Tom Gray and Gray Oil in Fort Lupton have established a strong reputation in Northern Colorado and created one of the most successful oil and oil products businesses in the region.

Tom Gray helps shape family oil company 2003 Bravo! Entrepreneur — Outlying Communities

FORT LUPTON — Tom Gray has gone about preserving the legacy of his family business, Gray Oil Co., in a different sort of way:

He opted to sell it.

As sole owner of the company his grandfather founded in 1937, Gray came to realize there was too much at stake if anything should happen to him. Gray Oil markets gasoline, diesel and lubricant products.

If he were to die, he reasoned, vendors might not honor contracts, customers would not be served and employees would lose their jobs. All of that would go against what he and his family and their employees had long worked to build.

So to protect the company, its employees and customers, Gray opted to sell to three longtime employees.

Today, he’s an employee. Company president from 1984 to 2000, Gray now serves as chief financial officer for the Fort Lupton-based company. And he’s pretty sure he works more hours now than he ever did as president.

Actually, he said, his new employers don’t boss him around too much. They were already running their own departments, and he has continued doing what he loves: planning, studying the financials and making sales calls.

Company survival protected

“Selling it doesn’t hurt me,” Gray said. “It reduces our long-term risk of survival, and it made us stronger for the future. Now, if one owner dies, the rest just step in and take over and keep on going. The bank doesn’t call the notes, suppliers don’t cancel the franchises and customers don’t even know unless they read the obituaries.”

That sort of heads-up pragmatism is part of what has earned Gray the reputation as a strong manager in a highly competitive business.

Surviving and growing in the industry requires clear direction, savvy management and strong leadership, said Ron Turner, executive vice president of Colorado Petroleum Marketers Association.

The fact that Gray serves as president of the board of the industry association reflects his reputation, Turner said. “He was elected to the position by his peer group.”

Just as he has kept a close eye on what’s best for his business, Gray has an eye out for the industry’s welfare as well, Turner said.

“I think what’s unique about Tom is as chairman he could channel the association position in a way that might benefit his business. But he looks at the whole industry and what is the best for petroleum marketers — not just Gray Oil alone,” Turner said.

The petroleum marketing business is extremely competitive and one that Tom Gray professes to love. His favorite part, he said, is the people. “The employees here are great, the people we work with are great, (and) our competitors are great.”

High tolerance for risk

In addition to strong management skills, Gray brings a high tolerance for risk to the business. “The thing I think that’s been the best for me and probably for Gray Oil is not to shy away from taking some risk. My risk management is pretty poor. If it looks like it might work, I say, ?Let’s go do it.’ ”

Gray learned the business from the bottom up, joining the family company in 1981. An electrical engineer with a degree from the University of Colorado, Gray worked for Home Light and Power Co. in Greeley before joining Gray Oil.

When Public Service Co. purchased Home Light and Power, Gray called his dad and asked about a job. “I gave Public Service a couple of months notice, trained the new guy and said goodbye.

“When I started, there was me, Mom and Dad and Harry, our truck driver. Dad and Harry were the delivery guys, and Uncle Lloyd trained me how to drive the delivery truck.

“So we had three trucks at that time and at least two of them going most of the time. They were just small trucks that held about 1,800 gallons per truck, plus a couple of barrels of oil if you needed them.”

Since that time, the business has grown significantly. Today, Gray Oil Co. employs about 60 people and runs 21 trucks. It markets Conoco products as well as Exxon, Mobil and Chevron lubricants. The company sells lubricants, hydraulic oil, gasoline, diesel fuel, anti-freeze and methanol.

Customers? “Pretty much anybody out there could be a customer. Everybody buys lubricants and gas and diesel,” Gray said.

Gray Oil Co. customers range from the small acreage farmer through big businesses such as Coors, LaFarge and Qwest. Gray Oil also has a retail convenience store in Fort Lupton.

Sales keep growing

Sales for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2003 were $42 million. That’s up from $30 million for 2002 and $26.8 million for 2001.

Gray attributes the company’s growth rate of 10 percent and more per year to good employees, aggressive sales and attention to quality and customer service.

“The most important thing is hiring good people. That goes without saying,” he said.

The company continues to grow because “We’ve got sales people out knocking on doors acquiring customers from our competitors,” Gary noted.

Meanwhile, the company’s mission statement is aimed at keeping the focus on quality. “Our mission statement, I think, spells it out,” Gray said. That is: “To profit by selling quality, succeed through excellent service and attitude and provide superior benefit to our customers.”