A lot has changed in the propane industry, particularly for a business in its fourth generation. That’s the Brooks family in Marshfield.
Brooks Gas Co. began in 1947 when John William Brooks started selling gas ranges, and it naturally made sense to supply the fuel along with them.
“My grandfather said we Brooks are unemployable by anyone else, so we had to go into business,” says Johnny Brooks, the founder’s grandson, with a laugh.
Today, the company still sells gas ranges and propane tanks but also distributes the fuel commercially and has expanded into hearths, fireplaces and HVAC equipment sales and installation. The bulk of the business is in supplying propane, while 10% is split between appliance sales and service calls.
Johnny started doing jobs for Brooks Gas at age 13 in the mid-1960s, from painting propane tanks to digging ditches.
“The biggest change from my experience is the technology. Tank levels used to be checked manually, and now we have remote satellite monitoring, so we know when a tank is at 20% and can dispatch a bobtail,” Johnny says.
A bobtail is the industry term for a propane truck. Johnny says Brooks Gas had a dozen trucks at one time, but with new technology and larger vehicles, they now use six.
“But with that technology comes less interaction with the customer, and for me that’s very different,” he adds. “Today, we have some customers that I’ve never met.”
Brooks Gas has roughly 2,000 customers, located in its home base of Webster County and six surrounding counties.
Johnny’s brother, Joe, took over the company when their father Bill died suddenly in 1989. The brothers co-own the business today. Joe is president and Johnny’s mostly retired but still remains involved.
Brian Brooks, vice president and a fourth-generation family member, joined the business in 2007. He says the biggest challenge facing the current generation in the business is insurance coverage for the company and employees.
“Liability costs are extremely difficult to forecast,” he says. “For several decades, there have been less than a handful of companies willing to take on the risks that propane poses on the surface. The past 10 to 15 years, however, we’ve seen a stabilization.”
According to Travelers Insurance, propane distributors face unique risks, beginning with the handling of pressurized gas tanks and lines and the lawsuits that follow when accidents happen that run into the millions of dollars.
When it comes to operational costs, wholesale pricing and personnel are at the top.
“The biggest factor driving costs in our business are the crude oil and natural gas markets,” says Brian. “Historically, the price of propane followed crude oil, but in the past decade it has started to follow the natural gas market.”
Currently, he says the average cost per gallon of propane in Missouri is about $1.42. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, which tracks the nation’s weekly propane costs, listed Missouri pricing as high as $1.80 per gallon in the last 18 months.
Brooks Gas has 18 employees, including 11 drivers and service staff, five office personnel and two transport drivers that bring the propane in from the terminal.
“Like most small businesses, employee benefits are the biggest challenge to managing our operational costs,” Brian adds.
COVID and customer service
The company’s also been adjusting to the impact of the coronavirus.
“The COVID pandemic has presented many challenges to our industry,” says Brian. “Our employees still have a significant amount of interaction with the public. We visit homes, offices and factories to perform safety checks that are mandated by law, and to service their appliances.”
He says the company has added safety measures to address it, and no one’s been furloughed.
“We were able to keep everyone with full hours,” he says.
For now, he says it’s hard to predict how the pandemic will affect propane demand.
“The summer months are slower,” says Brian. “It’s more active in the fall and winter so we’ll be watching for how things look by midfall.”
In the meantime, he says the focus is on customer service.
Jack Freeman, owner of Marshfield Lumber & Supply and an area homebuilder, has been a 30-year customer of Brooks Gas.
“If we needed gas furnaces, tanks or gas fireplaces I used them,” he says. “They do a wonderful job.
“If you have a furnace problem in winter at night and it’s cold, they will help you.”
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