“Honest products and friendly service at a fair price.”
If that sounds to you like the values of a business from a long-ago era, you’d be right. But it’s also the operating principle of one of the most successful family-owned businesses in Ohio — a Fremont-based company founded in 1950 that recently celebrated its 70th anniversary.
Beck Suppliers is one of the largest independent petroleum suppliers and convenience store operators in the Buckeye state. Founded by farmer Virgil Beck, the company had a humble beginning as a supplier of fuels and lubricants for surrounding farms. Its founding philosophy of “honest products, friendly service, at a fair price,” plus Virgil’s commitment to hard work, long days and little rest, earned the fledgling company the loyalty of area farmers and the customer base needed to survive and thrive.
In the early 1960s, Virgil brought in his sons Bill and Larry to join him in running his growing enterprise. The sons would go on to work at the company for over four decades. Bill Beck would eventually go on to take the reins of the company from his father in 1982. Bill’s leadership transformed the modest firm his father founded into a business with staying power.
Key to the transformation was Bill’s decision to bring in the third generation of Becks in the late 1980s — his sons Doug, Brian and Dean. All three brothers learned the business from the bottom up, which was critical to their professional development and, ultimately, the success of the company. Over the next three decades, they would each make essential contributions that would help bring unprecedented growth to Beck Suppliers.
Growing a Business
Bill, aware that he needed a succession plan, readied Doug Beck to take the helm as president of Beck Suppliers in 2000. Doug successfully led the transition of the company from a small, growing concern into a meaningful enterprise with diverse and synergistic business units.
Bill then enlisted Brian to open the first FriendShip convenience store in 1986. Brian started with one store and successfully shaped and grew the retail business over the next 35 years. FriendShip is now the leading family-owned convenience store in all of Ohio, with 27 locations across northern Ohio from the Cleveland suburbs to Toledo and south toward Columbus.
The third stage saw Dean help develop, expand and lead the branded fuels division through organic growth and multiple strategic acquisitions. A supplier of gas and diesel to independent fuel retailers and convenience stores, Beck Branded Fuels has transformed into one of the largest independent suppliers of fuels in the state.
Today, Beck Suppliers is a vertically integrated fuel services company with five strategic business units, plus a transportation division that is the backbone of the company’s fuel supply chain. The fourth generation of Becks is now in training to lead the business — a line of family succession that goes back 70 years. Each generation had made its mark, handing over the reins of leadership and a company that was more successful than when it started.
Now, the family patriarchs, Brian and Dean Beck (Doug passed away in early 2018), understand that with constant and rapid growth and success come new challenges. It’s fitting that the brothers, who grew up along the shores of Lake Erie, know that different weather conditions sometimes require a different ship captain. For the first time in company history, the Becks reached outside the family for leadership.
The new captain is Greg Ehrlich, a longtime convenience store and independent fuel retailing executive. Doug Beck hired Ehrlich in 2017 to be chief operating officer, and after Doug’s passing, Brian and Dean promoted Ehrlich to president. The brothers charged him with continuing Doug’s work of bringing in talented and experienced management, as well as driving the strategic, orderly growth of the company. Perhaps just as importantly, Ehrlich is mentoring fourth-generation Olivia Beck, special projects manager, and Chelsea Carvalho, district manager, to be the future leaders of Beck Suppliers.
“Greg not only brings deep industry knowledge and experience that benefits our company, but he shares the values that have helped make Beck Suppliers the company it is today,” said Dean Beck. “We know our brother Doug, dad and grandfather would approve.” As an example, in 2017 Ehrlich partnered with HR Director June Bouillon to launch a “Great Place to Work” (GPTW) program throughout the entire company. GPTW brings together people from all areas of the company to evaluate, design and implement programs to ensure that Beck Suppliers continues on its journey to provide an exceptional workplace experience.
The original Beck Suppliers business, now called Beck Propane & Fuels, has expanded its scope over its 70 years of operation and delivers heating and commercial fuels to farms, enterprises and residences in north-central Ohio. Under the leadership of Russell Lewis, this core business has experienced steady, profitable growth by focusing on customer service, operational efficiencies and dependability.
Eye Toward the Future
FriendShip convenience stores were the first new business the Becks started back in 1986. Brian Beck, who built the retail chain to nearly 30 stores, said, “I am thrilled with the direction we are heading. We have focused on recruiting exceptional talent that is transforming FriendShip to meet the needs of a new generation of convenience store shoppers.”
The brand’s operations are now led by former Sunoco executive Gregg Edwards, who plays a key role in the pivot from a conventional convenience store and retail fuel model to a “food first” enterprise, complete with rebranding, store upgrades and the launch of FriendShip Kitchen.
The “Kitchen” concept recenters the focus of the business onto freshly prepared, restaurant-quality meals and add-ons that are a significant upgrade from traditional convenience store fare. FriendShip also enlisted former Wawa food and beverage veteran Ed Burcher to conceptualize and launch the expanded menu, brand and operational transformation, and last year brought in Kirk Mathews from TravelCenters of America to shepherd and scale it.
Now, 14 of the 27 c-stores are branded FriendShip Kitchen, with plans to add more through expansion to new markets and remodeling of existing locations. “There is a significant opportunity with this new concept in our traditional geographic footprint, but we see a broader need in new markets,” Brian Beck said.
