Three women prominent in the fuel oil industry – Sharon Bloomer, Karen Gillespie Korrow and Carla L. Romita – are profiled here. Korrow is an owner and president, while Bloomer and Romita are in management. All three women are also active in their respective state industry associations.
They said the fuel oil industry offers great opportunities for women, whether in management or in the field.
Romita mentioned that she sometimes traded notes with Alison Heaney, president of Skaggs-Walsh, a fuel oil company in College Point, N.Y. Heaney grew up in that family business and can drive a truck and fix a burner. How many other women will come up that way in the years ahead is impossible to say, but Ellen Martin, office manager of C.V. Oil in Pittsfield, Vt., might know one. That would be her niece, Jody Martin, who is 21. Jody’s father, Charlie Martin, is a partner in C.V. Oil. Jody joined the company a few months ago and has been going along on service calls. “She says she wants to learn from the bottom up,” Ellen Martin said.
It’s often said that one should focus on the journey, not the destination. Here’s a look at the paths Bloomer, Korrow and Romita have charted.
Apple Oil Co.
A bachelor's degree in American literature and a master's in education don't come in so handy for Sharon Bloomer's career in the family business, Apple Oil Co., but the economics and mathematics courses she took as an undergraduate are paying back in multiples.
"I've used a lot of the economics training," she said. "That comes in handy." Bloomer figures the instruction she received in economics and in mathematics would have earned her the equivalent of minor degrees in those subjects, if there had been minor degrees in those days. She graduated from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in 1983.
After Yale, Bloomer earned a master's degree in education at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., and then spent four years teaching at the junior high school through college levels. She started helping at Apple Oil because a bookkeeper was retiring. Bloomer gradually became more involved, and finally decided to leave teaching and go full-time into the family business, based in West Haven, Conn. "I asked my father what exactly I would be doing," Bloomer recalled, and he said, "'Whatever needs to be done.'" That was 26 years ago. Bloomer was soon managing finances and human resources among other "behind-the-scenes" aspects of the business.
Today Bloomer is comptroller of the company, chair of the board of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association (ICPA), a board member of the New England Fuel Institute (NEFI) and chair of the Northeast region of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America (PMAA).
(Bloomer's professional activities have had happy ramifications for her personal life, she noted. "Through the trade associations of ICPA and NEFI, I met and am engaged to Howard Peterson, Jr., president of Peterson Oil in Worcester, Mass.," she said. "His business is also a family business." Peterson is the current chair of NEFI.)
As for the major challenges facing the fuel oil industry, they are well-known, and have to do largely with volume and price, Bloomer said. Volume is declining because equipment today is better designed and more fuel efficient. Further, because the housing market remains stagnant, potential to grow the fuel oil market remains limited, she said.
Bloomer would know about housing. Her father, Samuel Livieri Sr., launched the family business as a residential construction company in 1957. The fuel oil business was not added until more than twenty years later, in 1980.
"The idea was opposite seasons," Bloomer said. Building crews, busy in warm weather, could be employed in the heating oil business during winter – the construction "off-season," she explained. Bloomer described Apple Oil as "a mid-sized, full-service" company serving the greater New Haven market, a radius of about one hour's driving time from the Elm City, and including Waterbury and a portion of the shoreline of Connecticut.
The residential construction business is still headed by Bloomer's father. Current construction projects include a residential development in Naugatuck, Conn., for which some 60 houses remain to be built, and a 28-unit apartment complex for seniors in West Haven. The multi-unit construction projects are often required by planning authorities to use forms of energy other than fuel oil, but the houses are built with oilheat systems, Bloomer said. So it could be said, truly, that Apple Oil builds its own fuel oil market.
Issues on the pricing front are supply and commodities speculation, and both are starting to be addressed, Bloomer said.
New sources of supply and potential sources of supply promise to benefit the fuel oil business, she said. These include the rich Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, now a booming oil patch. The Associated Press reported this fall that there is speculation the boom could sweep down to South Dakota, where it is thought that a similar shale formation, containing millions of barrels of crude, might exist.
Another potential boon to supply would be construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, Bloomer said. The proposed pipeline would transport oil from oil sands in Alberta in Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. It requires approval by the U.S. State Department because it crosses the U.S. border.
