When State Oil Co. is training its area managers, store managers and customer representatives to operate its Marathon and Phillips 66 gas station/c-stores in Illinois, the company knows it wants “friendly faces and good service.”

“We emphasize always saying ‘hello’ when someone enters the store,” President Pete Anest says. “It is important to make sure you acknowledge the customer so they are noticed and feel appreciated. We want to make sure [employees] have nametags on and are learning the names of frequent customers. That’s really important. We want them to stay upbeat and positive, even if they have a complaint, because that will keep getting them coming back.”

In addition to friendliness, State Oil Co. also requires cleanliness, stressing the importance of clean bathrooms and clean floors during training.

But that’s not all the stores emphasize. At one location in a small, rural town, the store is known for its great pizza, which is a top seller. At its dozen c-store gas stations in the area in and around Rockford, Ill., employees make fresh sandwiches each day, and these have also become a big hit.

Although State Oil Co. is a gasoline distributor, it knows store profits often come from running c-stores, not just gasoline sales. While gasoline may reap profits of 10 to 20 cents per gallon, products inside the store such as candy bars generate 30 or 35 percent, Anest says.

Therefore, with increasingly volatile gas prices, stations increasingly focus on the convenience store side of their business, as well as their car washes. In fact, at State Oil Co. stations, customers who push the “yes” button and buy a car wash receive a discount of 10 to 20 cents per gallon.

The car washes can be another lucrative side of the business for State Oil Co. Although they require an initial investment to build, once up and running the car washes do not require much additional investment other than cleaning chemicals and maintenance. And most importantly, the washes offer a convenient service for motorists.

“People want the convenience of a one-stop shop where they can get gas, food, snacks and also a car wash,” Anest says. “Everyone is looking for convenience to do all their chores without making too many stops.”

Of course, the success of all these endeavors gets back to its employees’ attitudes. State Oil Co. treats employees with respect and promotes from within, Anest says. Some employees have spent their whole careers with the company, working there for 30 or 40 years.

State Oil Co. owns many Illinois gas stations, operates others and supplies still more with gasoline. State Oil Co. partners with brands Marathon and Phillips 66, as well as Citgo, Clark, BP and Shell to brand the stations.

Loyalty cards

In September, State Oil Co. rolled out a new customer loyalty card program. Anest says the company saw the popularity of such programs in the current marketplace and determined the concept would fit its business well.

“They are pretty simple programs,” he says. “There are explanations to the consumers, explanations for the cashiers and key tag scans at the pumps when purchasing fuel or inside the stores purchasing goods. There will be fliers, and we’ll have the cashiers promoting the program.”

The cards will allow for discounts. For example, if customers buy a certain number of soft drink or coffee products, they may obtain a free one, receive a coupon or earn points for savings.

Rags to Riches 

Hard work and perseverance have been part of State Oil Co.’s culture since the very beginning. Its founders, brothers Bill and Pete Anest, emigrated from war-torn Greece in 1947 at the ripe ages of 12 and 13, uneducated and with nothing but the clothes on their backs. 

When arriving in America, Bill Anest knew little English and acquired his basic education serving in U.S Army during the Korean War, where he was stationed with a Greek regiment. When he returned to America, he was determined to go into business with his brother. They felt the auto business was very profitable at that time but it required too much capital to enter, so they purchased a closed gas station on the South Side of Chicago. 

Determined to Succeed

The Anest brothers worked seven days a week from six a.m. to 10 p.m., negotiated six months’ free rent and convinced salesmen to place their goods in the stores on consignment. They also created positive public feelings so that word spread in the community and business grew for four years until it became the highest grossing station in the city.

Then, the brothers were looking for ways to expand so they took a chance on a Round Lake, Ill., Texaco distributorship that was selling 69,000 gallons a month. 

Four years later by 1972, business had shot up 160 million gallons a year. During oil shortages in 1972 to 1974, business began to really boom as prices soared. This occurred as many competitors became frustrated and decided to sell out of the business, creating fresh opportunities for State Oil Co. By then, State Oil Co. was building, leasing and operating stations as well as acquiring other businesses. 

The brothers have been dubbed prime examples of achieving the American Dream and were honored as such in a 1986 celebration of the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were on hand as the Anest brothers were lauded for their achievements and participation in a $5 million plan to rehab Lady Liberty.

When asked the secret of his success, Bill Anest replies, “hard work.” And, at the ripe age of 80, he still comes to work every day.

“This is a very competitive business,” Anest says. “You have to have good location and a facility to accommodate the consumer.” And, in keeping with the store’s emphasis on customer service, he notes, “It’s a very pricey product so we must always be friendly and courteous to the consumer.”