Nancy Thonen (ChemEngr '88) works 12-hour days and is on call 365 days a year as the general manager of Suncor Energy (USA) Inc.'s Commerce City refinery.
Since February, she has been managing 350 employees and a $470 million construction and maintenance project, which was undertaken primarily to meet the Environmental Protection Agency's lower sulfur requirement for diesel-fuel emissions and add capability to refine synthetic crude piped in from Suncor's oil sands operation in northern Alberta, Canada. The project, which required a total shutdown of the refinery's west plant, involved as many as 2,000 contractors at its peak and is expected to be complete by June 1.
"I walked into quite a bit," Thonen says of her decision to join the refinery as operations manager five years ago, and her subsequent promotion to general manager after Suncor purchased the property
in 2002. Thonen says she was attracted to the refinery business because of the challenges of constant 24/7 operations and the need to optimize the refining process to save energy, meet environmental requirements, and still make a profit.
After graduating from CU-Boulder, Thonen worked for Amoco and BP on the Gulf Coast before returning to her native Colorado in 2001. "It was like a dream coming back," she recalls. "I like to run, bike, ski, and snowshoe, and the heat and humidity in the summer on the Gulf Coast was hard to adjust to."
Although the oil business continues to be a male-dominated industry, Thonen says she has gotten used to being the only woman in the room. "I try to make sure I am competent at what I do, that I produce good quality work, and that I listen to what the employees are saying. My personal approach is to listen and learn from others, and not to ignore what people have to say."
Thonen says her future goals include building on her knowledge of refinery operations by getting involved in new business development.