By Maura Keller
In the corporate world, reaching the threshold of being 100-years-old is fairly uncommon, as such a long-standing history means a company survived the ebbs and flows of the economy, technological advancements, evolving political environments, and the ups and downs of business cycles. Foster Fuels is one such company, celebrating 100 years of growth, innovation and zeal.
Foster Fuels began in 1921 when L.H. Foster, a World War I vet, arranged with Texaco to become the area’s first Texaco jobber. Before that, he worked diligently fulfilling the community’s needs by delivering flour, ice, and lamp oil on an ox-drawn cart. As Chelsea Harrison, vice president of marketing at Foster Fuels explains, Foster’s two sons, L.H. Foster, Jr., a wounded WWII vet, and Watt (Bobby) R. Foster, continued their father’s work and expanded the business by acquiring other jobbers.
Watt R. Foster, Jr. purchased the company from his father in 1988, and began implementing changes that revitalized existing divisions and began pursuing the addition of new divisions, including Foster Fuels’ Hearth and Home, Fuel Quality, and Mission Critical divisions. In addition, Foster Fuels has continued to explore new product lines and services by adding renewable fuels, diesel exhaust fluid and Jet A to its line of products.
“Foster’s Propane and Hearth and Home divisions have also seen remarkable growth within the past decade,” Harrison says. “Because of the decisions made to invest in state-of-the-art equipment, eight office and showroom locations, and three acquisitions, Foster’s service capabilities, territory, and customer base have been bolstered.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel in 2003, mass power outages covered Virginia and 80% of its counties were declared disaster areas. The destruction caused by the hurricane prevented many fuel companies from responding to their clients in adverse conditions. In response, private businesses across Virginia contacted Foster Fuels to supply them with fuel, because other companies either could not meet the demand or had been damaged by the hurricane themselves.
“They were so successful that Foster capitalized on the hole in the market and developed a new division, the Mission Critical division,” Harrison says.
As Harrison explains, many huge risks have been made through this growth journey, including being the first company to offer guaranteed emergency fuel delivery nationwide.
“Initially, the Mission Critical division was a Virginia-based service for private companies. In the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel in 2003, businesses in Virginia were in dire need of fuel for their generators. With mass power outages across the state and 80 percent of Virginia’s counties declared disaster areas due to Hurricane Isabel, businesses had to rely on generators to operate,” Harrison says.
Then, in 2004, the Mission Critical division expanded by offering its services in multiple states. After Hurricane Ivan, the division started to service private businesses in Florida. Hurricane Ivan had battered the state through tornadoes, storm surges, and other weather-related devastation, which resulted in a number of deaths, billions of dollars in insurance claims, and damaged power plants in Florida.
“Due to the extent of the damage caused, fuel providers who typically serviced private businesses could not operate or be contacted, thus preventing businesses from receiving fuel assistance,” Harrison says.
As stated by the United States Department of Energy, fuel providers who were under contract with private businesses to service them could not meet their obligations because “hurricanes changed these expectations and dealers could not communicate their needs due to repeated communication failures.” To counter this, retail chains that had been clients of Foster Fuels during Hurricane Isabel in Virginia requested that Foster Fuels service their Florida operations as well. This marked the Mission Critical division’s transition to being a multi-state service provider.
Just a year later, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina prompted major changes in Foster Fuel’s Mission Critical division. Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast and the amount of devastation created by this natural disaster was extensive. To cope with the scale of this emergency, Foster Fuels was hired as a subcontractor to help deliver fuel primarily to areas along the Gulf Coast.
According to Harrison, this natural disaster caused Foster Fuels to do more than expand the area it serviced; it trained the Mission Critical division to operate under severe transportation constraints and to service the needs of the federal government during one of the nation’s worst natural disasters.
Foster Fuels continued to work as a subcontractor for Landstar, the company that it subcontracted for during Hurricane Katrina, from 2005 until 2008. These years served as training for the next stage of the Mission Critical division’s development.
“In 2008, Foster Fuels decided to contract on its own with the government and received its first direct contract with a government agency, the Defense Logistics Agency,” Harrison says. Under this contract, Foster Fuels would be required to provide fuel to the DLA for emergencies in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and Texas. Foster Fuels followed through on its contract and provided fuel to the DLA in both Louisiana and Texas after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Also, the DLA added Kentucky to Foster Fuels’ contract, enlarging Foster Fuels’ service area after an ice storm in Kentucky in 2009.