To that end, the latest FriendShip Kitchen opened in Delaware, Ohio, in June of last year, which extends the chain’s footprint south toward Columbus. “The new concept is doing extremely well. Customers who have never experienced the FriendShip brand are telling us they love what we bring to their market,” Beck added.
With FriendShip stores a prominent internal customer, Beck Branded Fuels was launched as a logical extension of the original propane and fuels business, with the mission of delivering quality branded fuels to independent fuel retailers and convenience stores. Today, Beck Branded Fuels is led by BP-veteran Joe Rosso, who was hired by Dean Beck in 2013. Rosso’s experience has led to improvements in business processes, the adoption of essential technologies and the realignment of organizational and logistics structures that has propelled the business unit to be one of the leading and largest independent wholesalers in the state.
“Joe started out as our first dealer sales representative,” Dean Beck said. “Prior to that, I was the only person in this division. Since then, we have expanded the business five-fold, and Joe is now our vice president of branded fuels leading a team of five very talented branded fuels specialists.”
Interestingly, Beck Suppliers’ current Chief Financial Officer Bob Carnicom was once a Beck Branded Fuels customer. Then-President Bill Beck convinced the former convenience store operator to install tanks and buy his gas and diesel from Beck Branded Fuels. The two developed a close business and personal relationship. Bill eventually recruited Carnicom to join Beck Suppliers back in 1996, who has since held
increasing levels of responsibility during his tenure and is the only employee to have as broad an institutional memory and understanding of the heritage and inner workings of the company as any member of the Beck family.
“I’ve seen a lot of change in my two-plus decades with the company, but what is happening now is inspiring,” Carnicom said. “We continue to grow, we have an amazing and talented management team, and the entire organization is excited for what the future has in store.”
Stemming from the company’s three growing fuel-based businesses, Beck Suppliers was contracting multiple outside vendors for a steady stream of business to satisfy the need for installing and maintaining fuel storage and dispensing systems.
In response, and as an additional growth opportunity, former President Doug Beck launched the company’s fourth business unit, Beck Fuel Systems. Now, all the work formerly contracted to third-party businesses is handled internally by Beck Fuel Systems, which today has evolved into a leading contractor in north-central Ohio for the construction, installation and removal of fuel systems, as well as the development of entire fueling facilities. The business unit is headed by Lee Beckman, who joined the company in 2005 and has held a series of progressively critical roles over his 15 years with Beck. Beckman also heads up Beck Car Wash Systems — its fifth and latest business unit expansion.
Just like every preceding family member who entered the business, Olivia Beck and Chelsea Carvalho are learning about the company from the ground up. It’s a more complicated enterprise than ever before, and the challenge to fully experience and understand key aspects of the business has a steep learning curve.
“There is so much to learn,” Carvalho said. “At times, it’s a humbling experience, but Olivia and I are fortunate to be surrounded by experienced mentors and a supportive family.”
With an eye toward learning the entire industry, the company has structured a rotation program to prepare the two next-generation family members for future leadership. Carvalho is currently focused on the expansion of the FriendShip Kitchen brand, and Olivia Beck’s getting her arms around the complexity of the Transportation Division, after spending her first three years in the Branded Fuels Division.
Brian and Dean Beck are not only helping to train the next generation to run the business, but they are also setting an example of how important it is to give back to the community. As a local family and a company employing and serving local people, those who work at Beck Suppliers know many of their customers personally — sending children to the same schools, volunteering alongside them and together giving back to the communities in which they work and live.
Beck Suppliers is an active sponsor of the regional Make-A-Wish foundation, has partnered with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation for over 10 years, and is generous with charitable contributions and encouraging employee volunteerism in the towns and cities in the region. In total, over the past five years, the company has raised and donated over $2 million to charitable organizations.
One area keeping Beck Suppliers on its toes is the rapid pace of technological innovation. Not one to shy away from challenges, the company has embraced innovation across all its business units.
From adding remote telemetry monitors on propane tanks to improve efficiency, to adding cameras on its transport tankers to improve safety, new technologies are constantly being tested and adopted. Of all its business units, the FriendShip division has experienced the most technological change over the past five years.
Working with Paytronix Systems, the company recently integrated online ordering and curbside pickup with its award-winning FriendShip Rewards program. This was not a planned change, but one this nimble 70-year-old company pivoted to in response to rapidly shifting consumer preferences driven by the pandemic.
Other recent projects include the conversion of its retail back-office system to PDI in 2019 and the upgrade of its store video systems in 2020 to provide enhanced analytics and improve the overall guest experience.
So how has this company survived and thrived for 70 years? Most of us are familiar with family business failure rates: 30% of businesses make it through the second generation, only 10-15% through the third, and just 3-5% through the fourth. The constant has been Virgil Beck’s founding philosophy of honest products, friendly service and fair prices. The other critical success factor is the tradition of responsibly training and transferring responsibility for the stewardship of the company from one generation to the next.
“Chelsea and I have an important responsibility to our family members who built this business, and more importantly, to the employees who count on Beck Suppliers for their livelihood,” Olivia Beck said.
The Beck family serves as another case study on how family businesses are the backbone of the convenience store industry and how, through hard work and great leadership, they can overcome the odds to become successful industry leaders.
The company credits its focus on preparing the next generation for leadership and teaching managers at all levels that taking care of and being fair to your employees, customers and the communities you serve is the most important of all the values.