The National Petrochemical & Refiners Association in October submitted written comments to the State Department and provided oral testimony at a department hearing, urging approval of construction. Canada is the largest supplier of oil to the U.S., the association said, providing nearly two million barrels per day. The Keystone pipeline would allow the U.S. to increase imports from Canada by more than 500,000 barrels per day, the association said.
But the Obama administration in November delayed a decision on the pipeline while it studies an alternate route through Nebraska. The administration cited environmental concerns. The delay effectively pushes any action past the 2012 presidential election and into 2013, reported The New York Times.
Bloomer said alternate routes for the pipeline have already been explored. The project is critical to the economy, she said. Besides “obvious energy benefits to consumers,” she said, “the project would produce over 20,000 jobs – something we cannot afford to delay.”
Challenges on the pricing front stem in part from competition from other fuels, but Bloomer said that fuel oil's competitiveness is becoming keener through the continuing introduction and gradually widening use of biofuel and ultra-low sulfur fuel. Such products, she said, enable consumers to use a heating oil that is "clean and green."
Speculation in the commodities markets is another well-known factor causing turbulence in pricing, Bloomer noted.
Two new commodity trading rules approved in October by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) have been greeted with "guarded optimism" by NEFI and PMAA. The groups expressed concerns about the specifics of the rules and their implementation, but said they were hopeful the regulatory measures would result in more transparent, stable and competitive energy trading markets. The rules would establish speculative position limits on futures and swaps and define more clearly the activities of derivative clearing organizations. The rules are being formulated and implemented under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.
"A lot can be done with energy and monetary policy to ensure we have a thriving industry," Bloomer said. The Dodd-Frank act, though it "is going to take some time to be enacted," should be helpful, she said. That and the industry's accomplishments in providing a higher-quality, "greener" product, and more efficient equipment bode well for the future of the fuel oil business, Bloomer said.
And of course, that bodes well for the future of Apple Oil, where Bloomer's brother, Samuel Livieri Jr., is vice president of operations, and their mother, Nancy, is secretary of the company.
Who among the next generation will join the family business is a bit of an open question at the moment. Bloomer has a son who graduated this year from Duke University, with degrees in mathematics and physics, and a daughter studying Italian at Barnard. Those pursuits don't seem to signal a future in fuel oil or construction, but then, neither did Bloomer's academic concentrations.
And now there is a possibility of another family member one day joining the business. That would be the daughter of Bloomer's brother. She is a bit young yet, admittedly, at age six, but who knows? Her name is Samantha, "Sam" for short – same as her father and grandfather.
Karen Gillespie Korrow
President and Chief Executive Officer
Gillespie Fuels & Propane
“This is a wonderful industry for women,” Karen Gillespie Korrow said, whether they’re involved in leading a company, an industry association or both. “It’s a great field” for women to pursue careers as certified technicians and service providers, added Korrow, president and chief executive officer of Gillespie Fuels & Propane, Inc., Northfield, Vt.
Korrow isn’t the first woman to run the family business. Her mother, Aurora Gillespie, preceded her. “My mother and father purchased the company on January 2, 1962, and on May 15, 1962, my father had a fatal heart attack,” Korrow recounted. Of her mother Korrow said, “She hadn’t expected to be very involved.” Instead she ran the company for years after her husband Robert’s death, before deciding to sell it. That was in 1974. Korrow was working for the Trudeau Institute, a medical research center in Saranac Lake in upstate New York.
“My husband and I came back to help her sell the business and – it bit me,” Korrow said. The sale never happened. Korrow has worked in the family business ever since, initially alongside her mother, who retired for health reasons in 1982.
The company has changed with the industry. When Korrow’s parents acquired what was McGrattan Fuel Co. it dealt primarily in anthracite coal, and supplied fuel oil to a minority of customers. Today, as Gillespie Fuels & Propane, with satellite offices in Waitsfield, Vt., and Randolph, Vt., the company delivers heating fuels and provides 24-hour service, employing 30 people, including 20 technicians and drivers.
