Sun, Jun 12, 2016 - Page 14 News List

Son of the circus thrives as crude-oil traffic cop

By Jarrett Renshaw  /  Reuters, HOUSTON

Tim Holan, 53, who once headed logistics for Ringling Brothers Circus and is now head of North America logistics for Mercuria Energy Group, poses in his office in New York City on May 3.

Photo: Reuters

The rows of traders who line the massive trading floor at Mercuria Energy Group’s Houston headquarters rely on a string of modern conveniences to execute deals across the globe, but when they are under the gun to deliver oil fast, they call one person: Tim Holan.

That is because Holan, the head of logistics for the trading firm, cut his teeth on moving an even heavier cargo: elephants.

They, along with lions, clowns and other performers were part of the mile-long moving city that Holan spent nearly two decades shuttling around the country as logistics manager for the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Unruly animals, however well-trained, have a way of making the shipping of thousands of barrels of crude oil every day seem a bit less hectic.

“Crude oil is easier,” Holan said. “There is a specific infrastructure built for oil with the idea that there would be repeat business. With the circus, there’s always one-off moves and unpredictability.”

Holan’s own journey, which includes stints removing radioactive dirt from nuclear facilities and coordinating helicopters for airlifts after Hurricane Katrina, began in 1977, when at the age of 14 he ran away from his Pittsburgh-area home.

He got a job sweeping out the trains at Ringling Bros in California, lying about his age on his application to secure work.

“It was a different era,” said Holan, who is now 53. “Everyone knew I lied about my age, and that would never happen now. Looking at it now, I mean, what was I thinking, but at 14 it just seemed like a big adventure.”

Holan’s father, Rich, who once worked in the administration of then-US president Ronald Reagan, said it was painful to see his son run away from home.

“It was a bad thing, but it all worked out,” he said in a telephone interview. “He made some bad decisions at a young age, and he made some great ones.”

Ringling Bros is considered the world’s largest private train operator, running two separate trains of 60 rail cars, each stretching more than 1.5km. Holan thrived in the circus’s apprentice-style culture, working his way up to trainmaster and then general manager, where he was put in charge of coordinating the journeys. He never missed a show during his time there.

During long hauls, such as trips from Dallas to Philadelphia, Holan would have to stop the train to make sure the animals were fed and bathed.

“Whether it was a field in Iowa or a parking lot in Chattanooga, Tennessee, we had to find a spot to unload all the animals from the train,” Holan said. “The train operators would often know in advance where we were going, and they would bring their families to get a glimpse of the show.”

New York was the most challenging destination, as Holan had to park the cars in Queens, with a short window in the middle of the night to parade the animals through the Queens Midtown Tunnel on the way to Madison Square Garden.

“It was always funny to watch the face of someone who walked out of a club in the morning to see an elephant walking the streets,” Holan said.

For much of his career with the circus, Holan’s secret weapon for dealing with the unexpected was a roll of quarters. In the case of a snag on the rails, Holan would scramble to locate a pay phone to contact his roster of contacts when problems arose, using the information gained to chart a different route.

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