Family's emphasis on hydrogen fuels CGI's success

Rick Shrum

Eileen Zullo was in another country, doing consulting work, when she got a transformative phone call.

Her brother, Charles J. Zullo III, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 40. He was a top executive of CGI International LLC, a group of companies based in Washington County. Charles was the only son among seven siblings, and the heir apparent to take over from his father, Charles II.

Reflecting on her dad’s stunning call in 2003, Eileen readily admits that at the time, “I hadn’t wanted to work in the family business.”

Then the head of the family, and CGI, made an offer she thought about refusing. “My father asked me to take over the business,” she said. “The idea grew on me and I accepted.”

For 19 years now, Zullo has help grow a business that her grandfather, Charles I, launched in 1948 in the basement of his Tylerdale home, with formidable assistance from his namesake son. Charles I started as a welder, and transitioned to being an industrial gas operator.

CGI has moved once, in 1965, to its headquarters off Henderson Avenue in Canton and Chartiers townships. It is in two municipalities probably because of its massive 35-acre campus with 65,000 square feet of operating space. The building has a blue hue.

General Hydrogen Corp., one of CGI’s subsidiaries, is located there. That business, which opened in 1984, is among the largest privately held manufacturers and distributors of gaseous hydrogen – a clean fuel – in the nation.

“Our customer base is supplying hydrogen used in power plants,” said Zullo, whose father died in 2017. “And our hydrogen is green.”

CGI, with a modest workforce of about 50, focuses primarily on manufacturing and distribution. The parent company supplies major bulk gases carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen, argon and propane – and provides logistic services for such delivery.

Distribution is made to more than a dozen states, said Sunny Punj, chief operating officer of General Hydrogen Corp. and CGI Group of Companies.

General Hydrogen Corp. recently shared in an innovative project, partnering with another Washington County company on an initiative that could help lead to cleaner energy production. General Hydrogen and Long Ridge Energy of Southpointe announced they had successfully tested a new hydrogen-natural gas blending process.

“This is a great beginning to delivering a carbon-free future,” Punj said at the time. (He, like Zullo, has a diverse professional resume. Punj had once been an investment banker on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs, and also was involved in management strategy.)

General Hydrogen’s plant in Proctor, W.Va., is supplying hydrogen gas to a 485-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant owned by Long Ridge in Hannibal, Ohio. That latter facility was commissioned in October and became the world’s first GE H-class facility in commercial operation that includes hydrogen in its fuel mix.

Those plants are four miles apart and on opposite sides of the Ohio River.

Long Ridge burned a fuel blend of 5% hydrogen (by volume) and natural gas, and distributed commercial carbon-free energy to the PJM Interconnection grid, which is in 12 states, including Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

This has been a family business, to be sure. Not only did her father and grandfather establish the foundation three-quarters of a century ago, her late brother was a company leader and her five sisters once worked there at the same time. CGI also has had a corps of longtime employees, many from the Washington area.

Late in her second decade in charge, Eileen Zullo said “the business is doing well. It is growing especially in the hydrogen section. Interest in the hydrogen business is high” and continuing to mount.

Without divulging details, she said Punj is “looking at other opportunities with companies.”

She smiled and said, “My dad and brother had the foresight to see the importance of hydrogen.”