There have been some major developments since Hightowers Petroleum Company (HPC), a prominent gas and diesel wholesaler based in Middletown, Ohio, was profiled in April 2021 in Resource in Focus magazine. This leading, family-owned, African American business has expanded into new markets and has ambitions of becoming a billion-dollar company.
“The single biggest change is that we’ve engaged our upstream strategy,” states President and CEO Steve Hightower, “and we’ve started Hightower EV Solutions, where we’re putting [electric vehicle] charging stations throughout the country.”
In the fuel industry lingo, ‘upstream’ gas or oil production refers to companies involved in the identification, extraction, and production of raw materials. It is a broad category that covers surveying, drilling, manufacturing, oil sands mining, and other activities. ‘Downstream’ refers to post-production fields such as retail and distribution.
HPC’s upstream work centers on crude oil and liquid natural gas. Core downstream services include bulk fuel deliveries for commercial vehicle fleets, supply chain and inventory management, and emergency fuel supply. The company provides bulk fuel that goes into new cars coming off assembly lines at Honda, Nissan, and General Motors plants and also has clients in the sports, retail, utilities, government, manufacturing, and education sectors.
Given the surging popularity of electric cars, its move into the electric vehicle (EV) market makes good business sense. Launched a year and a half ago, Hightower EV is the third company to operate under the HPC umbrella. The other two are Hi-Mark Construction Group, which works on water and wastewater facilities in the Midwest and Eastern U.S. and HP Energy, which tackles infrastructure projects that enhance energy efficiency. Hi-Mark and HP Energy are both thriving, along with their parent company, Steve reports.
Hightower EV can design, build, and install electric vehicle infrastructure. In partnership with various tech companies, the turnkey service provider has worked on roughly 12,000 EV charging units nationwide.
“In some cases, we’re providing charging as a service. We go in and make an investment, say, for a retailer. We would actually bring the [EV charging] units in, and we would own them. We would do a profit share with the retail service station or hotel if they didn’t want to do the initial investment due to lack of early traffic. We would take on the risk,” he says.
For all the attention on EVs, HPC has no intention of abandoning gas and diesel.
“We focus on our customers where they’re at. We are a strong liquid fuels organization. That’s our core. That’s what built us. We don’t shy away from it. We try to bring in clean fuels and biofuels that are more ecologically friendly. Electric is a new fuel for vehicles, and our customers have expanded into that area, so we expanded with them,” Steve explains.
Unlike fossil fuels, biofuels are derived from living plant material. Ethanol, made from corn, is a common biofuel in North America, while fuel made from sugarcane is ubiquitous in South America.
The company’s business-to-business (B2B) fleet card continues to be one of its most popular offerings in the gas and diesel space. Used to purchase services and/or products, the card is accepted at thousands of gas stations and truck stops across the U.S.
The popularity of the fleet card “is growing tremendously. We’ve got over 300,000 cards in the marketplace right now, all commercial B2B. It’s saving many of our customers lots of money, and it’s growing very rapidly,” he says.
Hightowers Petroleum Company remains vigilant to the threat posed by COVID. While not as deadly as it once was, the virus has not been eradicated. “We’ve maintained a pretty strict protocol. We’re probably one hundred percent back to work. We are a critical business. People need to have fuel in the marketplace. We try to be pretty strict, based on lessons learned relative to mask-wearing in our facilities and common areas,” Steve says.
Now that the pandemic has hopefully peaked, trade shows and industry events that were shuttered or conducted online have reopened to the public. In recent months, he has been traveling a great, visiting trade shows in person to meet peers, promote the company, and network.
Another thing that has not changed since the last profile is the company’s ownership structure. The firm remains “one hundred percent” family-owned, states Steve. His son, Stephen Hightower II works as its chief operating officer, while his daughter works on contracts. Other family members, including a nephew, are also employed by the company.
“I’m extremely proud. If something were to happen to me, I know the business would continue to move forward,” he says.
Hightower family members participate in an array of business and community organizations, including the fuel marketing association SIGMA, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, the National Petroleum Council, the Cincinnati Opera, and the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE).
The company has ISO 14001:2015 certification for Environmental Management and ISO 9001:2015 certification for Quality Management. “When you talk about ISO, it’s not just words. It’s how you operate your business, how you document your business, how you continuously improve your business. We have customers that require, through their ISO procedures, that we are also ISO. A lot of the [original equipment manufacturers] require that. So, we have to maintain our ISO, our quality standards,” Steve states.
In addition to ISO, “We have continued to develop our ESG (environmental, social and governance) program that looks at ways in which we can reduce our environmental impact. Part of that would be Hightower EV Solutions. One initiative is to reduce carbon emissions, but there’s the social side of that as well. We’re continually making sure we’re doing the right thing by our communities—not just investing in our communities, but participating in the communities,” he says, adding, “Our company maintains its values of being an honest and socially responsible organization that has a reputation of working hard.”
Asked if he finds it odd that a company built around fossil fuels is so concerned about the environment, he says no. “It’s important for our company to remain relevant and forward-thinking. We know our customers. As they began to be forward-thinking, we also had to be forward-thinking. We never want to be the last horse and buggy on the street,” he explains.
HPC is not looking to get into hydrogen, touted as an up-and-coming miracle fuel for vehicles by some proponents. “I believe that the U.S. made a bet on electric as a primary fuel,” Steve says.
He anticipates that hydrogen will eventually make a mark in some parts of America, depending on federal government infrastructure funding. It is far too early for the company to get involved, given the nonexistent state of hydrogen infrastructure, and the company’s commitment to EVs.
In addition to the Middletown headquarters, HPC maintains offices in South Africa, New York, Michigan, and Washington, DC. The company has approximately seventy-five employees across all its companies, a number Steve believes will grow significantly once federal funding for infrastructure projects kicks in.
It follows a certain process when it comes to new hires. “Each and every time we go out, we look for the best possible person that we can. We don’t ask them about their politics. We don’t look at their color. We don’t look at their sexual orientation. We look at their qualification, abilities, attitude,” he says.
The result is HPC’s diversity, of which he is proud. The company is one of the leading African American fuel firms in the country. “We know there’s a level of uniqueness in our diversity, and there’s not much diversity in this industry. We’ve hopefully done a lot of things right,” he says.
Given the company’s ownership structure, it is not surprising that he describes Hightowers’ culture as family-oriented. “You have to be compassionate to your employees and their needs because they have families as well. My employees want the best for their families as well, their kids. Things happen, and when things happen, you have to be compassionate and understanding and try not to be strict or unreasonable when someone has a personal issue. You’ve got to support them, help them take care of it any way you can.”
Not counting COVID, he cites fuel shortages as the biggest challenge facing HPC at present. Global shortages and rising fuel prices are concerns that keep the company on its toes.
Still, Steve offers an upbeat forecast. “We really feel we can operate in the neighborhood of half-a-billion dollars. I am moving very hard to get to $1 billion over the next twelve months. That’s the ambitious part of me.”
Increased upstream business will likely drive this growth, he says. After reaching the billion-dollar mark, there is a new set of goals he wants to achieve. “Half a decade into the future, we want to be a global energy organization. At that point in time, then I can begin to look at possibly resting a little more,” he states, with a laugh.