Global Partners is in a state of constant evolution. The Fortune 500 company, with $12 billion in revenue, operates more than 1600 gas stations, owns 12 million barrels of oil storage capacity and employs thousands of people across North America.
But back in the 1930s, it was simply known as Slifky’s Reliable Oil Burner Service, operated in Dorchester, Massachusetts by Polish immigrant Abraham Slifka. “My grandfather had a storefront where he was delivering home heating oil,” says Eric Slifka, CEO and director of Global Partners. His uncle, Richard Slifka, is the chairman of the board.
Things began to change when Eric Slifka’s dad, Alfred, took over. “My dad went into the business in the 1950s and they started to acquire companies. The family lore is he was driving down the street in Dorchester and there was an oil truck in front of them. He stopped, got out, started chatting with the owner of that business. That night they went to the lawyer’s house and he bought the company from them.”
The Waltham-based company has continued its rapid growth since then, acquiring competing businesses left and right. In the 1980s, it got out of retail and went into terminaling and wholesale business of home heating oil and gasoline. Other than brief stint in the late ‘90s and early 2000s where Slifka reported to an independent board made up executives from Repsol YPF out of Argentina, the family has owned the billion-dollar company since its earliest days. In the mid 2000s, the company went public.
Eric Slifka came into the business after graduating from Boston College. “My dad was a great mentor and he would just take me into business meetings. I got to see everything before I even went into college. When I got out of college, I learned all facets of the business and pretty much had every job in the company back then.”
Getting into the healthy foods game
This decade Global Partners has continued its evolution, most recently launching a new convenience store concept called Alltown Fresh. The fresh food outfit, with one standalone store and a few more on the way, may seem like a strategic left turn for Global Partners, but Slifka calls it a personal mission. He also sees a business opportunity for a company that operates numerous gas station convenience stores already.
“I am a firm believer in organic and natural foods. I believe the consumer is trending in that direction, but that’s also how I eat personally. And I think the trend is in that direction,” he says. “We’re trying to create an experience where a mom or dad or somebody who is interested in eating healthy can have fresh food choices and made-to-order meals with local produce.”
Most highway convenient stores have foods with long shelf lives, which makes this fresh food undertaking a challenge for Global Partners. The company is working with local partners to source the food and ensure its fresh and continually delivered to the market several times per week. Alltown brings in organic fair-trade coffee, something you’re more likely to see in a high-end café or boutique grocery store, rather than a roadside stop.
He calls the focus on healthy food a throwback to the 1960s, when people could stop at places on the side of the road and get really good food. “The bottom line is I think there is a need for this and a desire that our guests want fresh, healthy options while they are on the road or while they are fueling,” says Slifka.
Pivots happen all the time in the world of business. Play-Doh went from a potential wall cleaner to one of the most famous toys of all time. For Slifka, it makes perfect sense that a one-time home heating oil company has evolved into a billion-dollar enterprise, which is trying its hand in the healthy foods industry.
“As an organization, you need to continually be entrepreneurial and you need to seize upon trends. You need make sure you are in front of those trends…You have to make sure we evolve and change as the markets around you change.”
At the same time, Slifka tries to maintain a family culture at the company, even as it grows and evolves. One of the key methods to keeping this mentality is through charitable giving. “We rally around charity here. I feel very strongly you have to take care of people and you’ve got to treat them the best you can,” he says.
To get where you want to go as a company, Slifka says CEOs and boards need to surround themselves with people who are passionate about what they are doing. “If they’re not passionate about it and it’s sort of a day-to-day job, you are going to have trouble executing. You’ve got to find someone who loves what they do and then you have to support them in every way you can.”