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Guest view: Lessons from a look back on business history

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Pictured at left is a building at 215 N. Prince St. in Lancaster  that Rhoads Energy occupied in the 1930s and 1940s, using it as the company's primary office, a service station and retreading facility. Pictured at right is an early Quarryville service station operated by Rhoads.
Pictured at left is a building at 215 N. Prince St. in Lancaster that Rhoads Energy occupied in the 1930s and 1940s, using it as the company's primary office, a service station and retreading facility. Pictured at right is an early Quarryville service station operated by Rhoads. - (Photo / )

Not many companies have the privilege of marking a century of continuous operation. So, this year, as Rhoads Energy turned 100, we wanted to make the most of it.

Part of our celebration involved research into our company’s history: How did it all get started, and what made it last? As we delved into the archives to answer those questions, we realized how important it was for us — and for any business — to ask those questions. We also learned how closely our growth and evolution have mirrored that of the Lancaster region. Several shared themes emerged during our research.

Evolving with the marketplace

In 1917, kerosene was just emerging as a viable alternative to coal. Jerome Rhoads, our founder, saw an opportunity where others didn’t, and built his first success as a kerosene provider. Since then, obviously, the way consumers and businesses use energy has changed continuously. By necessity, Rhoads Energy has changed with them. Instead of kerosene, we now offer heating oil, natural gas and propane. As consumers and businesses have become more aware of energy costs and their environmental footprints, we established and rapidly grew a division focused on high-efficiency equipment.

Diversification

In 1917, Lancaster was largely an agricultural community. Back then, Rhoads Energy installed tanks on farms and sold fuel to farmers. While agriculture is still an important segment, Lancaster’s business community has grown much larger and more diverse: sectors like manufacturing, logistics and technology have taken turns as growth areas for our economy. That diversification has made our economy more resilient and less vulnerable to threats. For exactly the same reasons, Rhoads Energy has worked hard to diversify our business. Twenty years ago, we were primarily a heating oil provider. Since then, we’ve pushed our geographical footprint into five counties and found new niches, like helping school districts transition to greener, cheaper propane-powered school buses. As with the business community at large, diversification positions Rhoads to weather downturns and seize opportunities.

Michael DeBerdine III
Michael DeBerdine III - ()

Redevelopment and revitalization

There’s no doubt that the Lancaster area has enjoyed a stunning renaissance over the past few decades. A huge part of that resurgence has involved redevelopment in downtown Lancaster. Dozens of dilapidated buildings have been transformed into appealing shops, thriving businesses and community resources. Rhoads Energy embraced that trend back in the early 2000s when we built our headquarters on a reclaimed brownfields site – a building that now anchors a growing business park. This year, we’re refurbishing a nearby building to serve as our corporate Training Center.

Strength through community

One big reason for our region’s success: a broad-based belief in supporting causes that lift us all — particularly those in need. We see this with highly visible efforts, like the United Way campaign and the Extraordinary Give in Lancaster, and in individuals quietly volunteering their time. Like many businesses, Rhoads Energy devotes substantial resources to charitable efforts. Why? First, this commitment underscores that we are not doing business in the community, but we are in fact woven into the fabric of the community. Second, our founder, Jerome Rhoads, established charitable pursuits as part of our core mission. Finally, it’s simply good business: A healthy, happy community makes for a better place for us to work and live.

Overcoming challenges

Over 100 years, our region has dealt with economic downturns, natural and manmade disasters, and other obstacles to success. Like any business with a long history, Rhoads has had its share of challenges — including a huge one that pushed us to the brink. In the late 1980s, new regulations required that buried fuel tanks must be unearthed. We undertook an expensive, years-long process to remove potentially unsafe tanks that Mr. Rhoads had buried decades earlier— a process that pushed our company to its fiscal limits. To fund remediation of the tanks, the company sold off most of its assets: gas stations, a tire retreading plant, and more. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. The lesson I took from this: character is revealed during times of strife. In that way, our response to the challenges of the past help to define us as a company — or a community.

Looking back at the 100 years of our history has been a profoundly beneficial exercise for Rhoads Energy. It underscores how closely we are linked to the community at large and reveals important insights about who we are. Like most business people, I like to keep one eye focused on the future. But I also learned the value of looking back — something I’d recommend to anyone that hopes to celebrate 100 years in business.

Michael DeBerdine III is president and CEO of Rhoads Energy, part of The Rhoads Energy Family of Companies, which offers heating oil, natural gas and propane delivery; HVAC installation and service; and fleet fueling services. In 2017, the company celebrates its 100th year of continuous service. The organization serves Central Pennsylvania through Rhoads Energy and other brands including Boyertown Oil & Propane, E.G. Smith Inc., and Vincent R. Boltz. For information, visit www.RhoadsEnergy.com.

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