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Entrepreneurial Fuel

06/09/2011

 

Tim Van Epps was talking about his grandfather-in-law, the late Acilio Remo (A.R.) Sandri, and, more specifically, the manner in which he conducted business for roughly seven decades.
“Everything was done with a handshake, really,” recalled Van Epps, third-generation president of the Greenfield-based company that A.R. started 81 years ago with a single gas station on Main Street and eventually expanded in heating oil, lubricant oil, and other products. “He was the quintessential salesman; he would literally show up to a farm with a 250-gallon tank on the back of his station wagon with a pump and a meter on it. He would meet with a farmer, roll the tank off the station wagon, and give it to the farmer free of charge if he agreed via a handshake to buy motor fuels or heating oil from A.R. That’s how he operated.”
Today, some things are obviously different, said Van Epps, noting with a shrug that, in this day and age, a handshake usually doesn’t suffice, “although, sometimes, it does.” Meanwhile, the Sandri Companies have expanded geographically well beyond farms in rural Franklin County, and in recent years, the corporation has morphed into a unique, multifaceted energy company.

Members of the leadership team at Sandri
Members of the leadership team at Sandri; from left, Kirsten Wedegartner, Jake Goodyear, Tim Van Epps, and Michael Behn

 

But the spirit of A.R., who forged a partnership with Sun Oil Co. (Sunoco) in 1964 that paved the way for explosive growth, lives on in virtually every department at Sandri, Van Epps told BusinessWest, noting that this corporation is, in a word, entrepreneurial, and always looking for new opportunities.
Indeed, just as A.R. anticipated possibilities for growth with the building of I-91 back in the ’60s, and assembled a large portfolio of real estate, or “dirt,” as Van Epps called it, that would later serve the company’s expansion efforts, his son, William (W.A.) Sandri took the company well beyond its Franklin County roots and further into Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York State, while also diversifying into high-end golf courses, starting with Crumpin-Fox in Bernardston, and other business sectors.
And today, Van Epps, who succeeded W.A. as president in 2007, is leading the company’s drive into a number of renewable-energy ventures, from wood pellets and the furnaces that burn them to solar to geothermal. “I’m being pushed every day to get into wind, but I’ve been reluctant to go there,” he said with a laugh. “There’s only so many hours in the day.”
To some in the fossil-fuel-oil business, expansion into such realms as photovoltaic installations — like the one at the company’s headquarters that provides roughly 35% of its electricity — would seem illogical and counterproductive, said Van Epps, who told BusinessWest that, in his way of thinking and that of his management team, it makes all the business sense in the world.
“If I’m not going to offer these products to my customer base, someone else will,” he said of the growing popularity of renewable fuels and subsequent reduction in demand for oil and other fossil fuels. “This isn’t rocket science; we’ve been in our customers’ homes for more than 50 years, and we want to continue to serve them. We’re working quickly to become a truly diversified energy company, and my philosophy is that, whatever form of energy our customers want, we should be able to deliver it to them.”
Three generations of Sandri leadership Three generations of Sandri leadership: from left, William (W.A.) Sandri, A.R. Sandri, and Tim Van Epps.

 

Like his grandfather-in-law before him, Van Epps conducts site visits at the company’s 140 gas stations to talk not only with the manager, one of the company’s myriad business partners, as he called them, but also with customers to make sure Sandri is delivering the products and services demanded.
Many of them have stories about both A.R. and Bill and their work in the community.
“One that I love to tell is about when A.R. was visiting one gas station, and there was a little girl, crying her eyes out, there with her mother,” he recalled. “Apparently the town pool had been shut down because there was a crack in it, and the town had no money to fix it. A.R. just wrote a check so this little girl could have her pool for the summer.
“A.R. never told that story himself, because he liked to stay under the radar,” Van Epps continued, adding that, as the company he now leads continues to put its name on more products and take it to more places, maintaining a low profile is much more difficult.
For this issue, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on a company that is perhaps not well-known in Greater Springfield, but is an institution in Greenfield and well beyond. This is a unique family business, one that grows larger and more diverse with each succeeding generation, and can always look to the past to find plenty of entrepreneurial fuel for the future.

