It’s rare. A family owned business well into it’s third generation is definitely rare. But so are gems. And that is Genesee Fuel & Heating Company. A rare gem of a local, family-owned and operated business with a history of quality customer service since 1929.
Family business experts say that only about 30% of U.S. family-owned businesses turn into second-generation businesses, and far fewer—approximately 12%—are passed down successfully to a third generation.
Every business has a story. Genesee’s story is unique in it’s successful succession to the third generation. It is also a classic story of the ups and downs in business in an ever changing economy.
The story starts with this 25 year old entrepreneur, Gordon Clark, who moved to Seattle to be near his brother, Russell Clark. In the spring of 1929, Gordon needed work and Russell needed a change, so they decided to partner up, and bought the business Genesee Coal & Stoker, as it was called back then.
Unfortunately, just a few months after buying the business, the stock market crashed. It was the beginning of the great depression, and Genesee Coal & Stoker was in a world of hurt for several years. Keeping their customers as their top priority, then paying their employees and taking care of bills, the Clark brothers lived on pennies, often going months without pay checks for themselves.
Times were tough throughout the 30’s, up to the start of World War 2. Although the war brought hard times for most Americans, Boeing brought thousands of workers and their families to the Seattle area. Local businesses, such as Genesee Fuel, in the industry of meeting people’s basic needs were fortunately able to maintain a steady flow of business throughout the war.
Post war was a time of growth. Home heating was shifting and soon after the war, the Clark brothers began the switch from coal to oil.
In 1958, Gordon’s one and only son, Don Clark, graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Business Administration. Like many fresh college graduates, Don didn’t quite know what to do next, so Russell Clark (don’s uncle) swiftly handed him a broom. Don quickly learned that in a family business, you don’t always get the job you’re most qualified for, but rather the one that needs to be done.
Shortly after, Gordon handed him a set of keys, and Don started driving oil delivery trucks. Don quickly learned the ins and outs of the business and moved into sales. Soon after Russell retired, in 1964, Gordon Clark passed away unexpectedly, leaving the company to his 27 year old only child, Don. And so began the second generation.
While at the helm, Don rose as an industry leader serving thirteen years as Director of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America (PMAA), President of the Oil Heat Northwest Advisory board, and two terms as the President of Oil Heat Institute (OHI) of Washington. During his reign, he became the lead spokesman in the industry for the media particularly in 1973 during the Energy Crisis, also know as the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, when oil and petroleum products became scarce, and prices skyrocketed. While not sure himself as to what the future would hold for industry, Don maintained a sense of composure while continuing to deliver oil and service to his customers through the prevailing dilemma.
Although the economic instability of the industry made for rough ride, the era of Don Clark as President of Genesee Fuel was that of growth. Through his never wavering ideal that put customers first, Don grew the company from 800 to 6000 customers establishing Genesee Fuel & Heating’s outstanding reputation delivering oil in the Seattle area.
Fast forward to today, Don’s only son, Steve Clark is current President and CEO of Genesee Fuel & Heating Company.
But, as turbulent as this business had been throughout the years, it wasn’t as if any of Don’s four children were chomping at the bit to get a piece of the action. Upon graduation from Oregon State University in 1988 with a degree in Finance, Steve worked in the investment industry for about 5 years. During that time, working with clients, he was exposed to private businesses and became acquainted with small business owners. “That experience allowed me to see the gem I had in my own family. In ’93, Dad was wanting an exit. As I thought more about it and discussed the idea with other family business owners, the sense of legacy became stronger”. So, in 1993, Don handed Steve the broom, so to speak.
As the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Steve’s core values maintain the concept that customers come first, a standard laid out by his grandfather 85 years ago. And like his father, Steve continues to grow the business by making acquisitions and is on his way to being an industry leader as he begins his two year term as President of Washington Oil Marketers Association (WOMA) this June.
In like manner, this third generation is also going to make his own mark, forging the company in a new direction. Recognizing a shift in the public trend toward more renewable, clean burning fuel options, the company launched it’s Genesee Propane division in December 2011. That division is servicing both residential and commercial propane customers in the greater Puget Sound area.
There is an old saying about family businesses, “the first generation starts it, the second generation runs it, and the third generation ruins it”. So far, not the case with this company. But, will this family-owned business endure a 4th generation? Odds are against it, however, if history repeats itself, the fourth generation of Clarks will find a way to carry on the legacy started by Gordon and Russell Clark in 1929.