By Keith Reid
It is not uncommon for “new” heating oil dealers to date back to the 1950s. The older ones often got their start delivering ice or oil before the 1930s. By that standard, Broco Oil, which offers heating oil and propane delivery to homes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, is a very new company.
The company was started in the traditional way with a single truck in 2007 by local fire captain and U.S. Navy Seabee veteran Robert Brown and his wife, Angela. The company currently has 30 trucks and 45 employees. The business has expanded to provide mobile municipal and commercial fleet fueling, generator fueling, propane sales, tank maintenance services and a multi-fuel rail terminal. In 2019, Brown was named Veteran-Owned Small Business Owner of the Year by the Small Business Administration.
Perhaps most notable has been the company’s involvement with supporting disaster relief efforts. These events have included hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Florence, Dorian, Laura and Sally. Broco Oil also served as the prime fuel contractor for the Columbia Gas event where multiple explosions left residents without gas service throughout the Merrimack Valley.
FMN: What prompted you to enter the industry?
Robert: I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I had my chance when I got out of the Navy in 2005. Angela stuck with me through the military, and I proposed to her and she said, yes. I got right on the fire department when I got out, but I ended up doing multiple jobs on the side because of the shifts you have with being a career firefighter.
I was driving a big truck in the summer pumping concrete and when the winter came, I was getting laid off and I thought it would be a good idea to drive for a local oil company. I realized you interact with customers, and you get called for emergencies, which I liked.
Angela and I are sitting there, and she said we should do this together. I thought we would be good at it because we’re well-known in the area. Angela was always a very hard worker, and we complement each other well with a similar work ethic. My whole family has been public servants—veterans and the police and fire brotherhood. Word of mouth gets around fast, and we realized we could serve the police, firefighters, veterans, blue collar workers—and I became their go-to oil guy for heating.
FMN: Angela what is your background?
Angela: I have a degree in business and entrepreneurship. I also have my CDL, my hazmat and tanker endorsements—all those certifications you can think of. I kind of grew up in the construction and excavation industry. I didn’t have a finance background, which would have been very useful.
FMN: What was the biggest challenge getting started?
Robert: Being so green—we were turning 25 at the time—I said, OK, I’ll buy an old truck, which was $7,000. We then realized we needed to get a line of credit because you can’t just pick up oil anywhere, and nobody would give us a shot.
Angela: We didn’t have any money or anything to use as collateral. I bought our printer off eBay for $20 because I could not afford to go buy one at Staples.
Robert: The SBA ended up giving us a $25,000 a loan—no collateral. And that was really the critical piece in the beginning that made things happen. Now, they kind of use us as the poster child for small business success stories, and I always advocate for people to go to the SBA.
FMN: Describe the early days.
Robert: It was slow when we first started because even the people that knew me wanted to make sure we were legitimate. It was at least a year or two before I could start getting any traction. Angela and I were personally taking the calls. I would just go door to door. You have to swallow your pride and realize you have to start somewhere.
Angela: It was chaos for the first 10 years or so. We were not really planning for the growth, not expecting to double in size every year and hiring as we needed. It was trial by fire. I’ve done every job here from the beginning, and as we grew I would peel a little bit off and give that to somebody else. Now, I’m more in the business development side. We just hired a CFO, and he’s been a lifesaver. We’re much better now at projecting how we’re going to grow.
FMN: How did you get into mobile fueling?
Robert: I would grow the business off being responsive while a lot of competitors are not, so before, you know we started getting a name for ourselves. Then, people that we served worked for construction companies and started asking us to fuel in the summertime. As we started hiring people, I’d rather give a guy a full-time job and not be seasonal, and that’s how we got into on-road and off-road diesel locally. And our service built it from there.
FMN: How did you get into emergency fueling?
Robert: I had a call from a guy when Washington, D.C., had that snowstorm back in 2016. They sent a bunch of guys down from out of state to plow snow. And then they started sending snow melters. So, the guy asked me if I could guarantee their fuel supply? I wasn’t even supposed to be down there, but I got two trucks, and we did the fueling operation.
The second response was after Hurricane Harvey. They didn’t have the small trucks to get in and really get after it for the small generator fueling. So, I got called way up here because they know my Seabee mentality—can do! We always went into places where we had to figure out how to get something done.
Some people see dollar signs; we did it at first without asking about the money because that’s what we do. And that right there was the most important decision I ever made for the company. Doing the right thing has come back tenfold.
FMN: How much government versus private work do you do during disasters?
Robert: Mainly private, though Lake Charles was government. With the Columbia gas explosions, you had 500 generators running people’s homes—their electricity, the heat. A contract like that could be handled by one of these huge corporations, but we get hired as a subcontractor. We worked for all these other certified vendors, even though we are not hired directly by FEMA.
FMN: How do you manage morale at the disaster sites?
Robert Looking out for the crew’s wellbeing is always in the forefront of any mission. The only thing we know how to do is embrace the suck together. And the morale goes up because they say, you know what, this isn’t that bad. We’re all doing a great thing. You must hire people that want to help people. That’s our whole reason for getting into the emergency world–we like to help people.
For Hurricane Irma we didn’t have housing set up. Some of our guys slept on top of oil trucks. At least the weather was nice enough. So, they put up mosquito nets and slept that way for six weeks. But all the guys were bought into the mission because we were serving hospitals.
There are a lot of guys with us that always did want to serve, but maybe just it was not in the cards for them. And these guys get a feeling of commitment with us and have a passion for it.
FMN: How important is your service at these disaster sites?
Robert: We’ve had hospitals where if we ran out of fuel people would start to die in five minutes. So I’m just stationing a truck in the area. You have wastewater treatment facilities—the pumping stations. People always forget about that aspect. The wastewater treatment facility must be in good working order.
FMN: This tends to be a male dominated industry. Angela, how do things go when you’re the one calling the shots?
Angela: I know how to do all the jobs and have done them. Somebody complains about hauling a load or something they know I can jump in the truck and do it. I’m not shy and I don’t mince words—I’ve always been an assertive and dominant type of person. I don’t think there’s anyone here that would second guess what I say. So, I really don’t have a problem with that.
FMN: Bioheat (a heating oil/biodiesel blend) is a heating industry priority. How are you incorporating biofuels into your operations?
Robert: Biofuels really became an opportunity when we reactivated our railroad terminal facility. We wanted to be green from the start, and we always try things. When biodiesel hit our radar, we started introducing that into our heating oil. We have been blending biodiesel for a few years now, and things really got interesting with the [regional] carbon initiatives. We’re now in the front line, being the biggest supplier in our New England area because we have the rail terminal.
We have a good partnership with REG. I’m serving the greater Boston area and the city of Boston with B20. We have all our residential accounts—roughly 15,000 customers—getting B30 blends right now. And we’re going to be stepping that up to B50 by 2025. It’s the only sustainable option for Massachusetts, which has to be net zero by 2050. We can’t get there unless we embrace biodiesel.
FMN: How has technology impacted your operations?
Angela: Up until five years ago we had printed tickets with the carbon copies. And I used to rip them all by hand—hundreds of tickets every night. I would separate them by town on the floor in front of me, and I would figure out my routes for everybody. And then usually at 11 o’clock at night, I would be dropping them in the trucks. Now we have an automated system, which is like heaven. It doesn’t matter where you are in the country. I can dispatch add, hold, move things around. And it tracks absolutely everything.