Daigle Oil Company has grown into more than just an oil company today with brands that have become familiar to people living in Northern Maine. Founded in 1955 by Guy Daigle in Fort Kent, Maine, the business (DOC) started with one fuel truck delivering fuel oil and kerosene to Fort Kent and surrounding areas. Mr. Daigle, a stickler for providing good old-fashioned customer service, expected nothing less from his staff. Today, the customer service driven company has grown its scope of services since 1955, offering a range of heating, cooling and alternative energy products and services to their customers. DOC delivers oil, kerosene, propane, bulk wood pellets, gasoline and diesel; installs and services heating and cooling systems and sells alternative heating options. Familiar brands include DOC, DOC’S Place, DOC PROPANE and DOC BIOFUEL. DOC’s Place motor fuel locations, eight in total, are located in Northern Penobscot and Aroostook counties Maine, and depending on the location, sell gasoline, diesel and car wash services. It may have taken one man’s vision to create DOC, but it now takes a team of 175 employees to run the day to day operations of the company.
At the helm are partners, Rick Daigle and Dan Vaillancourt, who continue to develop and refine the company’s product line in order to meet the various energy demands of their customers. The two most recent product additions, as a result of this demand, include propane in 2010 and bulk pellets in 2012. DOC delivers both propane and pellets in bulk and also sells, installs and services propane and pellet heating equipment, such as propane tankless water heaters, and pellet boilers. ‘Our operation has always included both motor fuels and heating oil and heating oil has been and remains a major product for us,” said DOC President Dan Vaillancourt. ‘We also sell a substantial amount of commercial diesel through our retail divisions delivering diesel primarily to the agricultural, forestry and construction industries.”
Vaillancourt noted that while all of its operational areas are exciting and challenging in different ways, the one that is most active today in terms of growth is propane. ‘Growing the company’s product line with alternative heating fuels has been encouraging. About three years ago, we made the decision to enter the propane market with our first gallons pumped in June of 2011,” Vaillancourt stated, ‘and along with propane we began selling, installing and servicing propane equipment such as boilers and water heaters. We’ve been at it about 2 1/2 years and our growth has been steady and we’ve worked hard on controlling our growth,” he said. While the impact of adding propane was immediate, wood pellets have been a bit slower out of the gate. ‘The pellet business is growing,” said Vaillancourt. ‘It’s been a slow growth business and we’re certainly not at a level where we need to be but it’s only a year and few months old so it’s a little early. We are confident that it is something that we are going to be in but it is going to take some time.”
Vaillancourt noted that one disadvantage is that wood pellet heating systems are more expensive than conventional oil and propane units. This includes the storage aspects, installation and the self-feed/self-clean heating appliances. ‘There are volume thresholds where wood pellets work better than other options,” he said. ‘If somebody is going to use 400 gallons of heating oil per year then probably heating oil or propane is where they should stay. Each case is different, but there is a threshold where pellets are an option.
One challenge with a diversified operation is maintaining a level of core competency to maximize efficiency and returns. With operations ranging from traditional fuel oil delivery to operating a retail convenience store, that concern is not foreign to DOC. ‘Staying efficient is a fairly major challenge because two of these businesses are new to us and we’ve been adjusting over the last couple of years,” said Vaillancourt. ‘About five or six years ago, we made the decision to try geothermal and solar as an attempt to discover what we were good at and what our customer base was interested in. Ultimately, we decided to exit both areas for there was minimal demand. It’s difficult to become an expert when requests for a particular product or service are infrequent, so we decided to stick to the other core competencies within the company.”
The diesel fuel and liquid product delivery business is something that is not new to DOC since bulk distribution has been a specialty for the company for almost 60 years. Even there, the company works to be as efficient as possible. This is evident in how it handles the delivery drivers in the off season. Part of that involves using seasonal drivers to help meet the winter heating demand. However, the company has other initiatives for its drivers that not only utilizes labor effectively, but also creates an interesting work environment for the employees. ‘We have a number of employees who are dual licensed,” said Vaillancourt. ‘They have their hazmat CDLs for trucks and they have burner licenses on both the oil and propane side so we can schedule them on installations in the summertime. We’ve been able to manage it well and we’ve been able to attract people that are willing to get their various licenses.”
DOC’s diversification carries into its retail gasoline division as well. Out of the eight locations the company operates, only three have convenience stores. Two of those are mini-marts and one is a larger C-store format. One is a gasoline unit that is a ‘pumper” with just a kiosk and two islands set out in front of one of the heating oil offices. DOC operates a carwash at five of the locations with one unit maintaining an automobile full-service bay. The major issue with diversification for the company has been on the HVAC side relative to the time required for the various technician training programs, which has only increased as the company moved into propane, wood pellets, air conditioning and heat pumps. ‘The HVAC side has been a bit more of a challenge for us as we bring our technicians up to the level of efficiency and accuracy that they need to be at,” said Vaillancourt. ‘We are there now, but we are always tweaking.”
As touched on earlier, that issue was certainly in play with the move to propane, even though in concept there are many similarities. ‘It’s a completely different code in terms of the regulations,” said Vaillancourt. ‘We’ve had a strong service department for many years and they all grew up on the oil side and are very good. But on the propane side, installation and service is very different and technical. Our biggest challenge was to bring our people to a level where we and they were comfortable with the propane equipment that we are installing and servicing. We invested in a tremendous amount of training and incurred a large expense to get ourselves up to speed.” For all of the challenges involved with running a business as diversified as DOC, going that route was unavoidable. It is increasingly a challenge for the traditional oil dealer to continue without some diversification, but that challenge only increases with the geography where the company does its business. Vaillancourt noted that northern Maine is sparsely populated and the fairly large county in which DOC conducts business has a population of less than 70,000 people. ‘In order to be able to survive here, for a company of any size, you need to be doing different things,” he said. ‘It’s always a challenge to do them well. As a customer focused company, we continue to operate and build our business with the customer in mind.”