After launching a new travel center in New Jersey, New York’s Bolla Oil is now eyeing a dozen new-to-industry sites in the Garden State.
By John Lofstock, Editor
Bolla Oil has never been afraid to take a gamble on a unique opportunity, so when the chance to enter the New Jersey market presented itself, the company went all in.
Bolla Oil, based in Garden City, N.Y., has traditionally focused on adding company-operated and dealer sites around New York City, one of the most complex and expensive markets in the country. But just across the Hudson River lies New Jersey. The focal point of timeless mafia jokes and the search for Jimmy Hoffa, the Garden State is also a rapidly emerging market for upscale convenience stores. Prime retail real estate, however, is very hard to find, and when it does become available, it comes with a hefty price point.
Still, this is the perfect scenario for Harry Singh. When a two-acre truckstop along the border of New York and New Jersey hit the market in 2015, the president and CEO of Bolla Oil jumped at the opportunity.
“The property was is in distress,” Singh said. “There was quite a bit of contamination that scared off a lot of potential investors, but I saw this as a one-shot opportunity to get into New Jersey in a location that offered endless possibilities.”
The site is located on Route 17 in a corridor just off the New York State Thruway, which serves as one of the two main conduits off the thruway into New Jersey. It’s a destination for both truckers and local commuters. Additionally, the travel center is situated in such a way that it is accessible from Route 17 and the interstate connecting New York and New Jersey.
“These sites don’t become available very often,” Singh said. “Going into the bidding process early on we knew the cost of the clean up would be extensive, we knew the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would be heavily involved and we knew it wouldn’t be cheap. But we also knew it wasn’t an opportunity we were going to let get by us.”
What Singh had in his corner was vertical integration. Bolla Oil is not your tradition oil company. In addition to owning a real estate company, a transportation business and operating convenience stores, the company owns a construction company, which is licensed to do site cleanups in New York and New Jersey.
After purchasing the property, Bolla spent $18,000-$20,000 per month on the site just to keep it going as it prepared plans for the cleanup with the state and for a full raze and rebuild of the existing building. The state and the Bergen County DEP had been running the clean up under the previous owner.
“From the state’s standpoint, I think they were a little relieved to have us purchase the property and show them a plan to clean up the site and develop a property we all could be proud of,” Singh said.
But that came with a cost. Singh estimated the cleanup cost alone totaled a whopping $1.4 million to dig up the property, remove the contaminated soil and dispose of it properly. Combined with the cost to raze the existing structure and fill in the site with clean soil, Bolla Oil was facing a hefty investment.
“For us, the big question was about efficiency and ensuring we could get the most out of the money we were investing,” Singh said. “When it comes to investing millions, you have to ask the question, ‘Can this business generate a return and be profitable?’ If the answer is no, you have to have the discipline to walk away, no matter the location.”
But when the answer is yes, the possibilities seem endless. The site opened its doors in July, and within one month it began averaging about 70,000 gallons per day and more than two million gallons per month, with virtually no promotions. Business has been so good that the store is getting about nine fuel deliveries per day.
“Our fuel volume is three times more than our busiest New York stores,” Singh said.
Growing Store Sales
But while Bolla Oil is shrewd when it comes to the fuel business, thanks to owning its own tankers and having drivers on the payroll, it’s even better when it comes to growing convenience store sales.
Still, New Jersey presented new challenges to Bolla Oil. For starters, most c-stores in the Garden State cannot obtain a license to sell alcohol, which limits customer trips. Plus, the convenience market for years was dominated by unbranded sites and single-store owners, thanks in large part to New Jersey’s stubborn full-service fuel laws, which increase labor costs. Customers were not conditioned to get out of the car to shop the convenience store.
But the need for quick, upscale meals and snacks has had a transformative impact on the marketplace. Over the past decade, major players have made tremendous inroads with upscale convenience store models, beginning with New Jersey-based QuickChek, who is building full-service c-stores with upscale features like self-checkout to enhance speed of service.
Wawa began making a push into the market about four years ago and Speedway’s acquisition—and subsequent rebranding—of Hess has elevated the Ohio marketer’s presence significantly.
Enter Bolla Oil.
“New Jersey customers are used to QuickChek and Wawa, so they understand that convenience stores can be a destination for high-quality foods,” Singh said. “So when we introduced our upscale food program, we didn’t have to convince them to come in and try something new. Our challenge was showing them how good we could be and getting them to come back.”
To put his best foot forward, Singh opened the 10,000-square-foot store, which includes an expansive 1,500-square-feet of seating, with Brooklyn-trained chefs who prepared everything made to order. This included sandwiches, wraps, panini and entrees. In the first month, the store grossed about $350,000, including about $105,000 alone in foodservice sales.
“Our strategy is pretty simple. It is to be consistent in everything we do. To offer great food, great service and great prices every single day. To offer consistent high standards and never overlook the little things,” Singh said. “That means having employees in clean uniforms, greeting everyone that comes through the door and going the extra mile to exceed customers’ expectations. Our standards are high and we want customers to expect this from us every day.”
Singh has been precisely charting Bolla Oil’s growth for 27 years. He began as an auto mechanic with one Mobil station on Houston St. in New York City. Today, he has grown the company into a network of 105 retail sites, which includes 65 company-operated stores. The company has 20 new stores in the pipeline, including a dozen in New Jersey.
In 2012, Bolla expanded its core business with the development of its fuel trucking fleet, Bolla Transport LLC. The company invested nearly $2 million in equipment including a fleet of 11 tankers, each of which holds 8,200 gallons to 12,000 gallons of fuel. It hired more than 30 drivers, plus a crew of mechanics to maintain the vehicles out of its warehouse in Brooklyn.
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/services to well below industry averages.
“Tomorrow’s success begins today. Whether it’s finding a piece of real estate you want or visiting some other stores to learn where you can improve, you have to prepare and set goals for yourself and the business,” Singh said. “The quickest way to fail is by not planning effectively.”
For example, where many operators have to lease properties, Bolla is a landlord on dozens of lots throughout New York City—a market where real estate and property taxes are among the highest in the world. This helps to insulate the company from fluctuating costs.
“To make your mark you are either growing the business, or waiting for the industry to pass you by,” Singh said. “Our strategy is relatively simple. We are looking for top quality stores that will help us expand in our markets of operation and present opportunities in new markets that will enhance our scalability.”
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.
“I remember back to a lot of nights when I first started this business with just a couple of stores in terrible neighborhoods. I used to keep a baseball bat next to me at all times because the locations were just that bad,” Singh recalled. “On the one hand, you’re trying to provide great service to the customers that appreciated you being there, but on the other hand you had to worry about some bad people.”
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 in many ways, such as making regular contributions to local community groups, churches and temples, and giving educational grants to local schools each year.
“Success and profits are not bad words,” Singh said. “It took years of hard work to get to this point. I’m so pleased to be able to have great employees that believe in what we are doing and that are sharing in our success.”