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    BP Dealers Protest in Florida

    Nine independent Amoco operators set to lose their leases picket BP's South Florida headquarters.

    MIAMI -- More than 40 friends and family of nine independent Amoco operators picketed BP's South Florida headquarters yesterday to vent their anger over the loss of their convenience store leases.

    The group contends that after making the Amoco convenience stores financially successful, BP is reneging on deals to extend the leases so the London-based oil company can run the businesses itself. BP acquired Amoco in 1998.

    "We want the public, basically, to know what is happening to us," said Dimitrios Koutsodendris, who operates a store in Miami, in explaining why the group is staging a protest. "After putting in the time, money and effort, they want all of this back and they don't give us anything."

    While chanting "BP is unfair to me" and "Amoco don't make us go," the dealers, some of whom need to be out of their store by Saturday, carried signs reading "BP Amoco is forcing us to run on empty" and "BP Amoco filled up -- then took us for a ride." They were joined in their crusade by Jack Merkl, a former Exxon Mobil Corp. executive who is campaigning for a seat in U.S. Congress.

    "There are nine dealers who have been given a rather raw deal," Merkl, a Republican seeking to unseat Robert Wexler ( D-Boca Raton, Fla.), told the Miami Herald. "Normally, you wouldn't think it'd be that newsworthy, but they all seem to have the same story."

    To gain support for their cause, the dealers hired the TransMedia Group, a Boca Raton agency that specializes in event promotions. "We're building up a significant media response, and it has all been positive for these dealers" Michelle Rosen, director of broadcast media for the group, told CSNews Online. "Some of these people put their entire life or retirement savings into their stores and built them up to be among the top money-making locations in their markets. Now BP just wants to take them over and reap the benefits."

    Rosen said additional demonstrations are planned for the weekend, which includes a sit-in Saturday at the West Palm Beach store of John Griveas. His lease expires Sept. 7, Rosen said.

    A BP Spokesman declined to comment on the case. "We don't comment on matters that are under litigation," said BP spokesman Richard Judy said in a statement to the Miami Herald. "The one thing we are comfortable saying is that we are absolutely confident that we have not only handled the contracts with them legally, but we have handled them fairly."

    Rosen had a different take. "The employees at BP's headquarters in South Florida did not want to face the cameras; they refused to come out," she said. "I think they realize that what their company is doing to these hard-working store owners is unfair."

    The dealers claim they had verbally agreed to two four-year extensions once their current leases expired. Instead, they say, they received letters from the company in February informing them that the leases wouldn't be renewed and that they would have to turn over the keys at the end of the leases. The leases for eight of the nine stations -- located in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties -- expire over the next few weeks. The other lease, with Jose Fernandez in Miami-Dade, expired Aug. 12. A federal judge denied Fernandez's request to continue to run the business until the matter was litigated. That station is now operated by BP, Judy said. Whether the company will continue to run it or will find another tenant hasn't been determined, he added.

    The Petroleum Marketing Practices Act, passed in 1978, addresses the disparity in bargaining power between multinational energy companies and individual franchise operators, according to Robert Levine, a Miami lawyer representing the operators. He said BP didn't want the operators falling under the protections of the law, so BP had them sign "commission marketer" contracts. Those contracts don't give the operators the rights held by franchisees, according to the Miami Herald.

    "We have alleged this program was created to circumvent the act," Levine said. "It's your classic David-and-Goliath battle." The suits accuse BP of fraud and violation of the Florida Deceptive Unfair Trade Practices Act.

    Wong Kim, who operates an Amoco station in Miami-Dade, said BP should pay him $350,000 if it won't extend his lease. He invested about $150,000 in the business, he said. In the meantime, Kim is worried about how he will support his family and pay for the education of his two college-aged children. "When I lose this station, I have no future," he lamented. His lease expires Sept. 27.

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