75 Years of Innovation at White Mountain Oil & Propane

The management and employees of White Mountain Oil & Propane (North Conway, N.H.) like to think of their company as an innovation leader in the New Hampshire area. The business is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and it has sold propane for about 65 of those years. White Mountain Oil & Propane’s marketing director Dana Jones said it was one of the first in its area to sell propane, beginning in the late 1940s.
White Mountain BBQ

“The company has always been innovative in this region,” said Jones, who started as a truck driver with White Mountain Oil & Propane in the winter of 1978-1979. “They were doing whatever was new and modern.” In 1941, Ben Saunders and his wife, Ethel, formed the White Mountain Oil Company, which originally delivered range oil to houses, farms, and businesses around the Mt. Washington Valley area of New Hampshire. Soon after, Ben and his co-workers began replacing coal-fired boilers and furnaces with “modern” oil systems. He and his crew often delivered oil and kerosene all day and worked evenings installing oil burners and heating equipment.

Switching residents from coal to oil was one of the company’s earlier moves. Soon after constructing an office and kitchen appliance showroom in 1949, “They got into propane because that was something innovative. We were doing bottles, cylinder change-outs to start,” Jones noted. At that time, according to the company, propane was known as “bottled gas” and was more a factor for the home appliance line (stoves, refrigerators, water heaters) than of the heating fuel division.

Jones noted that White Mountain Oil was one of the first companies in town with bulk propane storage and one of the first to receive railcar deliveries in the early 1960s. At the new office and showroom, “local townspeople were amazed to see appliances of different makes, sizes, and colors all under one roof,” according to the company’s website. The company’s business now is about 75% propane and 25% oil. It operates bulk storage facilities in Conway and Campton, N.H. as well as Fryeburg, Maine.

White Mountain Oil & Propane is located in a mountainous area of New Hampshire, and its pursuit of propane business from the various ski chalets and condominium developments that used electricity was another innovative move. White Mountain Oil & Propane switched many of them over to propane heating. The company installs the underground infrastructure for developments, with 1000-gal. propane tanks and high-pressure lines, and installs meters on individual units. This enables it to get a long-term contract and secure the condo’s business for many years. “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say we’ve done 20 or more developments that have 100 units or more each,” Jones stated.

“It’s kind of a unique customer base,” Jones said. “That’s been a big piece of our business, putting Rinnais into condos and chalets and switching them to propane heat. We work with condominium boards and property management companies.”

White Mountain Oil & Propane’s ski area customers include Attitash Mountain Resort and Wildcat Mountain Ski Area, both in New Hampshire. In the winter, White Mountain’s propane service techs may go up on ski lifts to service heaters. For the Mount Cranmore ski area, White Mountain Oil & Propane’s delivery drivers take bobtails to the top of the mountain for an annual refill of the five 1000-gal. tanks that service its summit buildings and restaurant.
White Mountain familys

The company’s workers sometimes must go the extra mile to service customers in the mountainous region, but it has been that way since the company’s early days. In the 1950s, it transported only 100-lb cylinders dropped off the back of a pickup truck. White Mountain Oil’s employees delivered full tanks by hand and collected empty ones, returning the empties to the shop for a refill. The company describes it as hard, physical work, especially in the deep snows of winter. In the 1950s, it built its current North Conway Village office and showroom, and in 1965, it built its own propane bulk plant in North Conway on the old Maine Central Railroad site. Also in the 1960s, Ben and Ethel’s two sons, Glenn and Scott, returned from the service and college to join their father in the business. The company now employs about 50 people.

Its appliance showroom includes some electric appliances, but features many propane products, including Rinnai tankless water heaters, Rinnai direct-vent wall heaters, Bradford White water heaters, gas stoves, fireplaces, logs and inserts, Weber propane grills, and LP refrigerators from Diamond, Unique, and Servel, as well as furnaces, and boilers. Glenn Saunders and his sons Kirk and Mark now run the company. Ethel still lives next door to the office.

White Mountain Oil & Propane encourages members of its management team to participate with various trade organizations. Glenn Saunders is past president of the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) and a former chair of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). Kirk Saunders serves on NPGA’s Technology Standards & Safety (TS&S) committee. Mark Saunders serves on the board of the Propane Gas Association of New England (PGANE), service manager Curtis Reynolds serves on PGANE’s education committee, and retired company vice president Ken Taylor also served on the PGANE board and was involved in establishing propane fire training academies in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. On the fueloil side, Jones is past president of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire and currently serves on the State of New Hampshire’s D.E.S. Oil Board. “We have always been encouraged to be involved in industry associations and to go to the trade shows in Atlanta or local regional trade shows, where we would bring back the latest information, whether it’s a product line or new code update,” Jones noted.
White Mountain trucks

The company places a strong emphasis on training in-house. Service manager Curtis Reynolds, a registered Certified Employee Training Program (CETP) trainer, leads an in-house training session for its service techs every Wednesday morning. Occasionally Reynolds will bring in an outside vendor to give a presentation. Recently, a technical representative for Viessmann Boiler spoke to the group about the latest product trends. Most of the training covers any issues the techs run into in the field. “Or Curtis might look at the recalls that have taken place,” Jones said. “We’re very proud of our service department. It’s a strong suit for company. We have 10 service guys on the road every day.”

“I always say we’re a big fish in a little pond,” Jones added. “We are an independent, family-owned company. We find our niche and work very hard at differentiating ourselves from what we call the ‘big-box’ stores, the big national companies. We have to be local and responsive and we are. We try to lead with our customer service and sales.”    —Daryl Lubinsky
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