By John Lofstock, Editor.
Surviving in New York’s cutthroat retail environment is difficult. But for Harry Singh (pictured above), failing to succeed was never an option.
Singh, president and CEO of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Bolla Oil Corp., has shown he can overcome long odds all throughout his career. After more than two decades in the convenience store and petroleum business, Singh has transformed Bolla Oil into a fine-tuned machine.
“I have a passion for the convenience store industry,” Singh said. “I approach every day with the thought of finding new and better ways to serve our customers and improve our business. What we do is not rocket science. Doing it consistently every day, that’s the rocket science.”
Like any good scientist, Singh has been precisely charting Bolla Oil’s growth for 24 years. He began as an auto mechanic with one Mobil station on Houston St. in New York City. Today, he has grown the company into a network of 90 retail sites, which includes 45 company-operated stores.
Last July, Bolla expanded its core business with the development of its fuel trucking fleet, Bolla Transport LLC. The company invested nearly $2 million in equipment, including a fleet of 11 tankers, each of which holds 8,200 gallon to 12,000 gallons of fuel. It hired more than 20 drivers, plus a crew of mechanics to maintain the vehicles out of its warehouse in Brooklyn.
“I believe gasoline still has a long life ahead of it. The demand for refined fuels will remain strong for the next five or 10 years so our business model is very strong,” Singh said. “Bolla wants to be in a position to compete with chains like Wawa that may enter some of our markets in the future. We are getting to the point where we have strong brand recognition, great prices and can compete with anyone. Our goal is to be the unconditional leader in any of the markets we are operating in.”
The company has built up an impressive wholesale business anchored by its partnerships with ExxonMobil, Sunoco and Gulf. It flies the BP banner at a few of its company-operated sites. Its annual fuel volume is now about 200 million gallons.
The transport business is a vital cog in Bolla Oil’s business. The company plans to bring about a dozen new stores into its portfolio over the next 12 months and is currently developing its first store outside of New York, a new 24-hour truckstop on Route 17 in Mahwah, N.J.
Singh closely monitors the price of oil on a daily basis. Owning a transport company allows him to time when it is best to purchase fuel and subsequently load up Bolla Transport trucks with as much fuel as possible at that moment. Prior to forming the transport division, Bolla Oil had to rely on the price a jobber charged for the fuel.
“We have a target of saving an average of a penny per gallon,” Singh said. “We expect to deliver between 150 million and 180 million gallons of fuel this year. Next year, we expect 200 million gallons to be delivered. So, in turn, that means an additional $2 million in profit added to our bottom line annually.”
Among the keys to Bolla Oil’s success has been its ability to control key points of the business that have traditionally tripped up other operators. Bolla is the parent of six distinct affiliate companies: Bolla Realty, Bolla Market, Bolla Wholesale, Bolla Retail, Bolla Transport and Bolla Construction. By doing so, Bolla has driven down costs associated with building sites and procuring products/services to well below industry averages.
“Tomorrow’s success begins today. Whether it’s finding a piece of real estate that you want or visiting some other stores to learn where you can improve, you have to prepare and set goals for yourself and the business,” Singh said. “The quickest way to fail is by not planning effectively.”
For example, where many operators have to lease properties, Bolla is a landlord on dozens of lots throughout New York City—a market where real estate and property taxes are among the highest in the world. This helps to insulate the company from fluctuating costs.
“To make your mark you are either growing the business, or waiting for the industry to pass you by,” Singh said. “Our strategy is relatively simple. We are looking for top quality stores that will help us expand in our markets of operation and present opportunities in new markets that will enhance our scalability.”
Another area of control comes from the convenience stores: Bolla Markets. An upscale convenience store, Bolla Market offers an organic coffee program, made-to-order foods, a deli and freshly baked goods. Each Bolla Market features warm lighting, an inviting interior décor with mahogany and cherry wood accents, granite countertops and elegant restrooms.
“Our mission is to become the most successful and most respected chain of gas stations and convenience stores in the region. We will strive to meet this objective while adhering to the highest standards of business conduct,” Singh said. “Bolla pledges to provide our customers with the unexpected luxury and elegance not normally found in the convenience store marketplace. Our spacious, elegantly-decorated locations add value to our products and services.”
Delighting the customer with a warm, friendly retail environment helps perpetuate Bolla’s value proposition. To that end, stores are routinely inspected for cleanliness, employees wear crisp uniforms—complete with name tags.
Throughout the store, Bolla has been keen on developing brand awareness and a proprietary offering, which it has done at key profit centers like the soda fountain and the frozen beverage bar.
Other features that are distinctly Bolla are the multiple destination points inside the store that are identified with eye-appealing graphics, such as the Bakery, Beer, Snacks and Beverage zones. Customers are greeted by a large front counter that sits adjacent to the made-to-order foodservice counter.
“Part of our focus is to always be a convenient and memorable experience for our customers,” Singh said. “There are so many choices these days and so much competition from coffee shops, drug stores and other convenience stores. Our pledge to our customers is to offer unexpected luxury and elegance not normally found in the retail fueling and convenience store marketplace.”
