You pick up on a few things after 15 years in a business, but nothing more important than this: Always listen to the customer. “We’re getting more and more inquiries every day about customers that want alternative fuels in their stores,” said Brian Beggs, owner of Walt’s Petroleum Service in Schofield, Wis., the company he purchased in December 2006 after working there 15 years. “The industry is not going as fast as the retailers want it to go, as far as getting it out into the marketplace.”
Three years ago, business at Walt’s Petroleum was humming along much as it had been since opening in1968, installing and servicing petroleum equipment for retail and commercial operations throughout Wisconsin and upper Michigan. Founder Walt Schreiber had died in 1993, so his wife, Nadine, and sons, Ron and Joe, were leading the company’s 20 workers as they served a customer base running the gamut: convenience stores to truck stops to mammoth fl eet-fueling operations.
In 2005, about a year before Beggs bought the company from the Schreibers, Walt’s Petroleum started to see a shift in its customers’ service and installation needs. Convenience stores and commercial depots alike began calling for fuel systems that would allow them to offer alternative fuel services like E10, E20, E85 and biodiesel.
“Our market is pretty competitive,” Beggs said. “It’s more the retailer that’s requesting it and wanting this type of product out there for the consumer. All our competitors are doing pretty much the same thing we are.”
In the past three years, Walt’s Petroleum has installed at least 16 alternative fuel systems throughout Wisconsin, and the company is on track to install about half a dozen or more each year, about 25% of its overall business.
With the same customers from yesterday remaining a bedrock of Walt’s Petroleum today, Beggs, a self-described handson leader involved in every aspect of his company, hasn’t taken any chances. He looked to fuel service equipment and technology provider Gilbarco Veeder-Root, an equipment supplier for Walt’s Petroleum for three decades, to birth solutions to the market’s needs.
Gilbarco has an extensive line of fuel-blending pumps for alternative fuel, but until last year Underwriters Laboratories, the group that certifies fuel pumps and equipment, hadn’t even designed specifications for alternative fuel pumps, let alone certifi ed them, Beggs said.
“The biggest challenge, really, is to find products that are compatible with the new types of fuel,” Beggs said.
Wisconsin and the Midwest are proving fruitful ground for alternative fuel solutions, likely because the demographics suit the product and the fuels’ feedstock is readily available. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle is pushing ambitious legislation to increase usage of alternative fuels at the state’s 2,700 gas stations, and there’s also a large base of flex-fuel and alternative fuel vehicles in metropolitan areas like Green Bay and Milwaukee. There’s nothing of the sort in Michigan’s upper peninsula, Beggs said.
That’s not to say consumer interest in alternative fuels comes with fast-and-easy solutions. The average groundup installation of an alternative fuel system at a new retail site is about $250,000, while an upgrade to an existing site can run $40,000 to $50,000 for a single storage tank, line and pump.
“Some of our challenges are going to be with fuels that haven’t even been developed yet, the things that we don’t even know about, maybe something different than an ethanol base,” Beggs said.
Regardless of the challenges ahead, Beggs remains keenly focused on the single goal dominating every
industry: Please the customer.
“It’s giving the consumer more choices to make a decision on their own,” Beggs said. “Obviously it’s going to be driven by
the auto manufacturers, but the way it looks now, it’s giving more opportunities to consumers to use ethanol-based fuels.” Servicing the Customer Brian Beggs Owner, Walt’s Petroleum Service in Schofi eld, Wis. 14 Convenience Store Decisions l April 2008 RisingStars By Shawn Foucher, Associate Editor