By David Bennett, Senior Editor
At times, businesses are so focused on future growth they forget their ties to the community.
Fayetteville, N.C.-based Holt Oil Co. doesn’t forget either community or family. In positioning the company for success in the 21st century, Holt Oil is also paying tribute to the man who planted the seed for Holt C Stores.
When William Holt bought his first service station in Fayetteville in 1930, a gallon of gasoline cost 17 cents. The entrepreneur not only sold fuel to motorists, but also began delivering heating oil to neighbors.
In 1939, he incorporated the business and Holt Oil was born. William had three sons: William Holt Jr., Henry and Charles. In 1958, Charles Holt assisted his father in growing the gasoline outlets and securing a Gulf Oil distributorship.
Eight decades later, one son and 11 grandchildren own and manage the family business, which reaches along the Cape Fear River, which runs through the valley of the same name.
Holt C Stores owns and operates 11 locations and seven Subways and currently has 300 full- and part-time employees.
The c-store chain is currently examining its portfolio, expanding its store count, and reassembling its business model to shift focus to more profitable services.
The newest store in the Holt portfolio recently opened at the intersection of Old Ocean Highway and NC 17, in the town of Bolivia. This 4,000-square-foot building sits on two acres and has been in the planning stages for six years. It was only in 2014 that land owners were ready to sell and Holt Oil broke ground soon after.
The location features a new 45-seat Subway restaurant, which has its own entrance and features the newest “metro” design. The convenience retail side of the store is smaller than some other locations.
“We tried to focus on large restrooms and plenty of cooler doors. We have a large parking lot that allows for visibility from the highway as well as ease of traffic flow,” said Hanna Holt, daughter of Charles who serves as the director of convenience store operations. “There’s plenty of green space for travelers with pets, and we have a pet waste station for convenience.”
The Bolivia location also boasts the c-store’s signature coffee program, Pura Vida—an organic, free-trade product of Seattle. In addition, the new c-store offers f’real milkshakes, smoothies and frozen-blended beverages.
FUEL TO FOOD
In weighing other profit opportunities, Holt Oil is leaving no site unturned.
For example, the c-store chain is analyzing sites that were once full-service garages.
The locations, which still offer fuel, are high-traffic locations, but might be better utilized to boost profitability. While the penny profit earned from a QSR venture might not be as high as some of the traditional fuel sites that Holt Oil operated, the return on the dollars invested seems to work in the company’s favor.
“We are currently looking at all of our older sites to see if we need to abandon the gasoline and look at other options,” Holt said. “We have identified one location that we feel would be better served as a QSR (quick-service restaurant). We are currently looking at rebranding that site, removing all pumps tanks and canopies and making it a Subway.”
Holt Oil, which has a second corporate office in the coastal city of Wilmington, is a firm believer in carrying a diverse portfolio of QSRs, car washes, a mini storage facility and office space.
“We try to evaluate our business as a whole every five years to determine if there are parts of our business that are underperforming,” said Holt, “In doing so, we have identified several sites that we either need to sell, rebrand or consider another alternative.”
Patriarch William Holt’s last surviving son, Henry, is still active in the business, arriving at the office before dawn every day. The rest of the board shakes out like a true family tree: Charles’ son-in-law, Louis Cox—married to Sarah Holt Cox—is the current company president. William’s son, Bill is the youngest Holt at the helm as company treasurer. Henry’s son, Walter, is Holt Oil vice president.
Whatever direction the company takes, the approach continues to be harmonious, said Cox, who joined the company in 1987 as director of operations.
“We are very blessed that we all get along and always put the company and its valuable employees first. It’s more of a big family than a corporation,” Cox said. “That is what makes us who we are.”
Like other c-stores, Holt’s identity is distinguished by the company’s branding and message.
Charles Holt was the brainchild behind the “country store” design and business model the company developed in 1985.
“Our first store was built off I-95 in Fayetteville and it was built to be an updated version of the old community country store,” said Holt. “We had a nice, wide front porch with rocking chairs…we offered quality, homemade deli sandwiches and salads inside. We also had a large section of the store dedicated to arts and crafts. It was sort of a Cracker Barrel meets c-store.”
Not content to rest on its laurels, the company altered the design to fit the surroundings.
“We tweaked the country store look on our next location by keeping the porch and rocking chairs, however, inside we tried to give the store a modern feel with bright lighting, a beer cave, large restrooms and a Subway,” Holt said. “Since the first country store was built, we have built five more versions of that prototype. As we continue to grow in coastal North Carolina, our design was more reflective of the Low Country feel.”
In the community, Holt Oil has made it a point to give back when it can.
“One of our biggest missions is to partner with the communities we do business in. Although we are the c-store brand, we name each location to fit the area the store is in,” Holt said. “For example, in northwest North Carolina, we became the largest employer in the community. Accordingly, we named the new c-store Maco Depot to pay tribute to the legend of the ‘Maco light.’ We researched the Maco Light and used it as a theme within our store.”
According to local lore, the Maco Light derives from a lantern-swinging flagman who lost his head in a train accident at the small Brunswick County station of Maco, 15 miles west of Wilmington. Look at night and the glare of his lantern is still visible.
Two years ago, the company formed a relay team, Holt’s Hope, which runs for charity. In the first year, it raised over $8,000 for the American Cancer Society. The Holt family also hosts a golf tournament that benefits the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust as well as the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
The question is, with all that’s going on at Holt C Stores, are there any more resources to dedicate to the company’s future?
Company directors are looking ahead now as some family members are getting to the age that they might have an interest in joining Holt Oil.
“Won’t that be something?” Hannah Holt said. “Four generations and counting.”