This family-owned c-store chain continues to treat each person that walks through its doors like family, even after nearly 80 years. With a name like Fleming Oil Company, one would assume the business would be built around, well, oil. But to only focus on the company’s distribution of oil and kerosene to residential, mobile home, commercial, and industrial markets would be akin to looking at the night sky and saying, “Look, there’s a star.”

Founded in 1930, Fleming Oil began as a single full-service gasoline station with automotive repair. A few years later, founder Richard A. Fleming began delivering kerosene for home heating fuel. By the 1950s, the second generation of the Fleming family was in the business, and by the mid-’70s, the company had evolved into the self-service gasoline business. 

“We opened one of the first self-service gas stations in Vermont in Brattleboro, added a few sites throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and eventually got into the convenience store business,” said Rick Fleming, who joined his grandfather’s company in 1981 and is now president. 

Today, the Shell-branded gasoline distributor operates 12 locations in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, where it is a wholesale gasoline and biodiesel distributor. The company also has a plumbing and heating division, which handles repair, maintenance, and installation of heating equipment, and three of its locations are co-branded with the sandwich franchise Subway. 

“One of the fastest growing segments of the c-store industry today is foodservice,” said George Roberge, general manger. “Our foodservice focus is primarily at our Subway locations, but we’re expanding our foodservice offering in our other locations as well.”

At those locations without Subways, Fleming Oil offers a wide variety of food items including pizzas, soups, salads, hotdogs, and breakfast and lunch sandwiches. “Some of our locations are limited due to their size, but we’re always looking for new and interesting items to add to our foodservice offerings,” Roberge said.

Branded partners

The establishment of Subway locations is part of an overall strategy Fleming Oil has to partner with nationally branded companies to bring customers into its locations. In the mid-’80s, when the company was building its convenience store business, two of its Brattleboro locations leased space to an existing Subway franchisee. 

While the company was building another location in Claremont, NH, it looked at adding another co-branded Subway location, but rather than leasing the space, the franchisee wanted Fleming Oil to buy the business. When Fleming met with the Subway franchisee in Brattleboro, he found a similar possibility. 

“We added four Subway locations in a six-month period,” he said. “We eventually sold the two standalone Subway locations because they weren’t the focus of our business, and we closed another co-branded store because the sales weren’t meeting our expectations.” 

Nine of Fleming Oil’s locations are Shell-branded gasoline stations, which Fleming said benefits customers. Shell’s branded Mastercard gives its users a 3% discount on any gasoline purchase they make. In addition to two Mobile locations, Fleming Oil has one Sunoco location, which offers the Price Chopper AdvantEdge program—another way to pull customers in. 

Through the Price Chopper AdvantEdge program, for every $50 customers buy at a Price Chopper store, they get $.10 off each gallon of gas purchased at a Sunoco station. If they buy $150 worth of groceries, for example, they get a $.30 per gallon discount. 

“Gasoline volume at our Sunoco site is up 40% over a year ago,” said Fleming. “Shell is about to announce a similar partnership in the next year or so, and we’re hoping for the same results at all of our locations once it’s in place.”

Local appeal

One of the greatest challenges hitting Fleming Oil today is the larger branded wholesaler that can offer lower prices through economies of scale. Although the partnerships with Subway, Shell, and Sunoco help bring in customers, the company needed to do more to stay ahead of, or at least pace itself with, the competition. 

“It is a challenge for us and for other wholesalers of our size to compete against the big guys,” said Fleming. “Our product offerings and the quality of our foodservice differentiates us, but we also try to be proactive in bringing new products to market.”

Fleming Oil was the first company in Vermont and New Hampshire to sell retail biodiesel, which it started doing roughly five years ago. It now sells biodiesel in all three states. The company is also getting involved in solar hot water technology and developed its first commercial project in Brattleboro this year. 

“Anything we can do to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and control our own destiny is a positive, not only for our company but also for the country,” said Fleming. 

On the local front, the company sources its sandwiches and donuts from local distributors and sells only Green Mountain Coffee, a Vermont-based brand. “Vermont is a very tourist-focused state, so by having these locally made items, it attracts the local populations and the out-of-staters,” said Fleming. 

Fleming Oil is also involved with a local radio station in Brattleboro to participate with the Power Card, which offers discounts on products within any Fleming Oil location. The initiative was launched last October and helps both the convenience store chain and the radio station. 

By visiting WTSA’s Web site, customers will see specials offered through Fleming Oil and other local businesses. The radio station also does radio broadcasts announcing the specials going on at Fleming Oil’s food mart locations. 

“We’re the only c-store chain on that Power Card,” said Roberge. “It’s just another way we reward customers for doing business with us.”

Staying power

In 2010, Fleming Oil will celebrate its 80th anniversary. Fleming said what has given his family’s business such significant staying power over the years is the motto by which all employees live: You’re first. You’re family. 

“That’s how we treat customers and how I try to treat my employees,” he said. “It’s been the guiding principle since my grandfather started the company.”

Looking ahead, Fleming hopes to grow the company through multi-site acquisitions, if the opportunities present themselves, but he won’t grow beyond the principles that have made Fleming Oil what it is today. “You have to trust your partners, be they employees or suppliers, because you can’t be an expert in every area,” said Fleming. 

“We try to keep it all fresh and new,” continued Roberge. “The important thing is to keep our customers coming back for more.”