Pump and Circumstance 

How gas companies are strong-arming their own dealers for bigger profits.

Ron Nichols made the perfect poster boy. One of the most successful Shell service station dealers in the nation, Nichols was chairman of the Shell National Dealers Council and one of the most active members of the local chapter. A three-time winner of the company's prestigious Circle of Success award, his consistent performance had earned him all-expenses-paid trips to Disney World and Vancouver. "I've won every award that Shell has ever come up with," Nichols says.

So in 1994, when Shell wanted to sell its Experience the Difference (ETD) program to dealers in the Cleveland area, the company knew where to go. Nichols was convinced to convert the thriving station he leased in Parma from a repair shop to an up-to-date convenience store with all the trimmings. He invested $235,000 in the conversion and reopened the doors just after New Year's. If you need any help, his Shell reps told him, don't hesitate to call.

As it turned out, Nichols did need help. Shell had projected that he'd sell 175,000 gallons a month, and when it appeared he'd have trouble meeting the goal, the company dropped his gas cost substantially. It gave him eight tanker loads of gas on credit and never asked for payment. Whenever he got in a bind, Shell propped him up. "It was a con game all the way through," he says.

Other dealers noticed Nichols's business booming, and they signed on to the ETD program by the dozen -- even though they'd expressed reservations about it in the beginning. "Guys opened their eyes and said, 'Maybe it's not as bad as we thought,'" says Don Casserlie, who invested more than $250,000 to convert his Parma station on York Road.

Besides, Shell had always shot straight, and the dealers had no reason to doubt the evidence in the form of Ron Nichols. "I've only read my lease twice in 40 years," says Jerry Gorczyca, a Cleveland-area Shell dealer. His tab to convert two of his stations: $300,000. "If they said the sky was blue, I'd look out the window, and it would be blue."

But once the conversions were complete by mid-1996, the picture became cloudier. The numbers weren't adding up, and the dealers were struggling to make their payments. The competition started pricing low, but Shell wouldn't match it as the company had done in the past. When the dealers asked for help, Casserlie says, the response was always the same. "They said they couldn't do nothin' for you."

Then, in 1998, Shell eliminated its rent rebate program, even as its wholesale gas price crept higher. Today, competitors regularly price their gas below the dealers' cost. Many of the dealers are struggling to stay afloat or, like Casserlie, work an extra job. Others have closed their doors and walked away. "Pretty soon you're in this spiral," Casserlie says. "You're going down."

The neighborhood service station, once as bedrock a community institution as the local hardware store and corner grocery, is disappearing. Attendants who once greeted motorists, filled their tanks, and checked their oil have become obsolete in the age of self-service. As cars have become more complex and a plethora of brake, muffler, and lube shops have evolved to meet demand, once-bustling gas station repair bays have been leveled or have become musty with disuse. Convenience store chains added pumps in the 1970s and '80s, and captured a huge share of the market. Recently, mega-retailers such as Wal-Mart and Albertson's have entered the gas business, selling cheap to draw customers and further strangle the old-timers.

But the small-business owners across the country who have been the face of gas retailing for decades say something more than a changing marketplace is threatening their existence. They say they're perfectly capable of thriving in modern times, given the chance to compete. Most have invested in new technology, and many have borrowed heavily to upgrade their stations or to convert older repair facilities to convenience stores with car washes.

Instead, the dealers charge, big oil companies that dominate the industry -- in particular ExxonMobil, Shell, Texaco, Chevron, and BP Amoco -- are forcing them out of business. "The objective is to get the dealer out of the network, period," says Los Angeles-area dealer George Mayer. At the same location for 26 years, Mayer is taking a beating from a recent rent hike compounded by wholesale gas costs higher than his competition's. "My [repair] business stays busy," he says. "Otherwise, I wouldn't still be here."

The stakes are high. For dealers, whose numbers are still measured in thousands, it's a matter of survival. For the oil companies, it's a matter of maximizing revenues -- dealer profits have long tantalized company executives. The easiest ways to extract the cash are by jacking rents and fees or simply taking over the stations and running them with cheap labor.

But the implications of ridding the landscape of service station dealers are much broader. Independent dealers who can set their own street prices obstruct the ability of the major industry players to manipulate prices freely. And though industry leaders reject the notion that the companies have the power to push up prices at will, the motivation is certainly there: In the United States, a one-cent increase in the retail price of gas would be worth about $1.2 billion annually to the industry. "The majors are going after their own to gain control of the pumps," says Tim Hamilton, a consultant to several West Coast dealer organizations. "They want your wallet."