 

History Lessons
Van Epps said A.R. would still come to the company’s offices on Chapman Street in downtown Greenfield a few days a week well into his ’90s, even after losing both legs to diabetes, although his disability eventually slowed him in his later years.
He would drive himself, from his tree farm in Southern New Hampshire, until he was almost 98, Van Epps recalled with a wry smile. “I would joke to everyone in of the office, ‘stay off the sidewalks when A.R.’s driving,’ but his car had a brain of its own, and it knew how to get him back home to his farm.”
A.R. died in 2008, just shy of his 100th birthday, but his presence still looms large at this company. The hallways of Sandri’s headquarters, a converted former supermarket, bear many old photographs. A.R. is in most of them, decked out in his customary trenchcoat, hat, and bowtie. And there are several images of the gas station where it all started, a tiny, nondescript building that still stands on Main Street, although it’s been modernized many times and is in the process of another facelift, one that may well include a retro look.
That station has carried a number of corporate names over the years — including Pan-Am, City Services, Esso, and Sunoco — that provide a concise history of the company, or at least the first few chapters.
The story begins, sort of, in Barre, Vt., where A.R. grew up and, sadly, watched his father die young from the silicosis he contracted working in the granite quarries that provided most of the job opportunities for immigrants in that section of Vermont. Not wanting the same fate for her sons, A.R.’s mother moved the family to Greenfield.
Soon after high school, he landed a job working as a clerk for the Pan-Am Oil Co., and in 1930, he was offered a lease on that station at 155 Main St., and subsequently started the A.R. Sandri Co.
Over the next three decades, he was “bitten by the bug to own dirt,” said Van Epps, and the company expanded across Franklin County, eventually becoming a distributor for Cities Service and growing to more than 30 stations in Franklin County, while also diversifying to heating oil, lube oil, and other related products. In 1964, he inked a deal with Sunoco to fly that flag exclusively, and by 1969, he had 50 service stations in the portfolio, as well as 2,200 heating-oil customers and 230 commercial and farm gasoline accounts, while his territory was stretched to the lower portions of Vermont and New Hampshire.
Michael Behn, Sandri’s chief operating officer and unofficial historian (he has nearly 40 years with the company and has worked closely with all three generations of presidents), said A.R. was able to look down the road, in both a literal and figurative sense, see where development was going to take place, and position the company to take advantage of those opportunities.
“He knew where I-91 was going, and he seemed to know where all the off-ramps were going to be,” he said. “A.R. couldn’t go wrong with real estate. He always purchased; he never sold.”
A tireless worker his whole life, A.R. once told the Barre Montpelier Times Argus, “I found that, the harder I worked, the more luck I had.”

Round Numbers
Today, the territory served by the company’s many business operations is known internally as Sandri Land, said Kirsten Wedegartner, marketing director for the corporation, adding that, under the leadership of W.A. Sandri, the phrase started to take on a whole new meaning.
The younger Sandri took over as president in 1973, and within a few years was launching initiatives that would take the company to a new level and explosive growth in sales and geographic reach. The most significant of these came in 1976, with the buyout of all Sunoco’s stations in Vermont and Southern New Hampshire, as well as sections of New York, making Sandri, then with about 140 stations, the largest distributor of Sunoco gasoline, fuels, and lubes in the U.S.
Under W.A., the company bought a number of home-heating-oil companies, greatly expanding that side of the operation, while also growing the lubricants business, developing a waste-oil furnace and boiler subsidiary, and related ventures. And in 1987, he took the company in a completely different direction — golf.
“He purchased Crumpin-Fox when it was just a nine-hole course, and later added the second nine in 1990,” said Van Epps, adding that the course’s owner, a friend of Bill Sandri’s, had fallen on hard times and asked him for some financial assistance with making his dream of a championship 18-hole layout a reality. Sandri, an avid golder, agreed, and the move eventually become another division of the company, the ‘Fox’ courses, as they’re known internally.
“He [Bill] was bitten by the golf bug,” Van Epps explained, adding that an opportunity developed in the Tampa area in 1993, and this led to the creation of Fox Hollow. And in 2001, Fox Hopyard, in East Haddam, Conn., was added to the portfolio.
The golf business has slowed significantly since the boom years following Tiger Woods’ rise to prominence, but the courses comprise a still-healthy and intriguing aspect of the overall operation, said Van Epps, who was successfully recruited to the family business by his father-in-law (he married Bill’s daughter, Wendy) in early 2005.
And while he was quite successful as a portfolio manager for Sovereign Bank in Boston, he remembers Bill Sandri having a fairly easy job selling him on coming to Greenfield to eventually take the helm of the business.
He told BusinessWest he spent the first few years assembling a management team — the one he inherited had members averaging 35 years with the company, and most were preparing for retirement — and developing a broad strategic initiative for the corporation.
Most of the focus is on shaping the widely diversified energy company he described earlier, with significant strides made in recent years in the wood-pellet, solar, and geothermal realms.
Sandri purchased acquired Propell Energy in 2010. Propell was a subsidiary of New england Wood Pellet and is a commercial wood-pellet boiler installation operation. It has also acquired Deerfield Valley Heating and Cooling, an installer of solar and geothermal systems, and late last year, the company signed exclusive distribution agreements with two large solar-component manufacturers: Fluitecnik Inc., which makes solar panels, and Ingeteam, which produces inverters. Both of those companies’ products were used in Sandri’s photovoltaic array installation, a 49-kilowatt facility that punctuates the corporation’s commitment to renewable energy.
And in March 2010, the company was awarded a $3.2 million grant from the Mass. Department of Energy Resources, which has been used for a variety of purposes, from the purchase of a small fleet of wood-pellet delivery trucks (one of many new kinds of vehicles now bearing the Sandri name) to the installation of several institutional, commercial, and residential renewable-energy systems, including facilities at Greenfield Community College, the Greenfield fire station, and other locations.
“We want to be a one-stop shop, and the energy company of the future,” said Van Epps, adding that, over the past 36 months or so, most of his time and energy has been spent developing what is essentially a new business, but one that uses an old, time-tested approach to expansion.
He cited wood pellets as a prime example. “We saw our customers looking for alternatives, and wood pellets are one of them,” he explained. “If we wanted to give up market share, we could let our customers go somewhere else for their heating needs. But we simply went out, bought a trailerload of bagged wood-pellet fuel, put an ad in the paper, and sent out some marketing information to our customers, and, lo and behold, we saw a lot of customers come out of the woodwork and start to buy pellet fuel from us. That first year, we sold maybe 500 or 600 tons of pellets, and this past year, we sold close to 10,000 tons.”

