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By Mehgan Belanger
Joe Petrowski, the CEO of Cumberland Farms and Gulf Oil, has the ability to captivate audiences with a mix of far-reaching intelligence and quick wit. It is no doubt these qualities -- as well as his more than 30 years of experience in the energy industry with companies including Louis Dreyfus Energy and Consolidated Natural Gas Energy -- have helped bring success to Gulf Oil during his time leading the petroleum marketer.
For instance, while discussing the strategic evaluation and planning of growth opportunities for Gulf and Cumberland Farms, Petrowski, a Harvard College alum, quoted the proverb, "Every battle is decided before the first shot is fired." This explains why he and the senior management from both companies all gather frequently to decide where and how to grow. He then adds, "you determine where you are going to enter. Then you execute."
His sense of humor shines through when discussing his new role at the top of both companies. "Besides the paycheck, the other value of being a CEO is you get to choose where you want to weigh in. Some days I say 'Oh boy, I've got an opinion on marketing.' And they respond 'That's a great idea, but go back to your office.' So it allows you to pick and choose what you do on any given day."
He continued: "It's like being a coach, some days you work on the defense, and some days on the offense. And some days you are sitting in the tower catching sunrays."
However, Petrowski may not have time to get much of a tan, based on his list of goals as he heads up Cumberland Farms, a leading c-store operator in the Northeast, and Gulf Oil, a top petroleum marketer for the region, both of which are looking to grow their businesses and scope of operations.
Petrowski holds three major goals in his role as group CEO. The first of which is to be profitable and very efficient in the lines of operation for both companies, as that is the desire of shareholders, he said.
His second goal is to create an organization that fosters pride. This requires developing the companies as employers people want to work for, and an entity with which customers want to do business. Achieving this "will build the customer base and attract capital," he said, adding "our integrity, honesty and commitment to customers and employees will create an aura that allows us to be successful."
Petrowski's final goal is to internally create a fact-based, analytical, learning company. "We don't know what the future holds for biodiesel, where we will go in foodservice, or what convenience customers will want deep into the 21st century," he said. "If we create an organization that is analytical, we will be elastic and able to respond."
When Petrowski sat down with CSNews for the January cover story, the recession had not been officially declared, yet its effects were clearly being felt. Oil prices were falling steadily, and the upcoming holiday season was predicted to be the worst in decades. Yet, with this as a backdrop, Petrowski was still able to be excited and optimistic about business.
"We have a great selection of assets that start with our people. We have almost 8,000 employees with an incredible amount of warmth right down to the store level. We have good sites, and good plants. We are in a great financial state, thankfully, and with drop in oil prices, we are getting back to a situation of a more normal market. Credit card fees and financial working capital are more back to normal," he said, noting he acknowledges there will be some challenges ahead. "On a macro level, we're in for tough times, but it's nice to be in a strong financial position in a recession-resistant industry with good assets."
Doing business in recessionary times is not new to Petrowski, who learned the lesson of proper diversification during difficult times early in his career, during the late '70s when he was 26 years old, a new homeowner and working with commodity firm Louis Dreyfus.
"The Jimmy Carter years were not good for the commodity business. There were 20 percent interest rates and a severe recession. The company I worked for had been around for 160 years, but was stressed because all of its business was in agricultural exports," he explained. "We had diversification ... but all the businesses were in industries that were either all good at once, or all terrible at once. And I had a mortgage for a $100,000 house with a $500 per month payment, and I was worried if I would be able to pay it or not."
He continued: "The two great stagecoach companies of the 19th century were American Express and Wells Fargo. Most people today don't know American Express as a stagecoach company. The largest company in 1901 was American Ice and Coal, a company that no longer exists. Companies morph, and I don't know what we will be in the future, but our job is to spread the risks around, be excellent in what we operate and think strategically. And the company will go on for years."
Petrowski remains modest about his role at the top. Acknowledging a well-known business philosophy, he said, "I would rather be a mediocre performer in a great business, than an outstanding performer in a weak business."