Dealers, the bulk of whom traditionally leased their stations from the oil companies in franchise arrangements, have been complaining of predatory practices for years. The media have occasionally reported the charges -- as well as the stock company denials.

But a five-month investigation by Scene shows dealers may be right. A review of thousands of pages of internal company documents, court records, and legislative testimony, as well as interviews with more than a dozen current and former company employees, leads to an inescapable conclusion: Big oil has in fact been deliberately and systematically driving dealers out of business. In several cases, documents expressly target dealers for removal, with specific reduction goals. Although dealers have protection under the law, the companies have found ways to circumvent it, including:

· Raising station rents 300 percent and more, instantly forcing dozens of dealers to close and shoving hundreds more to the brink;

· Withholding credit card reimbursements, as much as $100,000, resulting in serious cash-flow problems;

· Offering dealers take-it-or-leave-it lease renewals that include restrictions on reselling their businesses (thereby devaluing them) and blanket waivers of their legal rights;

· Charging dealers different amounts for gas in the same metro area -- as much as 12 cents a gallon -- by putting them in different "zones," making it difficult or impossible for those in high-cost zones to compete; and

· Building spacious new company-run stations with convenience store, car wash, and other amenities close to existing dealer-run stations -- then undercutting the dealers' prices.

None of the major oil companies contacted by Scene would agree to an interview, though they all asked for a written list of questions. Only one responded to the list -- Equiva Services, the administrative arm of a joint marketing alliance between Texaco and Shell -- and that response was selective and vague. Nevertheless, the views of the companies generally can be gleaned through press releases, news accounts, and documents filed in courts throughout the United States.

In lockstep, the companies say they're simply responding to changing market conditions, that new policies affecting dealers are designed to keep pace with the aggressive competition from the Wal-Marts and convenience store chains. Despite record profits the last two quarters, the majors say they make relatively little money selling gas. Yet documents show that, while the companies regularly demand new concessions from their dealers, they don't make the same demands of their own company-run stations.

Steve Shelton, a Los Angeles gas retailing expert, says there's no question the companies are propping up losing stores on the backs of the dealers. "They use subsidization selectively to go after competitors."

The complexity of the gas business makes the purpose of eradicating dealers hard to pin down, and the companies won't discuss their marketing strategies. But evidence shows that management would like to capture the profits once enjoyed by the dealer network to bolster the bottom line. "They always left a little on the table for us, but now they're taking everything," says Jerry Gorczyca. "And they want the table, too."

Former St. Louis Shell dealer Warren Schuermann remembers how it used to be. He bought his station on Natural Bridge in 1952, when customers could buy gas on just about every corner in town. Until he gave up fighting Shell and closed down last October, Schuermann employed a simple philosophy that, over the years, earned him a loyal customer base and a host of performance awards. "There's nothing like courteous, honest service," he says.

As the number of vehicles in America exploded in the early and mid-1900s, so did the number of stations needed to serve them. Oil companies, wanting to establish market share for their product, would buy property wherever they could find it, build stations, and lease them to dealers. By 1970, 400,000 stations pumped gas and repaired cars across the nation. Texaco alone had more than 40,000 stations; Exxon (then Esso) had almost 30,000.

The proliferation of stations meant each one sold relatively few gallons, averaging only about 30,000 a month. What distinguished them was Schuermann's stock-in-trade. "I tried to impress upon the customers that we were a step above everyone else," he recalls proudly. "That was my theme: You can't get 'em all, but you sure as hell can get a lot of 'em." Even in the 1950s, Schuermann pumped 100,000 gallons a month.

But the station network was inefficient and costly to maintain, and the 1973 oil embargo hastened a major shakeout. Oil companies began to shed their lower-volume outlets en masse; by 1982 the total number of U.S. stations had been cut in half. Most of the abandoned ones were torn down and the property sold. In addition to improving efficiency, the majors were looking for other ways to increase profits at the retail level, including the conversion of select high-profile locations from dealer-run to company operations. The advent of self-serve gas and the rise of the convenience store in the 1970s and '80s prompted oil companies to replace bay stations with large food marts and multiple gas pumps.

