Growing up in Abbeville, La., during the late 1950s, a high-school aged Phyllis Miller dreamed of becoming a lawyer. This was an unusual career choice for a woman at that time, as few women dared to dream beyond the normal confines of being a housewife or, if a woman worked, she was a secretary, nurse or a teacher, as her mother was. Becoming a lawyer, running an oil/gas company and traveling the world were not the ordinary paths a woman took.
But then again, not many women are Phyllis Miller Taylor.
Taylor was married 40 years to the late Patrick F. Taylor, a charismatic pioneer in the petroleum industry. She is currently one of the few women in that industry to hold a position of authority as the Chairman and CEO of Taylor Energy, the New Orleans-based company her husband founded in 1979. Taylor took over the company when he passed away in 2004, and in ’08 she sold its offshore assets – production, platforms and all associated facilities (the operation arm of the company) – to two South Korean companies in partnership with each other, Samsung and the Korean National Oil Company (its New Orleans affiliate is called ANKOR).
When Taylor assumed her position at Taylor Energy, she was no stranger to the petroleum industry, nor being one of the few women in the worlds of business and law. After graduating from Tulane School of Law, she clerked with the District Court, then with the Louisiana Supreme Court for Judge Mack Barham. Taylor went on to work for another legendary oilman, John Mecom Sr., as his in-house attorney. Her husband who had also worked for Mecom, but now had his own company, introduced her to Mecom. Taylor ended up working mainly out of Mecom’s Houston office. “My job evolved into one of those commuter workers who left [New Orleans] on Monday and returned on Friday,” says Taylor. (As a side note, Mecom’s son, John W. Mecom Jr. was the first owner of the New Orleans Saints.)
Taylor’s success, then and now, is a combination of smarts and gracious Southern charm. It is a rare balance that takes skill to accomplish. Taylor recalls while working for Mecom, she was in the conference room with businessmen before a big meeting. She made sure they had coffee. Not really paying her much attention, they spoke about what they were going to do in the meeting. Mecom arrived and sat down, and Taylor sat next to him. Much to their surprise, he announced that she was his attorney. It was an education. (For both sides, perhaps?)
Taylor also learned from her late husband. “If I had a question about how something worked, all I had to do is ask him,” she says.
And like her husband, Taylor isn’t a one-dimensional businesswoman. She is an ardent supporter of education initiatives, particularly of the program her husband initiated, TOPS (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students – which was originally named the Tuition Opportunity Program for Students). Taylor is on several boards and this month will be awarded the United Way’s Alexis de Tocqueville Award, given to a person who uses significant resources to aid United Way’s community programs.
Taylor is also an avid hunter – she proudly showed me the leopard she shot in Zambia in 2008. And at the Circle Bar Ranch there is an African exhibition hall with 50 or 60 of her and Patrick’s trophies.
Anything she hasn’t accomplished? Learning French, “It’s one of my life’s ambitions that has not come to fruition,” she says.
For this quiet pioneer, I have feeling that she just might learn it.
Age: 68 Profession: Chairman and CEO of Taylor Energy; Chairman and President of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Born and raised: Abbeville. Education: BA in history and political science at University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana-Lafayette); law degree from Tulane University Law School Favorite book: I have eclectic tastes, but when people ask me what the book was that most impressed me in life, I always say, West with the Night by Beryl Markham. It’s a story of her life, but more than her interesting adventures, it’s a unique writing style. She was a person who never wrote anything before and really never wrote anything after. It’s a beautiful book. I am also a great Harry Potter fan, to the point I will stay up until midnight to get the latest book. I’m heartbroken, in some respects that the series is over, but am glad that she [J.K. Rowling] is smart enough to give the series a beginning and an end and try not to carry it on and lose its real uniqueness. I look forward to another author coming up with a series, or Rowling coming up with another one. Favorite movie: If my husband were alive to tell you, he would say, “Anything in black and white.” I love the great classics, movies by Merchant/Ivory, British movies about Jane Austen and Charles Dickens stories. At the same time, I love animation, like Ratatouille and Shrek … I like them all! Favorite food: My favorite foods range from seafood to venison to buffalo. Favorite restaurant: I love exploring all the famous restaurants of the world. I just got back from Belgium, where we had an incredible experience at a restaurant in Brussels called Commes Chez Soi. So that’s my new wonderful discovery. However, given my preference, I love exploring the new and old restaurants of New Orleans, which are still, hands-down, the best. It also depends on what food you are eating and what kind of ambiance you want. Favorite music: I can go from classic to rock and roll to country. Favorite vacation/place to relax: I like going to my ranch – the Circle Bar Ranch – in Marion County, Miss. I also enjoy the Gulf Coast. But I have to say I like any place with a spa. I love the Golden Door. And, of course, Paris – it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Hobby: Well, I have to tell you, since Patrick’s death there hasn’t been much of an avenue for hobbies. I guess you could classify travel as a hobby, and I have been able to take some wonderful trips and continue to do that. I also have a great love of hunting, especially in Africa.
Tell me about your family. Both of my parents were from Abbeville. My father manufactured rat poison on a wholesale basis. He did citywide campaigns, went into schools, hospitals and public facilities and worked on rodent eradication. My mother was a teacher who had not been able to get her degree because of the war. She always wanted a degree, so my senior year of college, my mother went back to school. She got her degree a year after I got mine.
