With its deep resources and an abundance of industry experience, the New York City oil company is expanding its upscale convenience market concept and heading into New Jersey with its first travel center.
By John Lofstock, Editor
There are few trends in the convenience store business that catch industry observers by surprise. One of these surprises, however, has been the emergence of New York City as the next hotbed for convenience store growth. In the past year, heavyweights such as QuickChek, Speedway and 7-Eleven have made significant gains in the city’s five boroughs.
With its dense population and high demand for all things convenience, New York is arguably the perfect market for c-stores. The one chain, however, that continues to enjoy the biggest market share gains is Bolla Oil Corp.
The Garden City, N.Y.-based chain might be flying under the radar nationally, but locally it’s commanding attention with its upscale Bolla Market convenience stores, surging fuel volumes and impressive real estate holdings in the most expensive city in the U.S.
“We are a vertically integrated company that is not afraid of any competition, including Speedway, BJ’s, Costco or anyone else, because we are a very efficient company and we know our markets better than anyone else,” said Harry Singh, president and CEO of Bolla Oil. “We have a passion for convenience retailing and it shows in everything we do.”
Singh’s vision for his convenience store business and his near flawless execution of a smart expansion strategy have made Bolla Oil a Convenience Store Decisions’ Chain to Watch for 2015.
Among the keys to Bolla Oil’s success has been its ability to control key points of the business that have traditionally tripped up other operators. Bolla is the parent of six distinct affiliate companies: Bolla Realty, Bolla Market, Bolla Wholesale, Bolla Retail, Bolla Transport and Bolla Construction. By doing so, Bolla has driven down costs associated with building sites and procuring products and services to well below industry averages.
The true investment to create a vertically integrated company can’t be overlooked when examining Singh’s success. Each company, that falls falling under the umbrella of Bolla Management Corp. would be a highly profitable company on its own. Upon closer look, four have daily input into Bolla’s retail strategy:
- Bolla Markets. This division includes more than 50 convenience stores, 30 of which are branded Bolla Markets. All are company-owned and -operated. An additional 25 stores are in the pipeline, either in various stages of construction or the permitting process.
- Bolla Transport. This business includes 17 tankers and more than 30 full-time drivers that distribute fuel throughout New York City and New Jersey. In 2014, the company delivered more than 300 million gallons. “This business gives us leverage to negotiate supply deals and continue to grow year over year,” said Brett Atherton, Bolla’s director of marketing. “It has evolved into a big part of our business.”
- Bolla Construction and Bolla Pump and Tank. While most companies rely on third-party construction crews to build their new sites, Bolla more than a decade ago moved to bring the process in-house. “We can literally identify a new property, buy it, permit and build it 100% internally,” Atherton said. “We own and operate heavy equipment and have designers, plumbers and masons all on staff. The addition of the pump and tank team means we can also remove old tanks and install them anytime with virtually no outside help.”
- Wholesale Distribution. This company has more than 50 dealer accounts and distributes Exxon, Mobil, Shell, Sunoco and Gulf fuels. Additionally, it flies the BP flag at a handful of Bolla Markets.
“Strategically, one of the best decisions we made for ourselves was to create a company that is not dependent on others for our success. We are on the ground looking and evaluating every opportunity to expand, but to do it smartly so it fits into our business model and our goal to be the best retailer in the market,” Singh said. “There are other companies that are looking to roll up 80, 100 or 200 sites at a time. They are growing in numbers, but not necessarily maximizing the potential of each property. In New York, you can’t do that. It’s just too expensive.”
What Singh is hoping to do is create destinations that attract loyal customers and maximize the return on the investment.
“We look at each property as its own entity and then we look to grow that business so it becomes an important part of the community,” Sing said. “By listening to your customers and building a store that offers them great food, the best service and a competitive price on fuel, you can increase the net value of the property by millions of dollars. So, for me, the number of stores has never been my focus. Building quality sites that set an example of how great a boutique convenience store can be is what differentiates Bolla from the average convenience store.”
When it comes to opportunities in convenience retail, Singh said Bolla Oil is fully committed to the mission, for the short- and long-term. “I’m asked all the time about my plans for Bolla,” Singh said. “We have Plan A, which is to create great assets that become retail destinations for customers that want an upscale shopping experience. That’s our focus. There really is no Plan B.”