Going for the Green
The ongoing evolution of the Sandri Companies, and the corporation’s entrepreneurial drive with regard to further diversification, can be seen in the title printed on Jake Goodyear’s business card.
Indeed, ‘vice president of Renewable Energy’ is obviously a new position, and probably one that couldn’t have been imagined even a decade ago. But it speaks to both how the energy landscape has changed, and how Sandri is repeating history with its pursuit of new business opportunities.
Goodyear was the president of Propell Energy when Sandri acquired that company from New england Wood Pellet, and his assignment when he came on board was to manage its entry into that business. But those responsibilities have grown to cover many renewable-energy products, he said, including solar, geothermal, and others.
He told BusinessWest that one of the keys to success for Sandri as it pushes further into renewable energy is educating the public about the many options now available, their upfront costs, and inherent benefits. The grant from the state will go a long way toward helping with those efforts.
“We want to educate people as much as possible, and the demonstration projects will enable them to see for themselves how these systems work,” he said, noting that, before a business can supply a product or service, it must work to create demand.
And while expansion into renewable-energy products, not to mention energy-conservation efforts (which the company is also now also involved with), will inevitably impact the bottom line with fossil fuel products, Goodyear said, those losses were certain to come anyway, with other corporations benefiting.
“The idea of a company like ours helping people conserve energy didn’t make sense to a lot of people in this business,” he said, “but it makes sense to us. People are looking at alternatives, and we’re providing them.”
Behn, who started with the company as Bill Sandri was taking it in new directions and expanding its territorial reach, said the current thrust into renewable energy is much like other Sandri ventures in the past in that it is focused on innovation and customer service.
This can be seen in everything from the efficient silos for residential customers that will enable the company to deliver in bulk, to the introduction of a 20-pound bag (half as light as most containers on the market) with handles, a product now available in the company’s many convenience stores.
Another common thread, he said, is partnerships. They were needed to help the company expand its portfolio of gas stations, and they are necessary today for the company to reach its goal of being a one-stop shop for energy.
Looking forward, Van Epps said the company’s immediate challenge is finding room for the employees it’s adding. “We can’t build office space fast enough,” he said, adding that, longer-term, the focus will be on continued diversification, managing the considerable amounts of real estate still in the portfolio — “every single day I’m learning about another piece of land we own” — and controlled geographic expansion, which will vary in nature with specific product and service lines.
Eventually, the company that’s still mostly a Franklin County phenomenon in the Bay State could extend that reach south.
“We would like to make Sandri a household name across Western Mass.,” he explained, “but we want to master things in our own backyard before moving beyond and into other regions.”

Being Energetic
Van Epps told BusinessWest that the Sandri corporation has come a long way from the days when A.R. would pull up to a farm in his station wagon with a 250-gallon gas tank in the back, ready to make another deal.
But in the most important way, he added, it hasn’t.
Technology has changed, and the ways in which people heat and power their homes and offices have certainly changed as well. Meanwhile, Sandri Land is exponentially bigger than it was a few decades ago, and the lawyers don’t let anyone do business with just a handshake anymore.
But the principles that have guided the company for eight decades haven’t changed at all, he said, adding that now, as in 1930, 1964, and 1976, the company has been entrepreneurial, opportunistic, and forward-thinking.
And like A.R. himself, the harder the company works, the more luck it has.

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com




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