Pumped Out

Major gas companies are driving away independent station operators, all in the name of greed

But if the idea was to pocket the dealer profits, it's not working very well. In fact, though some locations are quite profitable, others are losing money. A 1998 Chevron financial statement for a company-run station in California calculated a net loss for the year of $5,000, and that included no payment for rent. Evidence presented during legislative hearings in Nevada showed that Arco was subsidizing its company-ops in Las Vegas by thousands of dollars a month. A Texaco source says the company has determined it costs 32 cents per gallon to run its stores; depending on rent and other costs, dealers only require in the range of eight to 14 cents.

And in a Florida case, Chevron marketing manager Ramon Cantu testified in 1998 that although he thought the company stores were making money, he wasn't sure. "We just make certain assumptions along the way, you know, that if it's meeting certain criteria, therefore it must be profitable," Cantu said. Still, "I don't know that we can get to it with a great amount of accuracy on a per station basis."

Indeed, the companies seem to be muddling around with different strategies, trying to find something that works. In the 1980s Texaco turned over hundreds of stations to commission dealers, who (depending on the arrangement) make a few pennies a gallon or a percentage of store revenues in exchange for managing the station. Texaco eventually abandoned the concept, though Shell has now embraced it and has been finding commission operators to replace dealers who have been economically evicted. Chevron is selling off some properties and converting others to company stores, while others are turning entire markets over to wholesale distributors.

Texaco is making it impossible for independent dealers such as Greg Kraft to stay alive. Kraft shut down his service station at Forest Lane and Webb Chapel Road earlier this month.
Michael Hogue
Texaco is making it impossible for independent dealers such as Greg Kraft to stay alive. Kraft shut down his service station at Forest Lane and Webb Chapel Road earlier this month.
The neighborhood service station is disappearing -- and the big oil companies are glad to see them go.
Paolo Vescia
The neighborhood service station is disappearing -- and the big oil companies are glad to see them go.

Ironically, the rationale for hiking rents and increasing fees to dealers has consistently been a stated need to get an acceptable return on the companies' investment, stated variously as between 10 and 15 percent. "In order for the new [Texaco-Shell] joint venture to succeed under current market conditions, rents have to be brought closer to market value," someone in Equiva's legal department wrote in response to a Houston Press inquiry.

The fact that companies are propping up their own stations has not been lost on industry observers. "Internal [financial statements] on refiner salary operations typically show higher costs of doing business than do dealer stations," says marketing expert Shelton. "When refiner-operated stations underprice lessees, it is not because they are more efficient, but because they often get lower wholesale prices on their products, are charged no rent, or sell below the true cost of retailing."

This is no news to dealers such as Jeff Armbruster, a state senator from North Ridgeville who owns seven Shell stations in the Cleveland area. He runs a low-overhead outfit with no high-priced squads of lawyers to pay and no floors of accountants to manage. He trains and pays his employees well, so he doesn't suffer from the high turnover or theft that plagues the company-ops. Those workers in turn provide reliable, professional service that keeps customers coming back.

Given a level playing field, Armbruster says, "Independent businessmen will categorically, day in and day out, outsell any [company-operated] station." He ticks off a list of contributions to community groups his stations have given, of sports teams sponsored, of good deeds done. "We're the heart of the community."

Schutzenhofer agrees. "The cost [to the corporations] to manage the system is gonna go up," he says. "A dealer can do it cheaper."

If that's the case, the companies haven't admitted it. And the number of dealers continues to diminish by the day, leading dealer consultant Tim Hamilton to believe there's a reason beyond bureaucratic incompetence and internal philosophical struggles stemming from the mergers. That reason, he says, can be found in the spiraling price of gas. The major retailers in the United States are also the major refiners; in California, which has the highest gas prices in the nation, six refiners produce 92 percent of the gas consumed in the state. With enough control of gas at the wholesale and retail levels, companies theoretically could push prices higher, to unprecedented levels.

While that level may not have been reached in California, the refiners have tightened the supply of gas during the past decade, and many independent retail companies that relied on surplus product have gone under, consolidating the market in fewer hands.

Industry groups argue that with the entry of the mega-retailers as well as the expansion of convenience store chains, competition in gas retailing is stronger than ever. Much has been written about the reasons for high gas prices: OPEC production cuts, refinery fires and other supply disruptions, clean air mandates, higher costs of doing business. And while those factors contribute to higher prices, they don't explain such curiosities as why Shell led each of seven retail price increases during a four-week period in the spring of 1999, when it was the only brand without a refinery or pipeline problem. Or why Bay Area prices average 20 cents or more higher than in Los Angeles and San Diego, when documents produced in a Hawaii lawsuit show that the cost of doing business in all three cities is almost identical.

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