By Erin Rigik, Associate Editor.
What started in 1911 with Elzie Huot selling kerosene from a horse and buggy and grew to a fourth-generation, 10-store chain officially closed its doors in September.
Baron-Huot Oil Co., one of the oldest fuel retailers in the country, sold its retail business after 102 years in the industry to Alimentation Couche-Tard. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Jerry Huot, president of Baron-Huot Oil Co. and his wife Marlene, who ran the business with him, called his decision to divest the company “bittersweet.”
“We’ve been considering a sale for the last three years and finally everything came to a head. First came the poor economic climate, then an increase on state corporate taxes and the looming impact of Obamacare—it was all too much for us to stay afloat,” said Jerry Huot, who will maintain the company’s wholesale business and the other active business interests the family owns. “Now the state of Illinois is talking about increasing the minimum wage to $10. Add all this up and the time was right to sell.”
In 2012, the company as a whole generated $86 million in sales.
Baron-Huot Oil Co. got its start in 1911, when Jerry Huot’s grandfather, Elzie Huot approached the manager of the Indian Refining Co. to be part of their Kankakee kerosene operations.
To help him get his business off the ground, he contacted a local businessman named Joseph Baron.
“Grandpa said, ‘I want to start an oil company, and I can rent this bulk plant for $10 a year with a six-year lease, but I don’t have any money to buy horses and a wagon,’” Huot said.
Baron put up the money to buy the first team of horses and the wagon, and Elzie Huot began delivering kerosene to farmers in Illinois. The horses were sway backed and the wagon was in tatters, but before long he had made enough money to upgrade his equipment.
Not satisfied selling kerosene, Elzie Huot set his sights on conquering the gasoline market. While Standard Oil was filling cars at their plant, Elzie Huot began delivering fuel wholesale to garages. Before long, he had beat out Standard Oil locally and was delivering gasoline to stations with five wagons bringing in $90 a month.
Once Elzie Huot became established as a kerosene and gasoline distributor, he set his sights higher, aspiring to build his own bulk plant. In 1921 he again approached Baron, who put up the capital for the venture, with the agreement Elzie would provide all the labor, while they split the profit 50/50.
In 1926, Huot again dreamed of bigger and better things, and set out to build the first gas station in Kankakee County, Ill.
Baron was unconvinced of his business partner’s vision. “He told grandpa, ‘Nothing will replace horses,’” Jerry Huot said. But Elzie Huot persisted and Baron suggested that Elzie buy him out and start his own gas venture.
“By the time grandpa got done buying out Joe Baron and building the first gas station in the county, he had $5 left in his checking account and he couldn’t afford to change the name, so it’s been known as Baron-Huot Oil Co. since 1911,” Jerry Huot said.
The company has the oldest motor fuel tax number in the state of Illinois.
With his gas station up and running, Elzie Huot first supplied his own private brand of gasoline called Silver Fox, before he later branded with DX Sunray Oil, becoming their exclusive northern Illinois dealer. With time, the company grew to almost 80 sites in seven counties
Elzie Huot later consolidated, taking full ownership of the stations in Kankakee and Iroquois counties while DX acquired the rest. “In the 1950s and 60s there were maybe 20 stores, and we eventually downsized to 10,” Jerry Huot said.
In the early 1950s, Wayne Huot, Jerry’s father, gained a leading role in the company as vice president of Baron-Huot Oil, and his uncle Marvin Huot became secretary/treasurer. Also in the 1950s, the company partnered exclusively with Phillips 66 Co., a partnership that continued to present day.
Jerry Huot began working with the company when he was 13 years old. “At that time we delivered to the stations by tank wagon and I road with the tank wagon drivers to clean the bathrooms while they were making deliveries,” he said. He worked his way through the ranks, and after finishing his MBA, returned to the company fulltime.
Jerry Huot took over as president of the company—from his father—in the mid-60s.
“Eventually, I bought my father out and bought out the other side of the family, and my wife Marlene and I ran the company for the last 25 years. Both of our daughters went to work for ConocoPhillips for a number of years and then came to work for us, making it a four generation business,” Huot said.
Huot has seen firsthand how much the c-store industry has changed over the years.
“In 2012, we sold more beer in volume and dollars than my father sold in gasoline,” he said. “The first c-store I built cost me $100,000, including the inventory. The last one I built was two years ago, and it cost $1.8 million dollars and didn’t include the inventory,” he said.
Today, the Huey’s One Stop stores measure between 4,000 square feet and 6,000 square feet. Two of the stores provide laundromats, and five offer car washes. The chain also leases out several QSRs, including four Subways, a Dairy Queen and a McDonald’s. Huot noted the company was one of the first c-store chains to partner with a QSR back in the early 1980s.
Inside the c-store, the inventory has evolved as well. The first convenience store featured basic items, known as the “big six”— soda, bread, milk, candy, cigarettes and ice—and no beer or wine. Today’s stores offer thousands of SKUs. At the time of the sale to Couche-Tard, eight of the 10 stores had full liquor licenses, allowing not only beer and wine, but hard liquor sales.
“I remember when we first started, we had stores doing $15,000 or $10,000 a month, and before we sold, our best store was just shy of $200,000 a month and that didn’t include lottery or QSRs,” Huot said.
As Marlene and Jerry Huot plan for retirement, they admit it will be an adjustment to life without the convenience stores.
“For 57 years we ate, slept and drank c-stores,” Huot said. “Marlene and I sat around the dining-room table at night and talked business. I have employees who have been with me for 20-25 years. It’s tough to say goodbye to those people. It’s the right business decision to make, but it’s also an emotional one. It’s bittersweet.”