Oil to Move Industry
A handful of longtime Alabama wholesalers also have grown up with the community of Alabama convenience stores.
Steve Hager, owner of Jasper-based Hager Oil, a supplier to Alabama industry.
Photos by Randal Crow
Like many of the other Petroleum & Convenience Marketers of Alabama members, Clanton-based W.H. Thomas Oil Co. is a relatively small, Alabama-owned business. But unlike most other P&CMA members, the company’s business has nothing to do with convenience stores.
There was a time when Thomas Oil owned seven convenience stores and supplied gasoline to about 20 more. But, “We sold our stores because we saw the market segments we’re in now as doing more and being more enjoyable,” says Bill Thomas, who, with his brother Howard, runs the 57-year-old business.
With facilities in Clanton and Decatur, Thomas Oil covers all of Alabama, selling motor fuels and lubricants for everything from earth-moving equipment at surface mines to hand trucks for warehouses. The company has more than 2,000 customers in various industries — among them mining, transportation, logging, agriculture, construction and government.
More recently, “We’ve seen several car manufacturers and their support companies move into Alabama, and along with them come opportunities to sell lubricants,” Thomas says. “That has been an area where we’ve seen growth.”
With 23 employees, including four outside salesmen, Thomas Oil attempts to retain its local, family-owned character. “Our salesmen go door-to-door, and service is very important to us,” Thomas says. “We don’t have a minimum order, and that’s not typical. We’ll fill a generator or deliver up to a full truckload of fuel. We usually provide next-day delivery, sometimes we’ll get it there the same day.”
Thomas Oil is one of the few P&CMA members that is totally committed to the wholesale side of the business, says Bart Fletcher, the association’s president. “Most of our jobbers sell to retail customers, but they have other types of customers, too,” Fletcher says. “It might be government, a school system or a police department, things like that. Most of our jobbers have at least a small amount of wholesale business. Of course, some of our members do more wholesale than others.”
Someone has to supply fuel and lubricants for Alabama industry, where equipment must run efficiently and be properly maintained. This includes behemoth draglines at surface mines; massive production lines at steel and iron manufacturers; armadas of equipment at building and highway construction sites; at airports and vehicle fleets; and an endless list of other situations dependent on fuels and petroleum-based products. Each of those presents its own set of challenges and opportunities for P&CMA members.
“About 95 percent of what we do would be considered wholesale,” says Steve Hager, president of Jasper-based Hager Oil, which sells in various industries, including mining, steel, timber, natural gas, railroad and agriculture.
One of Hager’s most unusual products is a lubricant for the railroad industry. “We provide a lubricant that’s applied on the curves of railroad tracks,” Hager says. “It’s a special grease that saves the railroad money in diesel fuel and with wear and tear on rails and wheels. This is a very, very narrow niche, but we have contracts for it from St. Louis to Massachusetts and Miami to New Orleans.”
Hager notes that the agricultural industry uses more lubricants than any other industry in the United States. To him, that means lubricant and fuel sales for tractors, harvesters and other farming equipment used in the Tennessee Valley. In the natural gas industry, Hager Oil supplies crankcase oil, compressor lubricant and antifreeze for machinery at more than 300 locations where natural gas is pumped from the ground and into pipelines.
Hager says that being a locally owned business does have an impact on the way Hager Oil conducts itself. “My father started the business, and I took it over in 1974,” he says. “We’ve gone from six or seven employees to 60, but we haven’t forgotten that we’re a family business. We try to be competitive, but we’re not always the lowest-price product. But we do everything we can to offer the highest quality possible. Our basic foundation is built on doing the right thing every day.”
McPherson Oil, begun in Oneonta in 1971 and now headquartered in Trussville, is one of the larger P&CMA members, with perhaps more of a corporate persona than most. Yet a visit to the company’s website provides clear insight to the company’s local roots. McPherson has grown from a one-man show into one of the largest independent fuel and lubrication distributors in the Southeast, with offices from Chattanooga to Mobile.
The company sells 14 million gallons of lubricants a year, 100 million gallons of retail fuel and 50 million gallons of commercial fuel a year. Like some of the other P&CMA companies that sell wholesale, McPherson’s array of products and services includes such things as fleet fueling, used oil collection/renewal and equipment sales.
Paul Ott Carruth, of Birmingham-based McCullough Oil, says the local, family-owned aspect is part of the fabric at McCullough, a large jobber that supplies gasoline to more than 80 convenience stores, the majority of which McCullough owns.
“We never operated any stores, because Jimmy McCullough, who founded the company in 1966, didn’t want to sell beer,” says Carruth, one of three company vice presidents, all of whom have family connections to the company’s founder. “Yes, the family aspect is important to us. It’s more than a business. It’s our life. It’s building on something that the family already did. I think that probably shows in the way we do things.”