By Nicholas Upton
Safety is imperative in the fuel oil business. Not just because of the lost time and product, it paints a dismal image of the fuel oil industry as a whole.
Every time a spill occurs—let alone a more serious accident—people take notice and ponder the efficacy of that oil-burning boiler in the basement.
With that constantly in mind, Buxton Oil in southern New Hampshire strives to keep safety among the highest priority components of the business.
“Oil companies have not had the best image in the past 20 years, and we have been trying to change that image bit-by-bit,” said Donna Buxton, the second-generation owner of Buxton Oil.
The company, started by her enterprising father 50 years ago, serves as a beacon for fuel marketers as far as safety goes. She said there isn’t a magic bullet or some trick to safety; it’s just a lot of hard work and discussion.
“Safety is something that you have to work on every day. Don’t just have a meeting then forget about it—you have to talk every day,” said Buxton. “When we read in the paper about one of our competitors having an accident or a wrong fill, we take that and talk about it and say, ‘What could we have done better?’ so that doesn’t happen to us.”
New technologies in the past years have really helped drivers stay safe on the road. Since the move to cellphones, she said things are a lot less distracting in the cab.
“We changed a few things in our industry so that the drivers aren’t distracted as much. Instead of them having two-way radio or a page or anything, now everything is texted over,” said Buxton. “So when they stop, they can get accurate information, they don’t have to write anything down and they can read it at a stop safely.”
Creating a transparent business culture helps keep things in check.
“We’re a firm believer in communicating—if you see something wrong let us know. It’s not that we’re going to fire you; we just want to fix it,” said Buxton. “Whether it’s an accident a wrong fill or a spill, call us immediately, just so we can fix the problem, learn from it and move on.”
She said they also do an intensive annual safety meeting where they cover everything.
“We have a big annual meeting where we go through everything from coming in in the morning and pre-checking your truck, making a delivery making sure the tanks are vented, that they listen to the whistles, when they drive they don’t text and drive,” said Buxton. “We just touch on every single aspect.”
Their rigorous safety protocols coupled with new industry requirements for drivers of hazardous materials have pushed their safe record even further.
“When the drivers come to us, of course they have to have the CDL, hazmat and quite a few of them get the TWIC card endorsement as well,” said Buxton. “Long gone are the days where anyone can drive an oil truck, now it’s more of a specialty. They have to go out and get those specialized licenses and keep a clean record and pay attention.”
Working in the same community for so long has also taught the Buxton staff many things about the area. And working with the city and customers to make sure everything is running smooth—or gritty in some cases.
“We’re always calling the town to make sure the road in and out of our facility is sanded—we’ve actually sanded it ourselves a few times to get the trucks out safely,” said Buxton.
She said that culture of safety keeps her drivers from getting into slippery situations in pursuit of their delivery.
“I always tell my drivers, ‘If it looks like it’s too icy, don’t do it. I’d rather have you not make the delivery of 150 gallons than lose a $130,000 truck and risk an environmental spill,’” said Buxton. “Then we call the homeowner and make arrangements to get back to them as soon as we can.”
She said customers are typically understanding when a delivery is missed, and quite appreciative when drivers end up throwing down their own sand or salt. The worst driveways actually turn into a sales opportunity.
“Some customers who have really bad driveways, we try to talk them into automatic deliveries,” said Buxton. “We track the weather every day. So if we’re tracking a bad snowstorm and we know all the people with bad driveways, we try to get them prior to the big storm and we don’t have to worry about them for a little while.”
All that safety focus has certainly made things easier for the company since it means fewer accidents, spills and general headaches. But their long and spotless record also earned them a big industry award.
In 2013, they were given the Leader in Transportation Safety award for their extremely clean record.
“That was an award that we got from New Hampshire Motor Transport Association,” said Buxton. “Our insurance company actually had submitted a name and wrote a story about us —unbeknownst to us—because we have such a clean record.”
She said the recognition was some great validation for their extreme efforts in the safety realm.
“We got a call one day that we were getting this amazing award because we haven’t had a reportable accident in three years; which is unheard of in the trucking industry,” said Buxton. “They had us up to Concord and had a big award ceremony and they also had a big barbeque for all of our employees because it’s really the employees at Buxton Oil that makes it all work.”
She said simply paying attention is the central piece of their safety puzzle.
“We pay attention to safety, we pay attention to driving we pay attention to driving,” said Buxton. “We’re a company that just plain pays attention.”
Diversifying With Water
It’s a tough decision to lay off trained seasonal drivers and just hope they don’t get another job during the warmer months.
“None of us like to lay off seasonal drivers. And all employees want a full-time job, they want a vacation, they want benefits, they want sick days. They want all that and we want to provide it,” said Buxton. “So we had to come up with something to do in the summer time to keep these guys busy. We decided that we have the tractor-trailers; we have the drivers, why don’t we fill swimming pools?”
With that in mind, the Buxton family diversified with an offshoot water company.
“They said oil and water didn’t mix, but here at Buxton Oil, we made it all work!” said Buxton.
It didn’t just work, the company became a thriving entity in it’s own right by finding smart synergies with the oil company and working to expand beyond their original business objective.
“When I first started in the water business, we were just doing a couple swimming pools to keep people busy. My father was an entrepreneur who had numerous companies including a well-drilling company,” said Buxton. “As time went on, we ended up drilling our own wells and building our own water plant. So now we can get water 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and through our processing plant, we’re now certified water haulers as well.”
Leveraging her call center, Buxton was able to offer water customers something that is rare for the deliverable water market.
“What I’ve found in the water industry is that most water companies close at 4 p.m. and that’s it, you can’t get in touch with them,” said Buxton. “But since we share the same lines as the oil company, we answer our phones 24-7. So if they’re having a big fire somewhere and the fire department needs an emergency water delivery, they know they can get in touch with us 24-7. And we’re able to get our own water 24-7.”
All that water flowing keeps her staff busy in the off months, allowing Buxton to retain great drivers with steady work and a nice change of pace.
“It keeps three or four drivers busy all summer long where back in the day, I would lay them off and hope I could re-hire them,” said Buxton. “But a really good employee, you want to keep; you don’t want to let them go.”
And because oil is so regulated, when summer comes, it’s a great break from the rigorous job of delivering fuel.
“It breaks up the monotony for the drivers as well, and it gives them something different to do. And with water, if they spill it, who cares!” said Buxton.
The local and state government even asked Buxton to expand on that business.
“It was an amazing well, so the town and the state were trying to get us to develop it, and finally we did develop it and certified it for drinking water,” said Buxton.
Now, those two facets of the company are neck-in-neck as far as revenues go, and has engrained them further in the community and local businesses.
“The water company has grown into a huge company in its own right,” said Buxton. “We built a water plant where we process and treat drinking water for hospitals, condo associations, towns, state facilities.”
And since they are both seasonal, neither business saps valuable resources during the very different peak times for water and oil delivery.
“It’s been a nice fit and it works well with the oil company,” said Buxton.
Great Work Garners Big Honors
Their stocked trophy case includes honors from their chambers of commerce and the New Hampshire School Administrators Association for the company’s work volunteering with children’s programs.
But the biggest nod came from Business New Hampshire magazine which awarded them the Business of the Decade award for their work to get heating to everyone regardless of their financial hardships and great success overall. Buxton said it was a great honor for her and her father.
“It was an especially proud moment for us. It was the year my father was dying,” said Buxton. “It was nice that he could go knowing that we’d done well.”
The honor was especially poignant because it is typically reserved for major institutions and huge businesses.
“One of the judges said we were the only family-run business to make it to this level,” said Buxton.