In 2004, Dale O’Neal saw an opportunity. He had been working for about 20 years with Coastal Tankers Corporation and that operation was beginning to wind down. So he arranged to buy the 25-year-old mini tanker Anne from Vane Brothers in Baltimore to launch a new company, Maine Coast Petroleum. With a business focus on delivering petroleum products to the islands of midcoast Maine, the tanker was crucial to the new company’s success—but shortly after bringing the Anne to Rockland he ran into a glitch.
“We discovered that, to comply with Coast Guard regulations for New England waters, the vessel needed a cofferdam, basically a space to act as a safety buffer between the engine room and the nearest fuel tank,” O’Neal explains. “So the Anne was going to be out of service for about six weeks while the cofferdam was being installed and we had lined up a supply of new customers [many of whom had done business with Coastal Tankers] who needed fuel.”
The solution to this problem—the purchase of a fuel truck he could use to ferry petroleum to various islands—would lead to an unexpectedly positive result.
“Once the Anne was in service, we didn’t really need a truck, but we had it, so we put an ad with the picture of the truck into the Courier Gazette and said we were offering heating oil at a competitive price.”
As a result, in addition to plying the bay in the Anne, going from Frenchboro to Monhegan as well as from boat to boat with gasoline and diesel, O’Neal also drove the truck, making deliveries to local commercial docks and homes, often late into the night.
“After six months of doing both, I finally realized I needed to hire some help,” he laughs. Now with three other truck drivers and five trucks—along with a second tanker, the Duff, acquired from Vance Brothers in 2009—Maine Coast Petroleum has developed into a bustling enterprise. O’Neal credits office manager Terry Banda with managing the impressively complex juggling act of meeting the year-round demands of supplying fuel on both sea and land.
Unlike big land-based oil companies with large fuel storage facilities, Maine Coast Petroleum only uses its two mini tankers, which operate from Schooner Wharf in Rockland, to store the fuel it sells. The petroleum comes from a supplier near Augusta, which loads the tankers. The trucks are loaded from the tankers. The trick is in the timing, notes Banda.
“We have to factor in the schedule of marine deliveries to islands and ships with land deliveries,” she says. “In summer the tankers are constantly busy running from island to island and from ship to ship. And the commercial docks keep the trucks busy. Sometimes our Augusta supplier makes several trips a day to keep the tankers loaded—a cruise ship can take on a lot of fuel at one time.”
Luckily, when the summer demand begins to ebb, the home heating fuel market starts taking up the slack. “The house end of the business has been responsible for bringing the company along,” Banda points out. “The secret to our success is that we are busy year-round.” So, without planning it, purchasing that first truck really paid off.
Another aspect of the company’s success has to do with location. It would be easy, even logical, for Maine Coast Petroleum to have set up its office in Rockland, says O’Neal, “but we’ve always been a Tenants Harbor company.” When O’Neal and his wife Kristin were first married they lived in Rockland, where O’Neal was born and raised. But Kristin, who grew up in St. George, advocated for the move back here (Kristin is part of the Parker family, which includes her sisters Terry Banda and Cheryl Parker, Maine Coast Petroleum’s accountant, and brother Jim, a local builder of wooden boats). That was 14 years ago, when their first child was a year old. There are now four O’Neal children to keep the couple busy.
“People like the feel of a small, local company,” says O’Neal. Being headquartered in Tenants Harbor on Route 131 south of the village, he believes, also helps keep the company focused on the human element of the service Maine Coast Petroleum supplies.
“I really like the connection to our customers,” O’Neal emphasizes. Banda, who also lives in Tenants Harbor with her husband Paul and their family (daughter Lindsay works part-time for the company), agrees. “We don’t give customers a number,” she says, “we just know them by name. We’ll also work with people to get them what they need for what they can pay. Some companies charge extra if a customer orders less than 100 gallons of fuel, but we’ll deliver as little as 20 gallons if that is what a customer can afford. We don’t want anyone to be cold. We just want to be local and reasonable.”
Every Thanksgiving, Maine Coast Petroleum announces a special bargain price for fuel oil, and the company participates with a variety of fuel assistance programs, including “Joe for Oil’ and the Penquis Community Action Program. Last year they donated 100 gallons of heating oil for a raffle benefiting St. George Days. The company’s community-centered focus also shows up in its sponsorships of the Muscle Ridge basketball event and Trekkers.
Maine Coast Petroleum has seen a lot of change and growth since O’Neal bought the Anne in 2004. 2014 will be no exception. The company is poised to send the Duff downeast for a major retrofitting to transform it into a double-hull vessel just in time to meet the mandate of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that all single-skin tank vessels be phased out by 2015. This will be a seven-month project. “The Duff project is unique,” O’Neal says, because most tanker companies build new rather than retrofitting to meet the law’s requirements.
For O’Neal, too, the Duff is worth saving because the vessel has become part of the Maine Coast Petroleum family. That’s the small-town attitude that has made Maine Coast Petroleum not just a successful business but also a good neighbor. —JW
For more information on the services Maine Coast Petroleum supplies go to www.mainecoastpetroleum.com or call 207-372-6962.