Initially, the dealers were pretty much at the mercy of their parent companies. They would sign lease agreements that protected them for the duration of the terms, usually three to five years, after which the companies could effectively choose not to renew. Even then, however, oil companies knew they had to tread carefully. A 1973 BP plan discussing how to convert desirable locations from dealers to company stores urged secrecy in implementing its mission. "The two items of highest priority are to secure possession of those units we desire to use in the program and to commence the divestment of other outlets," the plan stated. "A continued effort in this field will help solve the possession problem without alerting the dealer organization to our ultimate plans."

In 1978 Congress passed the Petroleum Marketing Practices Act (PMPA), which guaranteed dealers certain franchise rights. But that didn't stop oil companies from moving aggressively to shrink the number of dealers. In 1982 Arco led the charge when management decided to reinvent the company as a low-cost competitor. One component of the strategy was to get rid of dealers by tripling and quadrupling their rents and converting their stations to company operations.

The same year Arco conceived its scheme, Texaco produced a "Keepers and Losers List" that named 121 Nevada and California dealers the company wanted to disown. In a 1998 ruling, a Florida judge noted that "Exxon secretly divided its dealers into 'keepers' and 'non-keepers' and internally recognized that its pricing practices were driving the 'non-keepers' out of business."

Similarly, Exxon documents show intent to halve its number of lessee dealers in the Houston area while doubling the number of company stores between 1997 and 2003. And according to news accounts, Shell documents unearthed in an Indianapolis lawsuit detail the company's plan to shift the balance in that city's retail market away from the dealers. "They wanted to make this a company-op town and drive the dealers out of business," says plaintiffs' attorney Linda Pence.

The dealer attrition rate has varied over time by company and region, though the direction hasn't wavered. Exact numbers are hard to obtain, because oil companies consider the information proprietary, and stations can be lumped in broad categories that hinder comparisons. But the available data provide a vivid picture of a dying institution: Between 1988 and 1998, Chevron cut its lessee-dealer network from 9,317 to 939. During the same period, BP's numbers plummeted from 1,025 to 475; Exxon chopped its tally from 2,909 to 1,600.

By comparison, Shell's collection of dealers dipped less dramatically during that span. But beginning in 1998, when it merged its marketing operations with Texaco, Shell decided to play catch-up. Within months, hundreds of dealers had shut their doors, and others have followed suit in droves. Including Warren Schuermann, who was informed in the spring of 1999 that his lease would not be renewed.

Two years earlier, Schuermann had received an offer to buy his station for $200,000, but he'd opted not to sell. "I wanted to save the business for my employees, which was very stupid," he says. After 48 years, he walked away with nothing.

After more than 21 years as a Shell employee, Bill Reed had planned the perfect retirement. He had been a marketing rep in Los Angeles and knew everything there was to know about the gas station business. So in 1993, he took out a Small Business Administration loan and plunked down $378,000 for a station in Victorville northeast of the city. Though the traffic was seasonal, he more than doubled the gas sales to an average of 170,000 gallons a month. Two years later, he invested another $150,000 for a station three miles away in Hesperia.

Under Shell's Variable Rent Program (VRP), Reed's rent went down with the more gallons he pumped, so he was able to offset the leaner months with healthy profits when business was brisk. "For 20-something years, I bled yellow," Reed says. "Shell Oil Company could not do any wrong."

In August 1998, the letter came: Shell was phasing out the VRP, even though Reed -- as well as almost every dealer in the country -- had been told not to worry, that the inflated rent figures in their contracts were there only as a hedge against another oil crisis. But those guarantees had all been oral, and Shell's leases allowed the company to terminate the program at will. Reed was stuck with payments for his two stations that averaged $15,000 a month more than before.

Moreover, Reed's wholesale cost was consistently higher than that of his competition, which left him the choice of keeping his price low and losing his profit margin or keeping it high enough to pay the rent and losing sales. Either way, he lost. "I was taking money out of my savings account," Reed says. "It got to the point where I just couldn't do it anymore."

Eventually his Hesperia account ran short, and Shell put him on COD, which constricted his cash flow. Reed gave up the keys in August of last year, hoping to salvage his Victorville station. But Shell began withholding his credit card reimbursements, claiming he still owed the company money from the Hesperia location. The amount swelled to $50,000 before he threw in the towel. He still owes $100,000 on his SBA loan. "Right now, I'm very bitter," Reed says.