“Following this pattern of growth, the Mission Critical division continued to increase in scale,” Harrison says. In 2010, Foster Fuels accepted its first international emergency response call. To assist with Operation Unified Response in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the United States military contacted Foster Fuels to ask if the company would provide fuel assistance.
“Foster Fuels accepted and within 24 hours had employees and equipment ready to depart for Haiti,” Harrison says. “Despite transportation, sanitation, and housing issues created by working in a disaster area, Foster Fuels fulfilled its contractual obligations and even became involved in philanthropy efforts by donating necessary items to the relief effort.”
In 2011, the Mission Critical division received a new DLA contract. When it went into effect, it covered the same areas as the 2008 contract but was revised to include six more states. Subsequently, Foster Fuels became responsible for providing emergency services in 14 states.
Foster Fuels used all its learned strategies and planning during an emergency response to areas affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The Mission Critical division set up a base of operations at Fort Dix, New Jersey and at over fifty other areas that were capable of supplying 600,000 gallons of fuel daily. Using this method, Foster Fuels was able to deliver over five million gallons of fuel for this particular response alone.
“Testifying to Foster Fuels’ response and customer satisfaction, the DLA awarded Foster Fuels Mission Critical division a new contract in 2014 that differed from previous contracts,” Harrison says. “Unlike the previous contracts that were mostly regional, Foster Fuels’ new emergency response contract with the DLA expanded Foster Fuels’ services area to include the entire contiguous United States.”
In 2019, Foster Fuels was awarded prime contractor for the largest emergency fuel contract for the federal government. The contract covers propane, diesel, gasoline, and Jet A fuel across the U.S., Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
“Overall, the Mission Critical division has developed rapidly, but proves to have the necessary experience with fuel services to anticipate client needs during an emergency,” Harrison says.
Family and philanthropy play a huge role in Watt Foster’s life. Watt Foster Family Foundation donates over $300,000 a year to disadvantaged children, scholarship funds and local charities.
Serving on local boards and coaching local youth sports are part of it, too. Harrison says, “It is Watt’s intention that this foundation grows over time and leave a legacy of giving for many Foster generations to come.”
In 2014, the Foster family donated a 500-acre parcel located in the Blue Ridge Mountains to a local church for the establishment of a camp for inner-city youth. In 2017, the camp hosted over 2,000 children and is growing.
“The Foster family has put a heavy focus on supporting initiatives that their employees care about. Whether it be sponsoring employees’ kids’ sports teams, donating to organizations employees are passionate about, annually giving to employees’ local churches, or however it may present itself,” Harrison says. “The Fosters have made it a point to support their employees. They have also started an internal scholarship program that awards qualified employees and their kids funds for continued education. Providing support in these ways fosters a sense of pride in the work and company their employees have invested so much time in. We also participate in fundraising events, fundraising opportunities, and local charities throughout the year.”
Over the last year, the company kicked off the FosterGives campaign to increase its community involvement and impact. Foster Fuels also gives towards continuing education for their employees, offering exclusive scholarships for employees and their families.
In addition, Foster Fuels supports all U.S. Armed Forces branches with fuel essential to their mission.
Harrison says, “We have a section on our website called Veteran Salute where we ask customers, employees, and family members to share stories of either their personal experience or someone else’s experience, such as a loved one or local citizen. We hope to continue to honor those who have served and those currently serving by assisting organizations supporting them and maintaining the Veteran Salute page.”
The company plans to continue its efforts for growing Foster Fuels’ Mission Critical division. This consists of building on their network of over 1,200 partners, investing in innovative equipment, and expanding the division’s service territory. Currently, its customer base is global, and requests have come in from Canada, Western Europe, and Asia.
“Though Foster Fuels has seen tremendous growth in recent years, handling and sustaining it, while still maintaining high-quality service is the challenge. Building a strong foundation that starts with honest, hardworking people has been our solution to sustainable growth,” Harrison says. “Investing in education and tools like technology, safety, quality facilities and equipment, has created an environment that attracts high-level talent who share in Watt’s entrepreneurial vision.
As an innovator in fuel-related solutions following disasters, the company plans to continue to develop best practices, investing time and money in industry research and utilizing more advanced technology.
Freelancer Maura Keller is a longtime contributor to Fuel Oil News.