The Maine Thing

If you’re driving north or south along a crooked road just inside Maine’s Atlantic coast, you’re eating up New England’s northernmost scenery on Interstate 95.

Trucking southbound through the state’s southern belly, you might stop off for gas in the town of Waterville and find J&S Oil’s Xpress Stop Service Station sitting just off the exit.

Miss that store and there’s another Xpress Stop just a mile up the road in the town of Winslow, population 7,700. Within 20 minutes of that c-store, there are three other Xpress Stops to choose from in the nearby towns of August, Farmingdale and Manchester.

By some stretch of the imagination if you miss those five stores, you can still fill up at two other Xpress Stops, both within an hour’s drive.  It’s a tight shell, Xpress Stop’s seven-store market area. And John Babb likes it that way.

“We purposefully kept our expansions within a tight radius of our first store and corporate headquarters here in Manchester in order to grow in a very controlled, disciplined manner,” said Babb, president of J&S Oil Inc. “It helps us leverage our good reputation, which has always been to our market advantage.”  

It’s a point that can’t be missed—this controlled, carefully managed growth—for it’s truly emblematic of J&S Oil’s business philosophy.

“As a one-store, single-family operation, it was within our control to reach for and maintain that personal connection and market advantage with our customers and small staff of employees,” Babb said. “As time marched on and opportunities have risen, we’ve had to come up with plans that allow us to keep this personal touch while taking advantage of growth opportunities.” 

Controlled Growth

John Babb’s parents, John and Sonja Babb, launched the first J&S Oil convenience store in 1972. It was like that for about a decade until John finished a stint in the Army and returned to help his parents open a second Xpress Stop store, then a car wash and Xpress Lube.

To control its own fuel supply, the company started a wholesale fuels transport that blossomed into a fuel distribution business that now has five trucks and 18 employees delivering tens of millions of gallons of fuel to independent c-stores and commercial accounts throughout Maine.

Over the years, J&S Oil has slowly sprouted other tentacles to serve customers in this ocean-side state.

Today, it has seven Xpress Stop service stations and convenience stores, two Texaco Xpress Lube stops, two automatic Ultra Clean car washes with self-serve bays and two home heating oil offices that provide oil, propane, air conditioning and plumbing services.  The two car wash facilities have the largest tunnel-wash systems in Maine.

More than 175 employees run the six related lines of business, making J&S Oil a $140-million-a-year enterprise that’s family- and employee-owned.

“Our convenience stores have been the most successful, but the other businesses have also had to have their days in the sun,” Babb said. “When one set of businesses aren’t doing as well, others pick up the slack, and vice versa.” 

Maine Part of Convenience

Operating a convenience chain in rural Maine is no easy feat.

“There’s nothing unique about our market area,” Babb said. “In fact, there are much better states and demographics in which to operate a convenience store than most areas of Maine, which isn’t a very business-friendly state.”

Maine’s sparse population and rural characteristics lack for “significant concentrations of rooftops, or areas that attract a population to central shopping areas,” Babb said.

Still, Xpress Stop has seen decades of success through carefully executed programs and branding, including a unique storefront with checkered forecourt canopies sporting an edgy, fun design. The stores range in size from 1,800 square feet to 4,000 square feet, with about 10 service bays per site offering unbranded fuel.

Every Xpress Stop store dedicates about 40% of its space to the cold vault, including soft drinks, water, energy drinks and other packaged beverages. Certainly worth noting is its clever beer cave concept, called the “Beer House,” where the entryway is shaped like a gargantuan upended beer keg.

The foodservice includes such offerings as fresh sandwiches and a proprietary pizza program at two sites, as well as leased space to Subway at another site. Luring fuel customers to the in-store fare is always a challenge. “We’re still searching for that magic bullet,” Babb said.

Effective on this front, however, is Xpress Stop’s ample roadside signage, which showcases promotions and specials that attract Maine commmuters and locals. The standard signage has been so reliable, in fact, Babb has plans to upgrade the marquees to digital signage so content can be updated in each daypart.

Family culture

Years ago, J&S Oil implemented a profit-sharing plan to give employees greater ownership.

“Our employees looked on this as little more than a glorified bonus or retirement plan that fell short of the mark,” Babb said. “That’s when the decision was made to try the relatively new concept of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).”

A family culture already permeates the business, but the ESOP has moved ownership down the ladder.

“It has been instrumental in helping us maintain that hometown connection with our customers through or employees–our associates,” Babb said. “When we say, ‘The owner is in the store,” it’s quite likely they are.”

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