How did you meet your husband? I met and married him while in law school. There used to be a very large oil trade show in Lafayette and I was working in a hospitality booth serving coffee. He tricked me into having him drive me home by telling me the family friend who was supposed to do it had been called out to work and had asked Patrick to drive me. It wasn’t quite true and Patrick had to find the man and tell him what he done. I found this out many months later.
But the truth of the matter was, I was attracted to him and if he had been honest with me and said that he wanted to take me home, I would have probably agreed. He was based in New Orleans, I was going to school there, and we started dating.
Since you sold the operations arm of Taylor Energy, what does the company do now? Taylor Energy’s mission at this time is to address the decommissioning of the facilities of the platforms that we lost during Hurricane Ivan. We are no longer a producing company.
Do men dominate the petroleum industry, as it was when you first started in it in the late 1960s? Today, you see woman as petroleum engineers, geologists and other positions, but it’s still a man’s world.
Tell me about TOPS (Taylor Opportunity Program for Students) – it’s now 20 years old. In 1988, Patrick was asked to speak with at-risk children at Livingston Middle School. Before this he was always going to schools with young children who were motivated and interested in going to college. This time he knew that this would be a group of children who would not be motivated. So he inquired how many of them would be interested in going to college and they all raised their hands. Then he asked, “How many of you are going to college?” And not one of them raised their hands. He made them a promise that if they stayed in school, took the right kind of courses to prepare them and make a “B” average, he would pay their way to any public university in the state of Louisiana. These children were called “Taylor’s Kids.”
This program created such a sensation and such a motivating force with those young children, that he decided to have a study done to see what the real feeling and beliefs were of not only of the children from low- and middle-income families, but also of their parents. The study was conducted by the University of New Orleans’ current Chancellor, Tim Ryan. The conclusion was that the vast majority of the residents of Louisiana didn’t feel college was for their children because they didn’t have the financial means, not because they doubted the ability of their children.
Further work was done with a great number of the state legislators, and legislation was brought forward that proposed – remember, this was originally a need-based criteria – that children without the financial needs be given a stipend by the state, assuming they had taken a college core curriculum in high school and had graduated with a “C”/2.5 GPA average and made a score of 17 on the ACT.
That started slowly, began to build, and you saw the motivation of not only encouraging children to go to university, but also encouraging the children of Louisiana to stay in Louisiana. This was a huge motivator to parents and children – they weren’t going to have to pay their tuition. (I think parents also like to have their children stay in the same state, a little closer.)
So work began on trying to decide how far to raise the income level. It was realized that if the level was to be raised, they should just take the cap off completely. A cap at a high-income level was cutting out just a small number of children. If they were included, it would be a strong factor to those children – whereas before they may go to an out-of-state university, now with free tuition possibly they would stay. And historically, that has proven to be the case. I can give you innumerable examples of both parents and children who have told me that even with scholarship offers to out-of-state universities, they’ve opted to stay here because they have a tuition waiver. It’s a huge clout to keep our children within our state.
How many of the original “Taylor’s Kids” were there? There were about 180. There was some attrition, some changed schools, but it was remarkable how many children stayed on and got that high school diploma. Really the system had written them off – some of them were 21 years old when they graduated high school.
It was a huge accolade for the children and the faculty members who encouraged them – Marie Carter was a great mentor to those students. She was a teacher at Livingston, who then transferred with them to the Marion Abramson High School so she could stay with them throughout.
How many children have benefited from TOPS? Over 170,000 children have taken advantage of the TOPS program.
How many states is TOPS in? It’s now in 23 states. And, I’m very excited because I will be meeting with the new governor of Alaska, Sean Parnell. We had done some work in Alaska before, but it seemed to stand still. Very shortly after he was sworn in as governor, Parnell called us to come back and help initiate the TOPS program there.
What do you think of the “career-track” diploma, which recently passed the state legislature? It’s a complicated matter that I think needs to be handled very carefully if it is to be effective. And I think we need a little time to see how to implement it in a meaningful way.
What is the mission of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation? The emphasis of the Foundation is education. The Foundation does the work to keep the citizens of Louisiana aware of the potential strengths and contributions of the TOPS program and to encourage our schools to help develop meaningful curriculum so students can qualify for all schools. Students can now qualify for TOPS benefits at a private university. It’s for all universities within the state, but, for example, a student just doesn’t receive the full allocation for a Tulane University tuition, they get the public university allocation. And it also applies to community and technical colleges, but that’s a different criteria to qualify.
The foundation also supports efforts in the military, law enforcement and other humanitarian groups.
What other organizations are you active in? I’m a big supporter of the New Orleans Ballet Association – I’m a lifetime member – and the New Orleans Museum of Art. I just joined the Smithsonian [Institution] National Board, which I’m very excited about. I’m also the chair of the board of trustees for the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
Do you think you taught your husband anything, and vice versa? Patrick taught me any number of things – head of the list is to fully appreciate the educational opportunities I would have received. Probably if I had not met him and had his influence, I would have continued to take that for granted. He also taught me much about the oil industry.
I’m not sure I taught him anything! Though, I made a great attempt to teach him patience. I failed miserably.
You said you like to travel. Any place in particular you would like to go to? Petra, Jordan
True Confession: Relatively recently, I’ve totally gotten into video slot machines. I like to go away to do it – so it’s part of the vacation. I find that it’s great entertainment.