In court filings, Shell has denied that anyone ever told dealers that the Variable Rent Program would remain in place indefinitely. But financial statements prepared by prospective dealers with the company based estimated profits on a variable rent; in five cases reviewed by Scene, the statements each would have shown a net loss, had the higher contract rent been applied. One of those, submitted by dealer Martin Swofford for a station in San Ramon, California, and approved by the company, induced Swofford to buy the station. One month later, the VRP was canceled. Dealer rep Ken Giffin stated in a related court filing that he and other employees were instructed to tell dealers the VRP was to continue indefinitely. "As a practical matter, dealers were dependent upon the VRP program economically, and the company knew that."

Though Shell is the most recent oil company to spike rents, it didn't invent the concept. In the 1980s, Texaco figured out that raising rents to the breaking point was a good way to obtain locations the company wanted for itself. "The basic philosophy was, they just kept raising the rents till [the stations] wouldn't be profitable," says former Texaco employee John Gryder. A dealer rep until he retired in 1988, Gryder would make rent recommendations in pencil and forward them to his boss. When they came back, the figures had been inked -- at 20 percent higher than what Gryder thought fair. "They discriminated as a policy," he says.

Rents aren't the only expenses that have been thinning dealer bottom lines. In recent years, new contracts have forced lessee dealers to pay expenses once borne by the companies, including maintenance and property taxes. Withholding of credit card reimbursements, a major cash-flow issue for many dealers, has become increasingly common. Bay Area Shell dealer Bob Oyster saw his withholding climb to more than $100,000 last year before the company finally settled his account.

The latest contracts -- offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis -- include other provisions that profoundly affect a dealer's future prospects. Before 1990, dealers who had built a good business could count on the opportunity to sell their stations and reap the rewards. Shell, Texaco, and Chevron now require huge "transfer fees" -- up to 35 percent of the difference between what the dealer paid for the station and the sale price -- if a dealer sells his business to someone other than the company. The Shell and Texaco leases also state that prospective buyers who aren't already dealers for those companies are subject to a one-year "trial franchise" that doesn't have to be renewed by the companies.

Finding a buyer willing to lose an investment of $250,000 or more after a year is a mean feat. Even if dealers are, the companies won't always approve them -- especially if they covet the location. A jury awarded Los Angeles-area dealer Carl Eastridge $5.1 million in 1983 because Shell rejected a dozen qualified buyers for his station. Houston Exxon dealer David Vawter, who settled a fraud case against the company for $250,000 in 1993, subsequently had 10 buyers rejected before Exxon informed him this year that his station was no longer in the master plan and would be "surplussed." Eight other dealers interviewed by Scene told similar stories.

The new Shell and Texaco leases even ask the dealers to sign away any legal claims they may currently have or might have in the future, even though the right to seek relief in the courts is guaranteed them by the '78 Petroleum Marketing Practices Act.

The companies don't always ask dealers to abandon their rights first before shredding them. According to federal law, the dealers have the right to set whatever price at the pump they want without interference from the supplier. Companies do have the right to make recommendations, but that's it. As a Shell retail manager typically put it, such "price counseling" is merely "creating an awareness with some of our lessee dealers about the competition in the marketplace."

But dealers say the companies constantly pressure them to lower their price and reduce their margin, then punish them if they don't obey. Phoenix Mobil dealer Tom Van Boven says he regularly gets a "target price" from the company. "If I don't comply with their target price, the next day I get a two-cent increase [in cost]," Van Boven says.

Former Arco dealer rep Ron Raville testified in a 1996 deposition that, while the company couldn't force dealers to cooperate on prices, it could make their lives miserable by withholding gas and not returning phone calls. And a former Shell rep says that, during his tenure, dealers were allowed to make eight cents a gallon and no more. If a dealer tried to do better, "They'd raise his price."

Of all the squeeze tactics most galling to the dealers, however, one stands out as universal: zone pricing, the practice of breaking up metro areas into zones and charging different wholesale prices depending on the zone. The idea behind zone pricing, at least according to the companies, is to help dealers in highly competitive sectors without having to drop prices in an entire region. Since discrimination on wholesale prices is illegal, zone pricing gives companies the flexibility to support individual dealers, depending on market conditions.

That's the theory, anyway. In practice, dealers say, zone pricing is used to charge whatever customers are willing to pay in a given location as well as to keep uncooperative dealers in line. "The price is based on demographics," says Dennis DeCota, executive director of a California dealer trade organization. "The companies charge what the market will bear."