Korrow served as president of the Vermont Oil Heat Industry from 1993-97, making her, if not the first, one of the first women to lead a state fuel oil association. During her tenure, the organization merged with the state’s propane dealers’ association to become the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association (VFDA). Korrow is currently secretary and a board member. A number of issues demand the attention of the association at the moment, Korrow said, including the status of the state’s fuel assistance program, which this year is supplying 9.6 million gallons to fuel dealers to help 22,000 households in Vermont. In dollar terms that works out to $474 of assistance per household; in 2010 it was $866 dollars per household; in 2009 it was $1,137 per household, Korrow noted. She said the amount has dropped as Congress has made federal budget-cutting a priority.
The Vermont dealers’ association also has been participating in discussions on the updating of a 25-year-old state law to make it easier for propane customers to change suppliers, Korrow said. That work is expected to be finalized with the legislature adopting changes by the end of this year, she said.
Separately, state legislation adopted this year sets a timeline for the introduction of biodiesel blended with low-sulfur fuel oil. The low-sulfur fuel oil is to be introduced in 2014; blending it with biodiesel will be triggered if and when neighboring states pass similar legislation, Korrow said.
A significant business challenge for her company is price fluctuations, Korrow said.
On the plus side, supply seems to be adequate, she said. Conservation is something dealers are now promoting, she observed, and adjusting to that principle is an ongoing process.
Her company has grown over the years, Korrow said, in part because it diversified into propane and also because of its emphasis on service. “I grew up here,” she added, and that is in her favor. “Vermonters like to know who they’re doing business with,” Korrow said.
Though her experience at the Trudeau Institute was long ago now, Korrow still values it because, she said, it taught her lessons in “the way things are set up, the structure of business, and professionalism.”
Carla L. Romita
Senior Vice President
Castle Oil Corporation
As one of the family in an industry with many family businesses, and as a woman in an industry made up mostly of men, Carla L. Romita knows what it is to be part of a majority and part of a minority.
Romita also enjoys leadership. She is a senior vice president of Castle Oil Corp. in Harrison, N.Y., founded by her grandfather, Mauro Romita Sr., in 1928, and now headed by her father and two uncles; and she is the current chairperson of the Empire State Petroleum Association, having served previously as the association’s president.
Castle Oil is a medium-sized company, Romita said, with a fleet of approximately 100 vehicles, including fuel oil delivery trucks and service vans, and approximately 200 employees. The company’s two fuel oil terminals hold more than 40 million gallons, and the company also has a biofuel tank in New York harbor.
When asked whether it is important for women to be in the fuel oil industry, Romita said, “It’s important for women to be in every industry where they want to be.”
Being in the family didn’t guarantee Romita a free pass into the family business, she said. “Our generation was expected to get an education and come back with useful experience,” she said. Romita received a B.A. and M.A. in German Language and Literature from New York University before earning a law degree from the New York University School of Law. Her foreign language skills are not much called upon in the fuel oil industry, she said, but her legal training and experience are. She practiced corporate law – real estate and utility finance – for five years before joining the family enterprise in 1996. Her brother, Michael N. Romita, also an attorney who practiced, is executive vice president. Legal training is “indispensable” when it comes to scrutinizing contracts and legislation, Romita said.
“That external experience, from either other industries or academia, makes for more robust management,” Romita said. It helps a person understand what it’s like to be part of a large organization, how that organization functions, and what it means to work for somebody, she said. “And you learn best practices and skills,” she added. “If you only ever had one job, you don’t ask, ‘Why do we do it that way? What if we try this?’”
Family-owned businesses are the backbone of local economies, Romita said, often providing employment for people from two or three generations of other local families. Supporting such companies is a priority, in her view, and she wanted to have a leadership role in ESPA in part to help family-owned fuel oil businesses deal with trends such as industry contraction – acquisition of smaller companies by larger companies. The current lending environment and market conditions are making it harder and harder for smaller companies to succeed, said Romita, who also serves or has served other associations, including the New York Oil Heating Association, the Independent Fuel Terminal Operators Association, the Associated Builders and Owners of Greater New York (ABO) and the Westchester County Association.
“Unfortunately,” she said, the fuel oil industry is obliged to deal with a negative image in the marketplace – a negative image that is unfounded, especially considering the sense of corporate and environmental responsibility that pervades the industry, she said. The advent of biofuel and reductions in sulfur in fuel oil can help improve that image, she said. Biofuel has “huge potential for the country as a whole,” she said. “It’s important that we promote that.”