BY JESSICA HALL

The Portland Press Herald

Downeast Energy, one of the state’s largest oil dealers, was sold to an Oklahoma energy company Monday, marking the end of local ownership of a firm run by three generations of a Brunswick family known as much for their community involvement as their business.

NGL Energy Partners LP agreed to acquire the Maine and New Hampshire offices of Brunswick-based Downeast, which has been family owned for more than 80 years, for a combination of cash and partial ownership in NGL.

The company, originally Brunswick Coal, began selling coal and firewood in 1908. Allen Morrell bought it in 1931 and expanded into heating oil, propane and building materials.

The Morrell family, which was under pressure to either grow through acquisitions or sell, said it sold the company with mixed emotions.

“My grandfather started the business 80 years ago. This is extremely hard,” said Downeast Vice President Bill Morrell. Downeast has 300 employees and $140 million in revenue.

The deal follows the sale of another family-owned Maine energy business earlier this year. In January, Dead River Co. of Portland agreed to buy Bangor-based Webber Energy Fuels’ retail heating oil business. The oil industry has seen years of consolidation as the cost of oil has soared and natural gas has dropped.

The Morrell family will retain Downeast’s residential development business, President John Peters said.

Peters, who has been with Downeast for 31 years, will remain president of the local operations under NGL. The Tulsa, Okla.-based NGL operates wholesale supply and marketing and retail propane businesses.

Downeast was the latest in a string of acquisitions in the last six months for NGL, which has 219,000 customers in 21 states. The company’s stock, traded on the New York Stock Exchange as NGL, closed down slightly Monday at $21.65.

Peters said the family has been approached for years by several different suitors, including rivals and private equity firms.

The offer from NGL seemed attractive, in part, because it was relatively new to the region and would keep the Downeast employees in place, Peters said.

For a company whose motto is “Feel good inside,” the future of the employees was a pivotal part of the deal.

“Had it been another acquirer, they could have been forced into reducing staff to make it viable for them. NGL was able to keep everyone,” Morrell said.

“For the employees, this is a great solution,” said Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association. “If you’re going to have a sale and you can protect the best interest of the customers and the employees, it’s a positive all around.”

The family announced the news to customers in its Facebook page, saying, “We want to thank you for all the years we’ve been able to be of service and to assure you that you will remain in excellent hands.”

The timing also worked for the Morrell family, Peters said.

“The shareholders were reaching points in their lives where they needed to make decisions about their future,” Peters said. “They sat down and tried to focus in where they were in their lives.”

It was important to the family that the employees retain their jobs with similar salaries and benefits, and customers continue to be serviced by the same workers, he said. The Downeast name and puffin logo will remain intact locally.

“We were faced with the challenge of the business not having grown in the last couple of years,” Morrell said. “You have to grow to survive to keep folks interested in the business. Given the family members’ ages, we weren’t ready to reinvest by acquiring other companies to grow the business.”

Downeast also lacked a fourth generation interested in leading the company.

“It was gut-check time,” Morrell said. “We weren’t up for spending a great deal of money in acquisitions.”

Morrell said the family, which was unanimous about the sale, was not afraid of backlash or criticism over selling the company to an out of state firm. Restrictions about the amount of market share controlled by one company would likely have made it difficult for a Maine rival to buy it.

Locally, the Morrell family name is associated with more than oil. That will continue, Morrell said.

“All of us have grown up in Brunswick, been active in the community. I don’t see that changing,” Morrell said.

Family members have volunteered time and donated money to Mid Coast Health Services in particular. They have also been active in United Way and helped establish the Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick.

“The Brunswick community as a whole has really benefitted from the generosity and leadership of the Morrell family over the years. They are a key to what makes Brunswick a great place to live and work,” said Mid Coast Health Services President and Chief Executive Lois Skillings.

Dick Morrell, the 83-year-old patriach and figurehead of the company, was chairman of the board at Mid Coast Health Services for 25 years and remains chairman emeritus. The board room at Mid Coast Hospital is named in his honor, and the hospital library is named in honor of the Morrells.

Dick Morrell will maintain an office at Downeast to oversee his personal affairs. He will not receive a salary.

“It’s not an operational role. He’s just someone who loves coming into the office everyday. Employees like seeing him in the office.

Part of the deal was that he keep his office — he can stay,” Morrell said.

 


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