By Stephen Bennett
Cohler Fuel Oil Co. was established 76 years ago and now Allan Cohn, the third generation of his family to run the business, said he is looking to Bioheat as “the gateway to a renewable energy future.”
Cohn said, “I actually trademarked that line.” He had the line included on custom-made decals to promote Bioheat. He trademarked it to keep it away from the natural gas industry, Cohn said. But that doesn’t mean he won’t, in the best interests of the fuel oil industry, share it: “I am happy to share it with anyone in the industry,” Cohn said. “If anyone is interested in using our custom made Bioheat fuel decals for their trucks, vans or boiler labels, they should contact us at CohlerFuelOil@aol.com.”
Cohn also calls Bioheat “a great stepping stone into the future,” but said the fuel does not get “the respect it deserves in the industry.” He said Bioheat “has proved itself to me to be absolutely incredible, and I am a skeptic when it comes to new things.” What convinced him?
“We’re opening up boilers that haven’t been brushed and cleaned in two years and they’re virtually spotless,” he said. “It’s something we’ve never seen.” Burners have to be adjusted and maintained properly, Cohn specifies, but “when they are it’s just amazing. There’s a major difference. I’ve never seen combustion like this, ever.”
Cohn’s experience with the fuel goes back three or four years, starting with B2, meaning that two percent of the fuel was renewable, and the balance was 15 ppm ultra-low sulfur fuel; now he is dealing B5, he said. Cohler Fuel Oil buys its B5 from Bayside Fuel Oil Corp., Brooklyn, N.Y., which in turn is supplied by biofuel producer Renewable Energy Group (REG), headquartered in Ames, Iowa.
“Once it was proven to me how good the Bioheat fuel product is, I actually delivered it to our customers for two years before I even mentioned it to them,” Cohn said. “We had some minor issues,” Cohn said. “And I do say, ‘minor,’” he emphasizes. “For whatever reason there were some seal leaks– all minor. No dangerous ones.
“We had some filter cans leak,” he adds. On that point, Cohn offers advice: “Check the integrity of those filter cans when you do your tune-ups,” he said. “If they’re pitted, get rid of them. Put in the epoxy-coated ones.”
Because the industry now has such a clean-burning product, it should make a big play for attention, Cohn said.
“We have to be seen as viable in the general marketplace to be competitive and to remain viable as an industry,” he said. “Aiming for the new home market is a way to do that.”
By targeting the new home market, “I hope we’re going to create the perception that our product is good enough for the general marketplace,” Cohn said. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve come across that have purchased a home of an existing customer only to say ‘People still use oil to heat their homes? They still make that?’”
Cohn proposes a pilot program to install Bioheat equipment in new construction and in “gut renovation” projects. Bioheat-compatible equipment would be offered at “greatly reduced” price in return for a commitment to use Bioheat for some number of years, Cohn suggests.
A coordinated effort to target the new home market could be undertaken by equipment manufacturers, local trade associations and local dealers, working together.
Cohler Fuel Oil today operates from the same office on 14th Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y. where it was founded.
“My grandfather, Abe Cohn was a plumber and he had this same office that we’re working out of now,” Allan Cohn said. Abe Cohn started his plumbing business in 1917, and lived in three rooms behind the office. In 1939 Abe joined forces with his son-in-law, George Wexler. They came up with the name for their new fuel oil business by taking the first three letters from Cohn and the last three letters from Wexler: Cohler Fuel Oil.
Allan Cohn’s father, known as Larry, returned from Army service after World War II and for the next forty years he ran the full-service business, doing installations, coal-to-oil conversions and, in the mid-Sixties, marketing and installing Shell Oil Co.’s “Shell-Head” burners. They featured a combustion head for domestic oil burners that was designed to cut fuel consumption through “more thorough mixing of oil and air,” according a news item published in The Chicago Tribune. “He was sick of soot and he wanted to maintain a long-term relationship with his customers by helping them use less fuel,” Allan Cohn said of his father.
Allan started working in the business as a teen. “I worked with the old-time mechanics in the summers, learning how to do tune-ups, learning basic oil burner and boiler controls,” Cohn said. “I was always mechanically inclined, working on cars and building motorized bicycles.” But when he got out of high school, Cohn recalls, “I swore I’d never work with my father. My mother said, ‘Well, either you get a job or you go to school.’ I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I went to school.” After college, Cohn said, “I got a job for $105 a week and it’s sitting at a desk where I was falling asleep so I quit after the first day and I called up my father. That’s how I ended up in this business for thirty-five years. I wasn’t cut out for a desk job.”
Cohn worked in sales, service, on a delivery truck, “learning how things operated.” His father, Cohn said, “felt that I should know all aspects of the business and I did learn them.”
The fourth generation, represented by Allan’s son, Ben, started helping, surreptitiously at first, when he was still in junior high school. “He’d see me come home eight-thirty, nine-thirty at night and start calling people who were delinquent on their payments,” Allan Cohn said. “One day he said to me, ‘You know Dad, I could do that.’” Allan recalls that his son’s voice “hadn’t even changed yet.” Allan describes the exchange with his son that followed:
“You can’t do that,” Allan Cohn said. “You’re only a kid.”
“Give me one or two,” Ben said, meaning one or two delinquent accounts to call.
“No,” Allan Cohn said. “I’m not doing it. It’s not professional.”
Without telling his father, Ben took the list, and called a few people. The next day a customer was on the phone to Allan Cohn.
“The girl in your office called me last night,” the customer said. “I’m sorry I missed a payment…”
Cohn said now, “That’s how my son started working for me.”
Ben Cohn, 26, started full-time in the family business six years ago, after high school. “He always loved business,” his father said. The son has seen his father adapt business practices to suit the times and the prevailing economic conditions.
“In 2013 a voice came into my head from my Pop,” Allan Cohn said, referring to his father, who died in 1991: “When oil prices are high you better tighten your credit.” Cohn went into action, compiling a list of about 30 customers that had multiple properties–largely, though not exclusively, commercial accounts.
“We spoke to them on an individual basis and we explained to them we didn’t have the credit available to us like we used to,” Cohn recalls. The customers were advised that they must keep their accounts current. “Most of them didn’t comply,” Cohn recalls, “and that November we let go about a half a million gallons of yearly business.”
Cohn remembers, “My accountant felt it was a mistake, but I told him, ‘What am I going to do in February when I run out of money? I can’t carry these people.” Of the decision, Cohn said, “It hurt–but I’m still here. And we’ve been doing that every year since then–making decisions as to who’s going to stay with us and who’s not.”
In the broader, long-running effort to revitalize the fuel oil business, Cohn said, dealers should support their local associations and the American Energy Coalition. Cohn serves on the marketing committee of the AEC. Spreading the word about ultra-low sulfur fuel oil and Bioheat should not be left to associations and renewable fuel manufacturers, Cohn said. “It’s up to individual dealers to spread the word to their customers and to the general public as well.”