The Framingham, Mass.-based company looks back at how its business has advanced over the past 10 decades.
By Erin Del Conte, Senior Editor
Community Service Stations Inc. is celebrating its 100th anniversary—a high watermark in any retail channel.
The company’s century-long presence in convenience demonstrates how managing a business successfully across 10 decades is rarely a linear exercise. What began as a single gas station expanded into a heating oil and c-store retail business, and today is making its mark as a wholesale gasoline distributor that also works with its c-store dealer partners to help them maximize potential.
If there’s one thing Community, based in Framingham, Mass., has learned over its century in the industry, it’s that businesses must pivot and evolve according to their strengths in order to flourish into the future. It’s a lesson all c-store retailers could benefit from as they stare down another age of disruption: the changing market will force them to adopt new technologies and ways of doing business in order to compete.
Today, Community is a New England distributor of Mobil, Exxon, Gulf and unbranded fuel. In fact, Community is one of the oldest ExxonMobil customers in the nation. The company also operates one c-store and leases another. At one time, the company operated about a dozen retail sites.
“With the centennial anniversary this year, it’s easier to reflect on how much hard work and effort it took my grandfather and father before me to be able to survive three generations of 100 years,” said Chris Riley, who represents the third generation in the family business. “It really strikes me this year as a unique accomplishment and especially looking at how few firms in all industries ever get to 100 years.”
Riley’s grandfather, George Riley Sr., and his partner Paul Strang started Community Service Stations in 1918. They opened a single gas station in Brighton, Mass.—a section of the city of Boston—featuring auto repair, gasoline and parking. “The property had a fairly large garage. I’m told that one of the vehicles parked there belonged to the Cardinal with the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. So we were in the fabric of the community from the start,” said Chris Riley who today is the president of the company.
As the small business grew, Community added a heating oil and kerosene business, opened one of the first depots in Boston’s western suburbs and expanded into wholesale heating oil distribution.
George Riley Jr., after serving in World War II, was working toward a masters in business administration at Dartmouth’s Tuck School when George Riley Sr. became ill, so George Riley Jr. left school to join the family business. He served as president for 66 years. In the late 1960s, Strang sold his ownership to Riley, who became the exclusive owner.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the company moved more aggressively into the wholesale gasoline business.
“My father hired a couple Mobil Oil Corp. employees to help him grow the gasoline wholesale business, and started to focus on it significantly, and it went from about 3 million gallons in the early 60s to 10 million gallons by the time I joined in 1979. They had tripled the business over 15 years,” said Chris Riley.
Chris Riley became the third generation to join the family business in 1979. After graduating from college, Riley had worked for General Electric (GE) in the finance wing.
“As I was growing up, joining the family business wasn’t something I planned to jump into right after college. It took a few years of working for another corporation and then having an opportunity pop up for me to decide to work for the family business,” Riley said.
In 1979, with interest, borrowing and investment rates skyrocketing, Riley saw an opportunity to apply the financial skills he honed at GE to enhance Community’s returns and assist with overall cash management.
“I took techniques GE used and applied them to the company and that proved fruitful right off the bat, especially with the high costs of borrowing and substantial investment rates,” said Riley.
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s the company expanded its convenience store/gas station presence to about 10 company-owned or leased sites. The sites were small—“more snack shops” than what we think of as c-stores today.
BUSINESS MODEL SHIFT
In the 1980s, the company began a new business model, helping retailers plan, develop and finance their c-stores. Community was one of the first Mobil-branded distributors to encourage independent dealers to rebuild bay sites and full-serve fuel islands into c-stores and self-serve pumpers, a focus it continues to this day. Between 1985 and 2017 it invested more than $20 million to help fund its customers’ transition to the new model.
It also aggressively grew its heating oil business in the 1980s, which it later divested in 1990 to instead focus on gasoline and diesel wholesale distribution.
By the mid to late 1980s the company also began to divest its company-owned c-stores, and also moved away from selling motor oil and spark plugs.
“We came to understand we were not really geared as well to the retail environment with the way we were organized,” Riley said. “My personality and the personality of my father were more geared to wholesale. So the transition was a conscious effort to avoid being spread too thin.”
In addition to distributing Mobil fuel, the company signed on to become a Gulf Oil LP distributor in 1999.
Community’s emphasis today is on partnering with independently-owned retailers as a wholesale fuel distributor of Mobil, Exxon, Gulf and in some cases unbranded gas, while also assisting dealer sites with everything from financing to operations through a long-term contract.
Community is one of the oldest ExxonMobil customers in the U.S. and one of four authorized ExxonMobil distributors in the New England states (with the exception of Connecticut). Today through its brand-fee agreement with ExxonMobil, Community also participates in product sourcing, terminal agreements and supplying former ExxonMobil distributors. In 2010, Community’s gallon sales reached 37 million gallons. This year, fuel sales are expected to exceed 75 million gallons.
The company still owns one c-store in Newton, Mass., which was purchased in 1929. In the 1960s, the company remodeled the location and added its main office above the c-store. Community redeveloped the site again in 1989 to comply with a Newton ordinance requiring two service bays for automotive repairs. The c-store, or as Riley calls it, the “snack shop” remains only about 800 square feet today, and other than fresh fruit does not offer a foodservice presence, but is none-the-less a high-volume store set on a busy road.
In addition, Community leases and subleases a dealer-operated gas station in Natick, Mass. “At the time we had a dealer death and our best means of controlling the property was to go into a lease with the owner of the property,” Riley said.
Both c-stores are exceptions to the rule, and not a model the chain is focused on pursuing today.
But it’s exactly this flexibility, and openness to pivoting and evolving when needed, that Riley credits with helping the chain reach the 100-year milestone. “We definitely had to change. If we hadn’t evolved for example, from selling kerosene in the 20s and 30s to running sites that had service bays, to our model today, we wouldn’t exist today. I think the key has been our evolution.”
Riley also credits focusing on areas of business that matched the owners—both his and his father’s—personalities. “We looked for areas to grow and evolve that also aligned with our strengths. As a result, like my father I’m excited to grow the business and work is never a burden. That’s probably been most significant thing that helped us over the 60 years I’ve observed,” he said.
While Riley has two daughters in their 20s, at this point a fourth generation member has yet to join the family business.
“I feel strongly that anyone that works for the family business ought to work outside the business for a period of time and work for someone else. That’s crucial. A lot of my customers are family businesses, so I’ve seen a lot of family businesses passed down through generations successfully and unsuccessfully. It’s also important to see what passions the next generation wants to follow,” Riley said.
As the company looks to the future, Riley is quick to recognize that its partners and customers have been a huge aspect of the company’s success, and will be key in helping the company continue to thrive for the next hundred years ahead.
“Without those partners and customers, their willingness to grow and evolve and rebuild their sites and operate somewhat differently, we also would not exist,” Riley said. “A lot of our relationships are 15-25 years old, so we’re invested in each other’s success.”