United Oil Co. Proves It Gets It

GARDENA, Calif. -- Corporate culture has been a catchphrase swirling around companies across the United States for some time now. Several years ago, one southern California company took it a step further by adopting a corporate philosophy, and it has since turned into a way of life.

United Oil Co. has always been known in its markets as a 126-location convenience and fuel retailer with low gas prices and nice stores. But President Jeff Appel embarked on a spiritual journey and wanted the family-owned business to do things differently. The "We Got It" philosophy was born.

"I brought all the managers into one room and told them we were going on this journey," he told CSNews Online. "I put a spin on it that 'it's a virus you can catch, so be careful. The symptoms are being kind and honest.'"

While the road has been bumpy, the journey has been worth it, he acknowledged. "It's been a difficult challenge. Everyone said it sounds great, but how do you get people to buy into it?"

A key factor in spreading the We Got It philosophy throughout the company has been communication. "Over time, we opened a path of communication and let everyone know we would not tolerate anything less," Appel said. "It has flourished over the years and I am very proud of it."

Some skeptics may think United Oil has chosen to make a difference and use its locations as a vehicle to educate people to be kind as ploy to rank high in mystery shopping trips. But, according to Appel, the philosophy goes far beyond that.

"When we made this commitment, we weren't trying to get high mystery shop scores, but to really connect with the customers," he said. "This is not really about customer service, but something we work on within ourselves. When you really understand what it is, when the light bulb goes off, then you go it."

United Oil's customers have noticed the difference. Ten years ago, with fewer locations in the company's portfolio, Appel would field four or five angry customer calls a month. Now, he gets one every three months or so. On the flip side, he noted, he gets positive calls all the time.

"We are more than just low gas prices, and customers see the difference," he added.

United Oil also uses the We Got It philosophy to help area charities. One weekend a year, the company donates two cents of every gallon of gas it sells as part of its "I Got It Makes Cents" fundraising campaign. Customers are encouraged to submit their favorite charities and the company chooses which ones to donate to from those suggestions. United Oil has donated to Operation Smile, the Southern California Food Bank Community Distribution Center and Haven House.

The We Got It Philosophy spreads even further into "I Got It TV," a network of programming that includes safety tips and information, and interviews and stories from employees discussing how the company philosophy has changed their lives.

In addition to turning the company philosophy into a way of life to make that customer connection, United Oil likes to tap creative outlets to set it apart from its competition. "We like to do different things and be creative at our locations," Appel said, citing its outside murals and inside artwork. "We like the stations to be unique."

That creativity has gotten more elaborate over the years. For example, United Oil is working on a new mural featuring a mermaid and fish motif.

As for the overall business, United Oil has three new locations under construction and is in no rush to expand its portfolio. But the retailer is trying something new -- a made-on-site cookie and ice cream business called Zooies. Five locations are currently being retrofitted with the business, Appel said.

Cookies and ice cream made on premise? That is one way to do gas stations differently.