Proving DeCota's theory is an impossible task, especially because the companies say the zone maps are proprietary. Where zones were once broadly defined using natural boundaries, such as rivers or interstate highways, now they can change block to block. But the huge spreads in relatively close areas seem difficult to justify. In August, for example, Mobil dealers in Scottsdale, a Phoenix suburb, were paying 14 cents per gallon more for regular gas than Mobil dealers in nearby Mesa. An Arco marketing manager told the (Arizona) Tribune in April that its maximum zone spread was two cents, but dealer invoices from the same day showed a nine-cent difference.

As for the theory that the lower prices exist to help dealers, Phoenix Texaco dealer Dave Saifi is among many who would disagree. When an Arco company operation opened less than a mile from Saifi three years ago and sold three cents below his cost, his Texaco rep told him that Arco wasn't considered the competition. When the price at the Union 76 across the street from him took a dip, he says, he got no assistance despite repeated requests. But when the 76 price went up, his cost went up with it. "According to them, nobody's any competition," Saifi says.

One former Shell marketing manager, who asked to remain anonymous, says the zone prices in his area were set by computer. Select stations in each zone would be surveyed daily, fed into the computer, and an average price calculated. The zone price would then be six to eight cents below the average in order to control the dealer's profit margin.

Of course, exceptions could be made. "If the district manager didn't like the guy or he wasn't pricing the way we wanted," he says, "up went the price."

With the specifics of zone pricing so nebulous, companies can pretty much charge whatever they want, wherever they want, as long as consumers are willing to pay. The potential for abuse -- and mounting evidence contradicting the industry rationale -- has spurred a number of legislative looks at the practice. And while zone pricing has been upheld as legitimate in the courts, officials such as Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal would like to change that. "Zone pricing is invisible and insidious," Blumenthal testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in April. "It benefits only the oil companies, to the detriment of consumers."

Bill Schutzenhofer had a vision for Shell. The former head of Shell's marketing operations, who retired in 1996, Schutzenhofer believed that the company's interests were best served by a professional network of dealers who could build brand loyalty by providing community-based service the way only a small-business owner can. Though gasoline retailing changed radically during his 14 years in charge, he says, the essentials -- good service, image, and price -- have been the same for a half-century. "For us to succeed," Schutzenhofer says, "we had to have futuristic thinking without ignoring tradition."

For him, the future meant a transition from the old-style service station to the modern, convenience store model. And though the one-station dealer with a mechanical bent might not have a place, tradition still meant the dealer, albeit a savvier breed, could operate several locations. "I can assure you that the dealers who ran multiple leased service stations for Shell had a passion to succeed," Schutzenhofer says. "And they would do anything Shell wanted them to do."

But like the dealers themselves, Schutzenhofer's way of thinking is no longer in vogue. The 1990s ushered in the era of huge mergers, and with them came a new wave of management that saw the dealers more as a barrier to increased profit than as revenue generators. Successful dealers, like most successful small-business owners, could net six figures in a good year, make outside investments, live in nice houses, and drive fancy cars. If the companies could capture that profit, so much the better for the stock price and quarterly dividend. As Chevron Marketing Vice President Dave Reeves bluntly told The Wall Street Journal last November, "The cost of the business doesn't have to include any profit for the dealer."

On paper, the theory appeared sound. The companies could run the most profitable locations themselves, hiring managers at relatively low wages and getting all the revenue from the convenience stores as well as the gas.

Data available in key major markets show a clear shift from lessee-dealer stations to company stores. In Phoenix, the percentage of company operations increased from 9 in 1981 to almost 65 today. Chevron had only 93 company stores in 1984; by 1995 the number had increased to 592, and the company has since continued the conversion unabated.

But if the idea was to pocket the dealer profits, it's not working very well. In fact, though some company-owned locations are quite profitable, others are losing money. A 1998 Chevron financial statement for a company-run station in California calculated a net loss for the year of $5,000, and that included no payment for rent. Evidence presented during legislative hearings in Nevada showed that Arco was subsidizing its company stores in Las Vegas by thousands of dollars a month.

And in a Florida case, Chevron Marketing Manager Ramon Cantu testified in 1998 that, although he thought the company stores were making money, he wasn't sure. "We just make certain assumptions along the way, you know, that if it's meeting certain criteria, therefore it must be profitable," Cantu said.

