Being brothers does not guarantee a profit when it comes to sharing a business. In some cases, being brothers does not even assure friendship. But the fact that these two men are best friends in addition to being brothers has certainly helped them grow what is now a three-generation company.
Holt Oil Company has not only thrived, but expanded since its inception 71 years ago. Now run by Charlie’s and Henry’s children, the business is stronger than ever because of the brothers’ ability to work together and because they have been creative and open-minded.
Known for years primarily for keeping homes warm in the winter, Holt Oil branched out by adding gas stations, 21 of which it currently owns and operates, 15 in the Fayetteville area and six in Wilmington.
There is a check in the Holts’ scrapbook dated September 2, 1925. It was written by their father, William deR. Holt, for the purchase of gasoline. He started off with a gas station, and when people began heating with oil, he bought a truck and delivered oil in five-gallon cans, then poured it into customers’ tanks. He franchised with Pure Oil and stayed with that company 33 years. Holt Oil was incorporated in 1939.
Charlie Holt graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1956 with a double major in history and business. His education was interrupted by a hitch in the Army from 1952-55. After college, he tried the life insurance business, working with Russ Crowell.
“That didn’t go so hot,” Charlie said. “Nobody could afford life insurance, and that was all I had to sell. Insurance companies didn’t deal in annuities and the other things they have now.”
In 1960, he started working with his dad, who died in 1964. Henry left Campbell College in 1962 and spent six months in the Army before being given a medical discharge because of a foot injury. He went right from the military to the family business, taking over the TBA (tires, batteries and accessories) division. He replaced Paul Alligood, who had to stop working because of illness.
“I ran the company,” Charlie recalls, “and Henry was out on his route during the week. Sometimes, if we got behind, we would both jump in the truck Saturday and make deliveries down in Robeson County. Back then, we had a big farm business, selling gas, diesel fuel and kerosene.
“The company did some heating and air conditioning work for a while. I remember how that started. Henry sold an air conditioner to a lady in Vanstory. He closed the deal in a shirt and tie that morning, then installed it that afternoon.”
After Pure, Holt Oil bought gasoline from Cities Service (now Citco), Gulf and then Atlantic Richfield.
“Atlantic Richfield had 10 service stations in Fayetteville,” Charlie says, “and they leased those to us for a very reasonable price. That is how we got into the service station business. In 1972, Atlantic Richfield pulled out of the whole east coast, and they sold us those 10 stations, again for a very good price.
“We didn’t have a supplier, and we were fortunate to get Amoco. It was a brand that was very well established with a great reputation. They had lead-free gasoline before the government even talked about it. Our service station business jumped 40 percent the first week after we put up the Amoco signs.
“Every business has got to have a break to really succeed,” Charlie says. “Ours was when Atlantic Richfield left and we got Amoco. That is when we started to make money.
“The service station business really got us going. It is tough, though, because it’s high-volume, low-margin. People think we make big money when gasoline prices go sky-high, but we price our gas based on what the competition does.”
Holt Oil Company has had many outstanding employees over the years, but none more valuable than Mildred Melvin.
“She was our bookkeeper,” Charlie says. “I didn’t know anything when I started out, and she taught me everything. She was my best teacher and role model. Mrs. Melvin was like our mother here at work. She let Henry and me know if we were doing something wrong in our work or in our lives. She kept us straight.”
In the mid-90s, Amoco sold out to BP. “It was one of the worst days of my life,” Charlie remembers. “They were great people to work with. They had the best petroleum products, the best public acceptance and good community relations.”
Holt Oil currently has 21 stores that sell brands of gas including Exxon, BP, Liberty and Mobil. Charlie is the company’s Chairman and Henry is the CEO. The president is Louis Cox, whose wife, Sarah, is Charlie’s daughter. Hannah Holt, his other daughter, is the secretary-treasurer. One of Henry’s sons, Walter, is the office manager. The other son, Bill, oversees stores located in Wilmington. Charlie and Henry own the business along with another brother, Billy Holt, who lives in Greensboro.
“We have changed a lot,” Henry says. “If we had not converted to the retail gasoline business, we would have been out of business. We still have around 300 customers who heat with oil, but we’re down to one truck. We have gone to the country-store look for our stores, and four include restaurants (three Subways and a Blimpie).”
“The company has changed completely,” notes Charlie, who took time from 1963-85 to serve as a Fayetteville city councilman, as Fayetteville mayor and in the North Carolina Legislature. “We have gone from farm business and home heating to gas stations and convenience stores.”
Through it all, he and Henry have remained buddies as well as brothers who share a business.
“We have had our disagreements,” Charlie says, “but we weren’t disagreeable. We didn’t get horribly angry.”
“We have worked together, played golf and gone fishing together,” Henry says, “plus, we see each other every day at work. We like being around one another.
“When our kids were coming along, it kind of evolved that they worked with us. It wasn’t that we told them it would be that way. Charlie and I were ready to slow down, and we were going harder than ever. We needed some help. It’s nice having our children around. They make our business better. Charlie and I give our strong opinions, but they run the company.
“Charlie is pretty much retired, and I’m about half-retired. He comes in almost every day and is very involved in decisions. I leave the house at 5 o’clock in the morning and ride the streets, looking at gas and diesel prices around town. I tell Louis the prices, so we can make ours competitive.
“We enjoy our lives,” Henry says. “It has worked out well for us. It isn’t always that way with families and business. Sometimes family members get jealous. Another thing that can hurt is if one of them doesn’t work. We are fortunate that our children get to work on time and do their jobs. And they do a good job.
“They are not out for themselves. They are interested in Holt Oil Company.”
Thad Mumau is a local writer, knowledgeable about much more than sports nostalgia which he focuses on in his regular City View column.