Balancing the Scale --Small Fuel Distributors Benefit from the Internet

Sept. 1, 1999
The Internet is a great equalizer - it provides crucial information for anyone who can type in a web site address or fill in a search field. This means

The Internet is a great equalizer - it provides crucial information for anyone who can type in a web site address or fill in a search field. This means that managers of small fuel oil dealerships, petroleum marketers, and storage terminal operators have resources that formerly were available only to major companies. These companies have immediate access to a tremendous amount of data that previously would have taken long, tedious, and expensive searches. Since many companies in the industry are small, the Internet can play a significant role in widening their scope on regulations, safety, products, and other subjects pertinent to operating efficiently.

At the same time, technology has enhanced the ability of large companies to expand their research capabilities. Although companies of all sizes benefit from traveling the information highway, small companies are especially fortunate to have facts at their fingertips that even five years ago would not have been available without a large budget and a research department. Fortunately for all, industry associations have taken a lead in providing web sites filled with information to help their members - and others.

While web site navigation devices are helpful, content is the primary consideration. Yahoo! And, we don't mean the web site operator. The Petroleum Equipment Institute (PEI), Tulsa, Oklahoma, posts not only the organization address, telephone, and fax numbers on the home page, but flags the web site search engine at the very top. As a result, people who often face Internet search frustration find unusual repose. Allowed to kick back, they easily reach the names of member companies, products, and operations. Snagging information on the subsequent pages becomes downright easy - or to put it in the e-commerce vernacular, the site is extremely navigation friendly.

PEI members are from companies located throughout the world that manufacture, sell, install, and service petroleum-related equipment used in service stations, terminals, bulk plants, fuel oil and gasoline delivery, and similar marketing operations, according to the web site.

Members have dedicated pages requiring a password to enter. They have access to the newsletter, instructions and information, safety, and the Young Executives division (members ages 21 to 45). Membership information isn't the only subject well covered. The web site provides sections about new products of member companies, along with product specifications and company contacts.

Contributing information to members is one way the site fills its niche. Another way is to include information for non-members in the industry who may be interested in documents on specific subjects. They can join members and select publications from a catalog on the site, print the order form, and mail or fax the order to PEI. (On-line ordering isn't available, but considering the web site's sophistication, it won't be surprising to find that convenience added soon.) Publications listed include a definitive dictionary of terms used in petroleum marketing operations, recommended practices for installing and testing recovery systems at vapor vehicle fueling sites, and OSHA rules regarding fall protection as applied to petroleum marketing equipment operations.

On the web site home page, the search form remains at the left of the screen for further adventure. Meanwhile, at the top of the page (center) an index is standing by for clicks to 30 other subjects, including a list of members.

Further research is available through links posted on the site. There are links to industry trade associations, major oil companies, publishers, and government agencies. Also convenient are links to subjects on alternative fuels and material safety data sheets (MSDS).

Another topic of interest, underground storage tank upgrade requirements, is accessed from the home page. Statistics on the 1998 requirements by state and territory agencies are posted.

For less technical information, click on the meetings button. The web site's excellent design is apparent in the pages that discuss the annual meeting, PEI Convex 99 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Unlike many organizations, PEI provides information that goes beyond the date, place, and time. The section has an index that provides all sorts of details, including currency exchange rates; distances from various United States cities to Toronto (both mileage and flying time); a map of downtown Toronto with hotel and convention center locations, subway and light transportation lines; and a link to the Toronto tourism web site. Now get this! If you want to send a postcard in advance of the trip, the Toronto tourism site will let you do that via e-mail.

With all this information available on its easy-to-use site, PEI could afford to rest on its laurels, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Several pages are undergoing updating, and more information is being added to make an excellent site even better. The Independent Liquid Terminals Association (ILTA) web site keeps members abreast of two key issues affecting the industry - sulfur reduction in gasoline and underground storage tank rules. Buttons at the left side on the home page make it convenient to find these topics.

ILTA is an association that represents bulk liquid terminal companies that store commercial liquids in aboveground storage tanks and transfer products to and from oceangoing tank ships, tank barges, pipelines, tank trucks, and tank rail cars. The organization headquarters is in Washington, DC.

Further convenience on the web site lies in the home page index where a click leads to a page for terminal members and supplier patrons. Once there, they can order material via e-mail for ILTA meeting schedules for 1999-2000 and registration information for regional meetings and workshops. Papers presented at earlier meetings can be ordered.

Lists of terminal and supplier members are available directly from the site. People who are interested in joining the association, or who wish to subscribe to the newsletter, have e-mail forms available.

Plans are on the drawing board to add pages that will present order forms for supplier and terminal member directories.

According to its web site, the purpose of the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA), Washington, DC, is to promote the safe and increased use of propane; work for a favorable environment for propane production, distribution and marketing; and to demonstrate the value of propane as an energy source. The association has extended those criteria in the design of its pages. On the home page, for example, members can click to a promotional intended to encourage marketing to manufactured housing. Turning to safety, NPGA makes a CD available that discusses overfill prevention devices. And with recruitment in mind, membership applications for supplier and international companies can be downloaded for faxing. Too, congratulations are in order for NPGA listing its contact information on the home page.

NPGA membership includes small businesses and large corporations engaged in the retail marketing of propane gas and appliances, producers and wholesalers of propane equipment, manufacturers and distributors of propane gas appliances and equipment, fabricators of propane gas cylinders and tanks, and propane transporters.

Members and other visitors to the web site home page will find buttons at the bottom that lead to information on membership benefits, meetings and programs, officers and staff, news bulletins, and approved links. The link page provides connections to various industry associations and related companies and other organizations. There is no excuse for not being politically active after visiting the web site of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America (PMAA), Arlington, Virginia. PMAA has an interactive area that links electronically to information about members of Congress and state legislatures. Don't know who represents you? Just type in your zip code for the names, addresses, and committees the politicos sit on. Want to contact them? Click on the e-mail line. For more information, there are links to the representatives' web sites.

The PMAA web site won't let ignorance of issues be an excuse for not participating in politics, either. Two publications, The Weekly Review and The Capitol View E-Letter, discuss industry issues in Congress and around the nation. Representatives in Congress who are sponsoring bills friendly to PMAA-supported goals are listed so that their constituents will know what bills they sponsor and how they vote.

Political information may play a starring role on the web site, but PMAA hasn't forgotten many other subjects involving the industry. The home page has buttons leading to pages on, but not limited to, member services, organization meetings, and industry links. Just as the political links are useful, so are the connections to web sites for member associations, government, related business, and corporate sponsors. The association also provides links to various web servers.