Fourth-Generation Descendants Guide Alvin Hollis & Company

Aug. 1, 2001
ON MARCH 17, 1871, in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, Alvin Hollis distributed a flyer to prospective customers that stated his company would deliver ice

ON MARCH 17, 1871, in South Weymouth, Massachusetts, Alvin Hollis distributed a flyer to prospective customers that stated his company would “deliver ice by careful and attentive drivers three times per week in warm weather.”

Today, the flyer is displayed on the wall of Alvin Hollis & Company operated by the founder's descendants, who still employ careful and attentive drivers. However, instead of delivering ice by horse and wagon, they distribute fuel oil with Volvo trucks and cargo tanks fabricated by Boston Steel & Manufacturing Company. Vehicles may have changed, but the service philosophy begun by their great-grandfather remains in place.

Alvin Hollis supplied ice to customers, but he quickly diversified. Careful and attentive drivers made their way to outlying farms where they also delivered firewood, coal, hay, grain, and flour. As years passed, subsequent family owners also kept an eye on market changes and diversified accordingly, always retaining the policy for customer service.

Leonard Bicknell, Alvin's son-in-law, operated the company delivering coal in the first half of the 20th century, and succeeded, despite the Great Depression. His son, Alvin Bicknell, took over the reins in 1939 when Leonard died. Alvin was just 18 years old. The third-generation owner directed business during World War II and supervised the company's transition from coal to fuel oil delivery. Post World War II years spurred fuel oil growth, although by 1971 there were still 25 coal customers on the books.

“My father ran the company for 49 years, until his death in 1989,” says Len Bicknell. Len and his brother James are company directors today. They are the fourth generation to see that South Shore customers receive fuel to heat their homes. Like their father, the brothers have acquired several companies in order to add customers. Like their forbears, the current owners have observed New England consumer needs and adapted company services accordingly.

Service Diversification

In addition to fuel oil delivery, Alvin Hollis & Company provides installation and repairs for home heating, plumbing, and cooling. Technicians are trained to service and install air-conditioning units in addition to fuel oil and gas furnaces and water heaters. The company operates a retail store for bathroom fixtures. Chuck Sands, a second-generation employee, is company service manager and oversees retail sections of the business.

Twenty million dollars in annual revenue was generated, and 8.8 million gallons of fuel oil were distributed in 2000. Although diversity of products has proven profitable, fuel oil commands a majority of company business.

The company has about 8,700 residential customers. Commercial service ranges between 50 and 100 customers. One of the largest commercial customers is a condominium project that receives about 70,000 gallons annually. Another major commercial customer is a fitness center that consumes approximately 30,000 gallons annually.

Although natural gas has been a major heating market challenger for New England fuel oil companies, Bicknell considers other fuel oil dealers to be the company's most significant competitors. They all vie for customers among the one-half million households in an area that extends 40 miles north to south and 30 miles east to west.

“Our reputation for service is our strongest advantage,” says Bicknell. “We also offer a price protection program that is fully hedged. About 80% of our customers are on the program. We purchase batches of product or options. It's difficult. Volume is the gamble for us, but our customers are protected. We have been in business so long that our experience is a benefit in operating a program like this. I also think we have an advantage because we are a larger company as a result of our acquisitions.”

Storage Capacity

To store the fuel oil volume, the company has established four bulk plants: 70,000 gallons in South Weymouth, 50,000 gallons in Hanover, 40,000 gallons in Duxbury, and 40,000 gallons in East Bridgewater. Keeping storage tanks full requires use of a company tractor-trailer rig and assistance from two carriers, J P Noonan Transportation Inc and Dennis K Burke Inc.

Alvin Hollis & Company has grown about 4% in recent years and doubled in size over the last 10 years. Part of the growth came from new-home construction. “We have been aggressive in soliciting this market,” he says. “In the 1970s, we started installing heating and air-conditioning systems in new and older homes, and that has been a plus for us.”

More recently, rising natural gas prices have leveled the playing field for fuel oil distributors. “The price of oil was so high a few years ago, but it has turned around and now gas prices are rising,” he noted.

Despite market advantages and company growth, Alvin Hollis & Company has continued to stress customer service. The idea of having careful and attentive drivers is as essential today as it was in 1871 when the company was founded, says Bicknell.

