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Fuel Fleet for the Southeast

McPherson Companies, once a one-man show, is one of the largest oil and gas distributors in the region. A 2012 reorganization streamlined its extensively evolved operations.

ABOVE Charles McPherson with grandson Jack, an intern at the family firm this summer.
 

Instantly recognizable by their yellow tanker trucks, The McPherson Companies is one of the largest petroleum distribution and fleet management service providers in the Southeast. Launched just before the industry upheavals of the 1970s, the oil distribution company has grown in response and anticipation of its ever-changing environment.

The company’s reach includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. TMC is one of the largest independent lubricant distributors in the U.S., delivering more than 10 million gallons per year. The company delivers products for ExxonMobil, as well as its own Proteck lubricant.

Founder Charles McPherson worked as an engineer with Shell Oil Co. for eight years before embarking on his own enterprise. Seeing the need for more dedicated distributors between major oil companies and consumers, he established The McPherson Companies in 1971.

TMC began when Charles McPherson arrived in Oneonta to purchase a rural fuel distributor. When he launched his company, Charles McPherson was the only distributor. “At the start, it was just me and a truck,” he says. McPherson soon assembled a reliable team and completed the first year having delivered 70,000 gallons of fuel per month. The solo fuel jobber also sold one drum of oil.

“It was rougher back then,” he says. “But we started with good people. We knew if we could get started, it would stay alive.”

Bits of oil industry memorabilia are displayed throughout TMC headquaters.

 

Shell Oil awarded its Birmingham market to TMC in 1973, giving the young company a strong foothold in Alabama. In its earliest days, TMC established promising business with surrounding coal mining companies and other industrial customers. Originally delivering product in packaged units, the company transitioned to bulk delivery to cut handling costs and risk of product losses.

Only two years after TMC opened for business, the industry was shocked by the oil crisis of 1973. When members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an embargo on the United States, the sudden scarcity of oil products resulted in drastic price increases and national shortages. Distributors struggled to acquire the oil necessary to remain in business. “You get allocated based on last year’s volume,” says Charles McPherson. “When the embargo began, we were cut by 70 percent.”

With the amount of oil available in Alabama severely diminished, TMC looked to its neighbors to find product. “It was a hard time, and we had to tighten up to get by,” says Charles McPherson. “To compensate, we bought crude oil from Mississippi and exchanged it for gas in Alabama. We had found a way to make the best of a crisis, and by a miracle, we didn’t run out.”

The company grew over the following years through a number of acquisitions and investments. In 1991, TMC expanded its role in the petroleum industry by launching Fuelman fuel management franchise. The franchise performed well, and was sold in 2005. TMC acquired BAMA Waste in 2005, incorporating it into TMC’s oil recycling initiatives.    

In 2001, the company moved its headquarters to Trussville, purchasing a facility along the railroad tracks. In August 2006, Charles’ son Ken McPherson was named company president, after working eight years in various departments, including sales, operations and administration.

In 2012, TMC established a board of directors to compartmentalize and streamline operations. “Adding the board simplified our business,” says Ken McPherson. “We were able to structure it into four specific focuses.”

Now TMC concentrates its business within lubricants, commercial and retail fuel and the Fuelz Fleet Card, a fleet management solutions service. TMC delivers gasoline and diesel to open dealers, distributing about 150 million gallons per year.

The company operates under a branded philosophy of Total Petroleum Management, seeking to serve any and all petroleum-based needs a customer may present. TMC has developed a variety of programs to be as comprehensive as possible, offering fleet management, training, plant services, engineering services and more.

Ken (left) and Charles McPherson among the TMC tanks.

 

“We’re determined to continue to become more efficient,” says Ken McPherson. “Oils last longer today than ever before, so we can’t rely on replacing them as often. Major industries that heavily involve oil, industries like coal and steel, have been struggling these last few years.”

To offset the amount of waste involved in producing fine lubricants, TMC has established a program to recycle used oils. The ReNew oil reclamation and plant restoration program revitalizes castoff product for a number of industrial uses. The renewed oil can be repurposed as recycled lubricant, base stock or other petroleum products. TMC’s team of chemists and certified industrial specialists pride themselves on restoring the oil to like-new or finer quality. The program’s recycled oils have been used in a number of applications, including hydraulics, industrial gear oils, way lubes and a variety of custom machinery.

ReNew teams can also visit customers on site for a range of plant restoration services to help reduce industrial waste. Machine and gear inspections can prevent work hazards due to outdated or worn machinery, and customers can take informed pre-emptive measures through equipment evaluation and consulting.

In 2005, the Southeast was devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and TMC was tasked with providing fuel to emergency customers. “We have to be able to react quickly to natural disaster,” says Ken McPherson. “We supply hospitals and municipalities that must operate no matter what.”

With a plan in place, TMC was able to dispatch trucks on short notice. “If we’re dealing with a limited volume in the midst of a disaster, we have to prioritize urgent recipients like hospitals,” says Ken McPherson. “You have to have the fuel ready and you have to get the fleet out quickly.”

“During the storms, we had to bring fuel into Mississippi to help facilities that didn’t have generators,” says Charles McPherson. “We had to be flexible with our resources.”

Within the highly competitive trucking industry, the McPhersons and company understand that maintaining a quality fleet hinges on their ability to hire good drivers. “Your personnel have a lot to do with how well you can manage all your services,” says Ken McPherson. “So we must attract and retain the best people out there. We have drivers that are knowledgeable and friendly and care about safety and quality. Our drivers and sales and support teams work to make our customers more profitable.”

Ken McPherson believes that TMC’s family-oriented culture goes a long way in attracting and inspiring their staff. “Being a family-owned company means a lot to us, and it’s important to our drivers and customers,” he says. “We create a culture with a balance of work and family.”

TMC currently employs about 176 team members. Charles and Ken McPherson make a point to be accessible and believe that their connection with the rest of the team translates to better connections with customers. “We build strong relationships,” says Charles McPherson. “Communication is important. The key is that we treat people well.”

TMC is currently installing its second transportation management system, with a focus on driver safety and quality control. “We’re pursuing the best, most efficient ways to deliver,” says Ken McPherson. “Our drivers load the night before, and their deliveries are pre-routed into their GPS. That allows us to keep track of deliveries and simplify the navigating process.”

Tom Little and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

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