most of the people I worked with had no clue I owned the business.”

Loud and Clear

Pinnacle’s messaging couldn’t be more different today, where it comes across loud and clear it’s a certified woman-owned business enterprise owned by McKinley. Business accolades are also touted, and the company’s corporate colors are now a bright navy accented with gold.

What started off in McKinley’s home with three employees in a single office and the copy machine stationed in the bathtub, now counts a team of 27 and expects sales this year of about $185 million.

Sales are a bit off from the high point of around $200 million due to the pandemic’s impact on Pinnacle customers. Still, the company was able to offset the 15% to 20% decline in volume from the travel industry and school district business with growth in the fleet card fuel division, which McKinley’s daughter Maddie McKinley oversees. And, the business is also still profitable.

The year has been one of reflection for the Pinnacle team, which is now looking to growth once the economy bounces back, McKinley said.

“I’ve thought a lot about what changes COVID has made in my life personally and at work, and I feel like trying to create more flexibility for the staff is something I’ve tried to focus on, and also really appreciating when things are good,” the CEO said. “We were in growth mode for so long that it just kind of felt all the time like fingers in the dyke just to keep moving forward. Now, we’re making an effort to appreciate the work we’ve done and the good customers and the fabulous employees we have.”

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