Drivers are trained by Dave Carnevale, fuel department manager. Training includes company orientation and policies, Department of Transportation regulations, defensive driving, and hazardous materials handling. Emphasis is placed on spill prevention and vehicle cleanliness, all part of the company's customer service philosophy.

“We stress vehicle and delivery safety,” says Bicknell.

In winter, about 12 to 13 drivers handle routes. In the off season, two to three are on duty. All drivers are technicians, trained to install, service, and repair heating and air-conditioning units, which means no driver layoffs in the slow season.

“We like to train young people and let them gain knowledge on the job,” Bicknell says. “Drivers and technicians stay with us, so we don't have a problem with turnover.”

Delivery Schedules

Drivers begin their routes by stopping in at the office to pick up delivery tickets generated by a degree-day software system from Symat Inc. “We've been using this system for about 15 years,” says Bicknell. “Drivers just pop the ticket into the meter when they make the delivery.”

Product is bottom loaded in all but two older trucks. The company switched to bottom loading in 1996 as part of a spill-protection initiative. In order to load a truck for delivery, drivers enter their identification number and truck identification number into a PetroVend controller system at the rack. When driver and vehicle are identified, the system will report the cargo tank capacity.

Loading racks are equipped with Scully overfill protection that works in conjunction with ITT Industry pumps that move product at 450 gallons a minute. A Veeder Root register and Liquid Controls meter are part of loading rack equipment. Loading arms are from Emco Wheaton.

Truck chassis are from Volvo and newest ones come equipped with Volvo 275-horsepower engines and Volvo automatic transmissions. “Our drivers like the automatic transmissions,” says Lloyd Barber, fleet maintenance manager. “We like them because they eliminate clutch maintenance problems.”

Other Volvo trucks have Fuller six-speed transmissions and 225-horsepower Caterpillar engines.

Newest Tankwagons

All 15 cargo tanks were fabricated by Boston Steel & Manufacturing. Newest vehicles have single compartment, 3,200-gallon capacity tanks. The aluminum Boston Nude style tank is equipped with Boston reel, Blackmer pump, Liquid Controls meter, Goodyear hose, Scully nozzle, Betts emergency valve, Scully overfill protection system, and Reel-Eze remote reel rewind. A Chelsea PTO-controlled meter area is tied in with truck parking brake, reel brake, and emergency valve. A larger tankwagon is on order that has a single compartment capacity of 5,500 gallons.

A new two-compartment 10,500-gallon Heil DOT407 tank trailer is on order at Bay State Truck & Trailer Inc. It will replace the 9,000-gallon Fruehauf tank trailer in service since 1976. The new trailer has a stainless steel frame and is equipped with Hendrickson's Intraax air-ride suspension, Alcoa aluminum wheels, MeritorWabco antilock braking system, and Conmet preset hubs. Tank components include Scully bottom-loading equipment and vapor recovery, Scully overfill protection system, and Knappco internal valves and domelids. A veteran Mack R-Model tractor with a 350-horsepower Mack engine and Fuller 10-speed transmission is used with the tank trailer. The company also has 40 Ford service vans in the fleet.

Vehicle Protection

Tankwagons are carefully monitored in winter and are parked in the five-bay shop every night to protect them from cold. Each bay can accommodate two trucks.

Phillips & Temro Industries' Zero-Start fuel heaters are specified on all trucks to maintain fuel oil at a temperature above 30° F. “At 25 degrees, oil will start to gel,” says Barber.

Mechanics work on truck engines and brakes, and perform routine maintenance on tanks, but meters are sent out to a shop in Braintree, Massachusetts, for repair.

Maintaining current equipment and purchasing new vehicles are part of the long-term planning of expansion for the company.

“We are going to try to grow in the future by acquisition,” says Bicknell. “We are one of the largest fuel oil distributors in this area, if not the largest, but we see the market moving forward. One of the fastest-growing businesses in this area is home air-conditioning. Our expertise in plumbing and installation puts us in a good position for a share of that market. It's also through those contacts that we often expand our fuel oil business. And it's our reputation for four generations of customer service that helps us retain it.”

About the Author

Mary Davis