For the balance of 2015 and the first half of 2016, Bolla Markets has a busy schedule. It is focused on organic growth with multiple new-to-industry sites and a number of raze and rebuilds on the calendar. Plus, the chain has moved into New Jersey with its first travel center, which boasts a massive, 10,000-square-foot building on a busy Route 17 corridor connecting to the New York State Thruway.
“Over the next year, hopefully, we will build anywhere from 10-15 Bolla Markets, but we have a lot more projects in the pipeline,” Singh said. “We have 25 more projects pending local approvals and we have about 10-12 projects already approved. I would safely say 6-8 new Bolla Markets will be put in place before Dec. 31.”
Bolla’s innovation can be found in its newest store on Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens, which held a grand opening this past July.
The site was formerly home to a Sunoco gas station that featured a small A-plus convenience store and bay repair shop. The busy location was the ideal site to bring a new Bolla Market to life.
The company started construction on the new 4,000- square-foot store on Dec. 1, 2014 and worked through a cold and snowy New York City winter to stay on schedule. What makes the project impressive is that construction was completed without having to shut the store at all until the point-of-sale system was ready to be integrated, which took about an hour.
“Since we have our own construction business, we were able to build a temporary wall and build the right side of the convenience store. When we finished the right side, we moved the registers over and began construction on the left side,” Atherton said. “By June, we were able to remove the temporary wall and merge the two sides and complete the fascia, soffits and store front. It was a lot of work, but virtually no down time for our customers.”
The store design again raises the bar for Bolla’s retail offering. The unit features colorful brown and green earth tones accented by upscale fixtures, ornate molding and high-definition TV’s to create a bold statement. It’s an upscale look you would expect to find in a suburban Whole Foods rather than a convenience store in the middle of the Big Apple.
Bolla Markets have earned a reputation for fine foods, including an extensive menu of prepared dishes and made-to-order delicacies that are available around the clock. This c-store set itself apart by incorporating a bakery program, a vast assortment of frozen beverages and a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine.
Like many chains focused on gourmet foods, the new Bolla Market features chefs recruited away from New York City restaurants to perfect the menu and prepare the food directly in front of customers.
“While a lot of work went into our new store, we took a lot of time testing some new offerings in our kitchen, including specialty hot foods,” Singh said. “As we learned more about perfecting foodservice, we decided to move into the fresh bakery business.”
The bakery business, as you would expect, focuses on upscale pastries, cakes and cookies. Bolla’s offering also includes an espresso bar capable of making specialty drinks, such as cappuccinos and lattes.
“The goal was to offer the high-quality products that you would expect to find at high-end coffeehouses,” Singh said. “What this does, in addition to serving great coffee, is it creates excitement for our customers and gives them another reason to come back to Bolla Markets every day.”
The response from the community has been encouraging. Within three weeks of the grand opening, the store located at Cross Bay Boulevard experienced nearly a 60% spike in in-store sales compared to the same period last year.
“We love to build boutique stores like this,” Singh said. “We like to create retail destinations that people don’t expect to find next to their favorite gas station.”
To get to this point, Singh had to endure some tough lean years. While he is enjoying success, he rarely takes a day off, let alone a vacation, and he’s always ready to talk business.
Singh founded Bolla in 1989, just five years after he emigrated to the U.S. from India. Newly married, he soon began building his network of stations and stores. The company is a family affair that extends beyond Singh’s wife and two children. Several of Singh’s first employees still work at Bolla.
It is the memory of those early days that continues to drive Singh. He took classes to become an auto mechanic to ensure that he had a discernable skill so he could provide for his growing family. Then he worked the overnight shift in the convenience store to drive additional revenues.
After all of his hard work, Singh takes pride in providing an income for more than 500 employees and their families. To that end, Bolla also gives back to the community, such as making regular contributions to local community groups, churches and temples, and giving educational grants to local schools each year.
“I am a legacy operator and I want to create a legacy company that provides a place for people to come to work and shop long after I’m gone. There are venture capitalists driving up values and looking for short-term profits, but that is not what Bolla is about,” Singh said. “We are here for the long term to create something special and that makes us proud. It took years of hard work to get to this point and I’m so pleased to have great employees that believe in what we are doing and that are sharing in our success.”