Food for Thought
While outstanding service and strong locations are the backbone at Bolla Markets, the chain recognized it needed to expand its foodservice offering. An extensive foodservice menu, featuring everything from meat loaf and baked chicken, to made-to-order sandwiches and wraps, gives customers a tried-and-true program New Yorkers can appreciate.
“Foodservice is one area that we are very high on now,” Singh said. “Whether it’s something as simple as a great fresh cup of coffee or a fresh hot dog or something from our upscale gourmet delis, we have a much better handle on how to be a great foodservice operator, so we will continue to push the envelope to meet our customers’ needs.”
Building a proprietary program with specially-tailored products can differentiate your brand from the herd of foodservice competitors. The extra work can drive strong profits—if it’s done well. But depending on a chain’s size and resources, building a brand from scratch isn’t always a realistic option. The folks at Bolla saw that as a challenge they couldn’t refuse.
The Bolla Market deli model is gaining quite a loyal following in its markets, which is really saying something about the quality of the food. The extensive menu includes a wide range of hot gourmet dishes, made-to-order sandwiches, side dishes and snacks, in addition to traditional grab-and-go sandwiches and hot dogs.
Crystallizing the food program is Bolla Market’s new coffee initiative, a complete line of organic, Fair Trade brews marketed under the Bolla brand, that was rolled out in December at stores across New York.
To get to this point, Singh had to endure some tough lean years. While he is enjoying success, he rarely takes a day off, let alone a vacation, and he’s always ready to talk business.
Singh founded Bolla in 1989, just five years after he emigrated to the U.S. from India. Newly married, he soon began building his network of stations and stores. The company is a family affair that extends beyond Singh’s wife and two children. Several of Singh’s first employees still work at Bolla.
It is the memory of those early days that continues to drive Singh. He took classes to become an auto mechanic to ensure that he had a discernable skill, so he could provide for his growing family. Then he worked the overnight shift in the convenience store to drive additional revenues.
“I remember back to a lot of nights when I first started this businesses with just a couple of stores in terrible neighborhoods. I used to keep a baseball bat next to me at all times because the locations were just that bad,” Singh recalled. “On the one hand, you’re trying to provide great service to the customers that appreciated you being there, but on the other hand you had to worry about some bad people.”
After all of his hard work, Singh takes pride in providing an income for more than 400 employees and their families. To that end, Bolla also gives back to the community in many ways, such as making regular contributions to local community groups, churches and temples, and giving educational grants to local schools each year.
“Success and profits are not bad words,” Singh said. “It took years of hard work to get to this point. I’m so pleased to be able to have great employees that believe in what we are doing and that are sharing in our success.”
The Bolla Mission
Our mission is to become the most successful, most recognizable, and most respected chain of gasoline stations and convenience stores in the region. We will strive to meet this objective while adhering to the highest standards of business conduct.
To Our Customers
Bolla pledges to provide our customers with the unique experience of unexpected luxury and elegance not normally found in the retail fueling and convenience store marketplace. Our spacious, elegantly-decorated locations add value to our products and services. We pledge to provide our customers with the most competitive prices, the most courteous service and the cleanest, well-maintained locations.
To Our Employees
Our employees are our greatest and most valuable resource. We treat every employee with dignity and respect. We strive to create a friendly and safe work environment. There is zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.
We accept only ethical and moral conduct from all personnel. We encourage innovative thinking and create an atmosphere where speaking up and sharing ideas is welcome.
We reward hard work and company loyalty with career advancement opportunities. Bolla seeks to keep our employees fully engaged in their job by providing them with new and exciting challenges.
To The Communities We Service
Bolla Management works hard at being great neighbors. We’re proud of our benevolent record of providing financial support for local causes and charities. Bolla Management locations are known for their upscale design and meticulously clean properties complete with attractive landscaping, ample parking and appropriate lighting. Bolla Management locations have been known to increase property values in the neighborhoods where we’re located.
At a Glance: Bolla Oil Corp.
Using the new tagline, “Taking Convenience to a Whole New Level,” Bolla Management Corp. is earning quite a reputation in the New York City market. Not only is the company on track to distribute between close to 200 million gallons, it is rapidly developing its Bolla Market c-store brand with 45 units throughout New York City, Long Island and New Jersey. The company plans to expand operations by adding company-owned stores and growing its distribution network.
C-Store Brand: Bolla Market
Markets of Operations/Planned Expansion: Long Island and New York City
Fuel Brands: BP, Exxon, Mobil, Gulf, Sunoco
Number of Employees: 450
• Harry Singh, President and CEO
• Jay Singh, Vice President of Operations
• Brett Atherton, Director of Marketing
• Arun Sanghera, Director of Operations
• Banti Nath, Field Operations Manager
Social Media: www.bollaoil.com, www.facebook.com/ bollamarket, twitter.com/bollamarket