Oil baroness

Surviving a difficult time — or even failure — is something many entrepreneurs come to expect. They pick themselves up, rework the business plan and move on.

But it’s the screaming success that can be really scary. Janie McLure, founder and sole owner of McLure Oil, grew her enterprise to $200 million in a relatively short time, then decided to tug hard on the reins.

“We grew so fast in such a short period of time it got totally out of control,” she says. “That scared me to death. In the past, I always kept my thumb right where we were. I might not be doing everything personally, but I knew where we were financially (and) I knew where we were headed.

“Growth just absolutely petrifies me. I knew I had to start downsizing some. Talking about it and knowing you have to do it is one thing, but actually doing it and realizing where you could do it without damaging areas — you don’t want to throw the entire business out the window — you just want to at least feel like you have it under control.”

Today, McLure feels much more comfortable with the size of her eight-person operation.

“We’re a middleman,” she says. “We fit in where other players don’t. We may sell to big trucking companies or to a jobber in small-town America. He may have only one supplier, where we’re set up with 15 or 20. We’ll shop the market for him and get him the best price every day instead of him having to be set up with all those players — the Exxons and Chevrons — everybody out there.”

The company wholesales unbranded products through 44 terminals in nine Southeastern states in both the private and public sectors.

“We got to a certain point, and I don’t want to go back there again,” she says. “I want to have it controllable again. I want everybody to make a decent living. Bigger is not always better.”

McLure began her career working for the Shell Oil Co. and later worked for some independent operators.

“I worked for a couple of independent oil companies for a couple of years — got great, great, great training, but also found out that I was probably not the world’s best corporate player. My personality didn’t quite go along with that program,” she says. “I’m not into brown-nosing. I’m not very good at that. I never minded working hard, never minded doing whatever needed to be done, but I’m not going to step on somebody else just to promote myself … because that’s what people do.”

So, the young woman from the small Florida panhandle town of Marianna opened her open business.

Smart Business spoke with McLure to learn how she built that enterprise, how the industry has changed and what she can expect in the coming years.

Did you always know you were going to own your own company?

I graduated with a business degree and didn’t really have a clue what I was going to do with it. It’s what I knew. I grew up in the business. It was just what I was more familiar with than anything else.

My mom and dad were entrepreneurs, so it kind of gets in your blood. I think I always knew I wanted to own a business. I just didn’t have a clue as to what kind or what industry or anything like that.

I never minded working hard, and I wanted to do something where my income would match the effort I was putting forth.

How did you end up in the oil business?

It’s just what I knew. It’s what I grew up in. I got some background from my parents; I think I got the urge. Then I went to work for Shell Oil Co. I learned so much. I used to just love the industry. It fascinated me.

It is very fast-paced; things change every day. Prices will never stay the same. Things are always evolving in this industry. It’s such a vital part of everything that runs the United States, the whole world.

How does it feel to have your company recognized and honored as a successful woman-owned business?

It’s interesting. I’ve been in business 18 years. The first seven or eight years, it never even crossed my mind; it just wasn’t even an issue. And then, not until it became fashionable to be a woman-owned business, to be in that spotlight, or maybe there were just a lot more women business owners coming along.

It never fazed me one way or the other. I always just wanted to compete on the same level with everybody else. We really don’t get any favoritism anyway, but I don’t know that it matters. Because of the business, the industry I’m in, maybe it stands out a little bit more, but I think, bottom line, it doesn’t really matter.

Are activities in the Middle East affecting your operations?

It affects the price of crude, which makes the market volatile — that’s part of it. But the biggest part of it is the derivative people that are messing with the derivatives that have been running the market for at least the past two years. There are so many more players in that field and the commodity field than there ever were before.

Everybody is scared to death that the price will keep dropping. Everybody is kind of backing off right now to see what is going to happen. It might last half a day; it might last overnight. It’s always the story of the day.

It’s just like the stock market; there’s always a story. Stocks are going up, down, staying the same — it’s the same in commodities.

How do you deal with those fluctuations?

Because of the volatility that has presented us with what’s going on in the market, it’s a big chase.

You’re calling people telling people, ‘Fill up, fill up, fill up. Fill your tanks.’ Prices are going up at 6 o’clock or midnight or whatever. Then you turn around the next day — ‘Prices are dropping. Hold on, don’t buy any now.’

Because we’re the middleman, we’re like the service guy. We’re trying to help people either make the most money they can or keep from losing money, whatever the case may be.

Is it a matter of luck?

I think you make your own luck. That’s just the way I’ve always felt about it. I’ve definitely gone through the school of hard knocks, several times over. You definitely learn what not to do, so when there is an opportunity that comes along … sometimes I’m not the one that can see that opportunity.

Sometimes it’s my husband, who I rely on most heavily, who sees the opportunity and opens my eyes. Early on, I definitely saw opportunities and took advantage of them. You hope they come along again.

I’m just not a big believer in luck. Sometimes, when you are in certain situations, things do get thrown your way that wouldn’t otherwise. But you positioned yourself for that. You didn’t just put a sign out front and suddenly people started flocking in for business.

So how do you recognize opportunity when it comes along?

Part of it is just being in the business and recognizing that there is something unique going on out there. And either you want to be a part of it — and it is a chance to possibly broaden your business and add another dimension to it — or it’s just one of those things you know from experience definitely to stay away from.

Plus, you talk with so many people in the business, you interact with so many people, you know just from experience whether it’s something you really should take a look at and listening to other people. That’s the biggest part of it. The wise counsel– we always refer to that because we don’t ever try to rely just on our own understanding.

Are high prices better for you, or worse?

It doesn’t really matter. You make the same margin regardless. Our business is very small margins. You’ve got to do volume to make up for the small margins.

Is your field particularly competitive?

Yes and no. We kind of compete against our own suppliers a lot. Our competition is different, I think, from most industries. There is plenty of competition.

That’s the reason our margins are so small. At the same time, there are not a lot of people that technically do exactly what we do. It’s very high-risk; you have to watch credit lines all the time.

What changes have you seen in the 18 years you’ve owned the business?

We’ve done this for so long. It’s a lot easier nowadays to cut the customer off. Everything is done electronically. Every thing is done 10 days EFT (electronic funds transfer); it’s how we collect our money.

It’s not like you’re having to wait on a check in the mail, of course, unless you do business with the government. That’s a whole different story. I wouldn’t advise anybody to get into it that hasn’t worked for somebody else for a long time.

What kind of planning do you do?

It’s really tough to plan long term in this business because there is so much volatility. You just deal with (issues) on a day-to-day basis. Everything is already sold before we buy it.

You put the price out there, and if somebody wants it at that price, then you buy it. We don’t do a lot of speculating. You can get burned so fast, so hard. That’s not our expertise.

What advice do you have for future women business owners?

Have your financial backing in order. Know your product and be prepared to do a lot of hard work. Some of those things can’t be replaced.

There’s a lot of people out there that know their field, but they don’t necessarily know how to run a business. It’s a combination of things. It’s like I always say, you’ve got to do it by example. You’ve got to hire the right people; you’ve got to have the right people on the bus. And you’ve got to be in a market that makes sense.

So many people start businesses … it just doesn’t make sense; it’s not a good business plan to begin with. Just do something that makes sense, and don’t be scared of the competition.

HOW TO REACH: McLure Oil, www.mclureoil.com or (770) 396-6655

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