MANCHESTER — John Babb Jr. and his sister, Cassie Babb, took over J&S Oil in the early 1980s when the company consisted of just one station with two pumps.
In the 30-plus years since, the siblings have created a small empire that includes wholesale fuel delivery across the state as well as home heating oil delivery and service, eight service stations and convenience stores, two express lube locations and three car washes.
It’s that kind of success that helped make John and Cassie Babb this year’s Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Business Persons of the Year, yet the face of the franchise is neither John nor Cassie. That public face instead belongs to the 200 employees — the Babb’s call them co-owners because of the company’s employee stock ownership plan — who greet customers at the counter, in their homes, and in the office.
“We’re being recognized for the work of our co-owners,” John Babb said. “They are the face of J&S Oil. Cassie and I might be getting the award, but most people wouldn’t recognize us as the face of J&S.”
John Babb Sr., and his wife, Sonja, opened the J&S Oil Service Station on U.S. Route 202 in Manchester in 1972. John Babb Sr.’s business philosophy was to greet customers pleasantly, give them more than they expected, and appreciate their patronage.
That philosophy was passed down to the Babb’s children, both of whom worked their way from pumping gasoline to running the company and worked nearly every job in between. John Babb Jr. said the company’s mission is to exceed customers’ expectations and prosper as a business. Those goals would be unachievable without employees who share the same goal, John Babb said.
“It starts with the associates and ends with the associates,” he said. “It’s all about the people. It’s all about connecting with people.”
Putting the right people in place to make those connections begins with the hiring process, but it includes training to foster skills the customer will appreciate.
“You hire personality and train technique,” John Babb said. “What it all boils down to is how you greet a person, how you appreciate their service, and how you thank them for that service. It often gets missed.”
Employee ownership has provided a key vehicle to help drive that message home. Through the ESOP, which the Babbs instituted in 1995, the company buys stock from the Babb family. The stock is then passed off to qualified employees at no cost. The plan not only provides retirement income from John and Sonja Babb, but it allows the employees to build a portfolio of stock for their own retirement. The result has been a workforce that feels a vested interest in helping the company maintain and improve its success.
“It’s been a great way of encouraging your co-owners to think like the owner,” John Babb said.
Cassie Babb said the philosophy of being friendly and responsive with customers is equally as important when working with the vendors who supply J&S.
The company won the Governor’s Award for Business Excellence through the chamber in the 1990s, and in 2002, was named the New England ESOP Association company of the year, but this is the first time the chamber has named J&S or the Babbs Business of the Year or Business Persons of the Year.
“It’s an honor, it really is,” Cassie Babb said. “It’s still exciting for my father.”
John and Sonja Babb plan to fly back to Maine from Florida to attend the chamber’s 37 annual awards banquet on Jan. 24.
John and Cassie Babb said following their parents’ approach to business, and their work ethic, has led to the success the company enjoys today. The Babbs say they can never afford to take their customers for granted. John Babb said the company, through its employees, must continue to separate itself from the competition by offering customers more than they expect through friendly, responsive service that is always seasoned with gratitude.
“We’re in a business where people can make a great deal of choices,” John Babb said. “If you can’t build a better mouse trap, you better use better bait.”
Craig Crosby — email@example.com