The success story for Pinnacle Petroleum Inc. founder Liz McKinley is a humble one.
Since her first job at an Oklahoma Dairy Queen at age 14, McKinley always had a goal of becoming a top-level executive.
She put herself through college at Oklahoma State University studying finance and marketing and accepted a job with AT&T upon graduation. Her dream of working in money markets seemed out of reach at the time, until she got a call from fossil fuel giant Koch Industries Inc.
Koch, one of the world’s largest private companies in the U.S., was looking to hire an oil trader and stumbled upon her resumé after the university sent several to prospective employers.
“So, the day after I graduated, I took my mattress and moved up to Wichita, Kan. and started working for the Koch brothers,” McKinley told the Business Journal.
She was the first female hired by Koch Industries at a commercial level.
Now, McKinley is one of OC’s top female executives as the founder and CEO of Huntington Beach-based Pinnacle Petroleum, which provides competitively priced petroleum products and services in 17 states to cities, counties and Fortune 100 accounts.
The company has allowed McKinley to share her success with her family—her daughter Maddie McKinley heads a key business line for the firm.
Pinnacle was one of five companies awarded at the Business Journal’s 23rd annual Family-Owned Business Awards, which took place June 2 at the Irvine Marriott. Pinnacle was awarded in the Small Business category.
The company can only be considered small by its employee count; Pinnacle is approaching nearly half a billion in revenue in 2022.
“Last year we grew 25%, and this year we are on a trajectory of growth as well,” McKinley said.
Growing Past Headwinds
The pandemic brought new business for Pinnacle, which McKinley launched in 1995 and currently counts 25 employees.
“Our business is an essential commodity, so we were in the office the whole time,” McKinley said. “If people don’t get their fuel, they are hurt by it.”
Not only did Pinnacle maintain its client base during COVID-19, it was successful with a number of new bids heading out of the pandemic.
“After COVID I think there was so much supply chain issues that customers felt they were getting the run around by other vendors. And I think they wanted to consolidate vendors,” McKinley said. “So, they just called us and said, ‘we want to give you more business.’
“Just kind of overnight, we were doing a whole lot more volume.”
The pandemic didn’t leave Pinnacle unscathed, however.
It saw a setback in sales volume in 2020 as a result of the hard-hit travel sector, with revenue falling to about $185 million from its high of $200 million the year prior.
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 car fuel division, which McKinley’s daughter Maddie oversees.
The company had barely caught its breath when another global event shocked the world: the war in Ukraine, which has had a targeted impact on fuel.
“Everybody thinks that we make more money if the prices go up. And that’s not the case because we’re the middleman, we’re the distributor,” McKinley said. “So, we don’t like high prices because our profit is based on cents per gallon, and that stays the same. So, if the prices go up, then our return on investment goes down and our credit risk goes up.”
She notes that the prices for diesel exhaust fluid specifically have skyrocketed 250% over the past year or so.
Headwinds haven’t kept the business from returning to growth mode.
It saw revenue nearly double in 2021 to $360 million and is on track to reach $500 million this year.
Passing the Torch
Throughout her childhood, McKinley’s dad constantly reassured her that she can do whatever she wants.
That confidence combined with decades of experience made her comfortable as the only woman in the room, which doesn’t happen as often as it used to.
“It wasn’t strange to me working with a bunch of men, which has been most of my career.”
McKinley, who previously won a Business Journal Women in Business award in 2020, can now pass that confidence on to her three children, who she hopes to pass the firm to when she’s ready to hand over the wheel.
“You work so hard and put so much blood, sweat and tears into it. It is human nature to just want to see the legacy continue,” McKinley said.