SAN ANTONIO—The energy industry owes much of its recent success to advanced technology, but executives should remember that it’s people—both inside and outside a company—who make a business work. That was the keynote message of Bill McDermott, CEO of international software giant SAP SE, April 10 at the 96th annual convention of the GPA Midstream Association.

“We never talk about the market and the stock price, we talk about customers,” McDermott said of SAP management. Likewise, senior management should listen to its employees, give them a vision for the company’s success and reward them accordingly, he added.

McDermott, the first non-European to head the German-based firm, credited his career success to a delicatessen he opened in Amityville, N.Y., while still a teenager. He said he learned that listening to and identifying with customers brought business success.

“If you were a customer of mine, I knew your name, your childrens’ names, the food you liked, the beer you drank and the cigarettes you smoked,” he said. Talking to high school students, he learned they wanted to play video games so he moved in moved in some games. The kids played games and also bought lots of sandwiches, snacks and soft drinks.

He said his people skills got him past the receptionist and into the hiring manager for his first “real” job at Xerox.

“I did what I do best, I started a conversation,” McDermott said, and the then-friendly receptionist let him in to see the boss.

He got the job and was later put in charge of the company’s Puerto Rico region, which at the time ranked 57th out of 57 regions in sales. In San Juan, he learned the previous manager had dropped the popular employee Christmas party, which always featured a salsa band, to cut costs. Morale had sunk as well as sales.

So he booked a Christmas party, along with one of the island’s most popular salsa bands, for the following year. That brought cheers at an employee meeting—until he challenged the Xerox employees that they would not have the party unless the region moved to the top in sales first. It did.

In another, customer-focused situation, he spent time on a sales call talking about pets with a woman executive who loved cats and even kept a cat in her office. Nothing was said about Xerox copiers or typewriters but he made the sale, McDermott said, because he listened to her and learned what her interests were.

“Things don’t happen from a canned sales pitch or a PowerPoint. Learn the reason they came to you,” McDermott said of sales techniques. “Trust is the ultimate human currency,” he added. “It’s all about relationships and trust.”

This year’s convention theme, “A New Look,” builds on the organization’s name change to GPA Midstream from the Gas Processors Association in 2016. Wouter van Kempen, chairman, president and CEO of DCP Midstream and current GPA board chairman, opened the general session by reviewing the organization’s success at adding the industry’s viewpoint to the state and federal regulatory process.

“We want to play more offense than defense on regulatory issues,” van Kempen said, noting the association is adding one staff person to its Washington, D.C., office and a new staff member at its Tulsa, Okla., headquarters focused on state regulatory matters.

He described how GPA Midstream has been able to provide industry insight on regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The industry only had 90 days to review the 500-page document, which had been drafted without comments from the very industry it would cover.

“We need to continue to work as a team, to work for the midstream’s success,” he added.

More than 2,100 attendees registered for the four-day event, which will feature presentations on a wide array of regulatory and management issues, technical papers and social events.

Paul Hart can be reached at pdhart@hartenergy.com or @twopdhart.