Ironically, the rationale for hiking rents and increasing fees to dealers has been justified to guarantee an acceptable return on the companies' investment, stated variously as between 10 and 15 percent. And the fact that companies are propping up their own stations has not been lost on industry observers. "Internal [financial statements] on refiner salary operations typically show higher costs of doing business than do dealer stations," says marketing expert Shelton. "When refiner-operated stations underprice lessees, it is not because they are more efficient, but because they often get lower wholesale prices on their products, are charged no rent, or sell below the true cost of retailing."

This is no news to dealers such as Jeff Armbruster, a state senator from North Ridgeville who owns seven Shell stations in the Cleveland area. He runs a low-overhead outfit with no high-priced squads of lawyers to pay and no floors of accountants to manage. He trains and pays his employees well, so he doesn't suffer from the high turnover or theft that plagues company stores.

Given a level playing field, Armbruster says, "Independent businessmen will categorically, day in and day out, outsell any [company-operated] station." He ticks off a list of contributions to community groups his stations have given, of sports teams sponsored, of good deeds done. "We're the heart of the community."

Schutzenhofer agrees. "The cost [to the corporations] to manage the system is gonna go up," he says. "A dealer can do it cheaper."

If that's the case, oil companies haven't admitted it. And the number of dealers continues to diminish by the day, leading dealer consultant Tim Hamilton to believe there's a reason beyond bureaucratic incompetence and internal philosophical struggles stemming from the mergers. That reason, he says, can be found in the spiraling price of gas. The major retailers in the United States are also the major refiners; in California, which has the highest gas prices in the nation, six refiners produce 92 percent of the gas consumed in the state. With enough control of gas at the wholesale and retail levels, companies theoretically could push prices higher.

The refiners have tightened the supply of gas the past decade, and many independent retail companies that relied on surplus product have gone under, consolidating the market in fewer hands.

Industry groups argue that, with the entry of the mega-retailers as well as the expansion of convenience store chains, competition in gas retailing is stronger than ever. Much has been written about the reasons for high gas prices: OPEC production cuts, refinery fires and other supply disruptions, clean air mandates, higher costs of doing business. And while those factors contribute to higher prices, they don't explain such curiosities as why Shell led each of seven retail price increases during a four-week period in the spring of 1999, when it was the only brand without a refinery or pipeline problem. Or why Bay Area prices average 20 cents or more higher than in Los Angeles and San Diego, when documents produced in a Hawaii lawsuit show that the cost of doing business in all three cities is almost identical.

Hamilton laughs at the idea that the marketplace is more competitive now. He points to the just-announced merger of Chevron and Texaco as well as the BP-Amoco-Arco melding. The same refineries that supply the big retailers also supply most of the smaller stations and can choose where to offer the breaks. Add to that the removal of thousands of independent dealers and a higher percentage of retail outlets controlled by the refiners. "How can you say that this is not a reduction in competition?" he asks. "The arguments make no rational sense."

In his spacious Redwood City office bedecked with signed posters of sports stars, Bob Oyster leans back in his wheelchair and frowns reflectively. One of the Bay Area's most successful dealers, Oyster owns 25 Shell stations as well as his own historic building and other real estate. He wears the tooth-and-nail look of a man who has made his own way in life. "You know what I got out of the service stations if nothing else?" he says. "The knowledge of service."

Oyster is offended by the idea that he made too much money as a dealer, which he thinks is partly what drives the business-school suits now in charge of the Shell-Texaco alliance. "They want to talk about me cuttin' a fat hog on the service stations," he scoffs. "I worked 80 hours a week."

Like those of all Shell dealers, Oyster's rents abruptly increased with the cancellation of the Variable Rent Program and have continued to multiply since. "I've got about six stations I'm losing money at," he says.

But unlike many of his fellow dealers, he doesn't intend to let Shell get the upper hand. "I'll run 'em and lose money before I'll hand the keys over to Shell," Oyster says. Eventually, though, pressure from the company will grind profits down to the nub, and he'll have to reduce his holdings in exchange for a more secure stake than the one he has now. His son has followed in his footsteps and intends to take over what's left when he retires. "If I didn't have him in the business, I'd tell Shell they could have it all," he says. "But he deserves more, and that's why I'll fight and do whatever I have to do. I think that, for his lifetime, this could still be a good business."

The fatalistic edge to Oyster's tough talk is shared by even the most die-hard scrappers. They've seen the once-powerful dealer organizations lose their muscle as their ranks have dwindled. Those who remain know the odds. "The handwriting's on the wall," Oyster says.

The allegations of predatory practices, price-gouging, and other abuses have spawned investigations at the state and federal levels. Maryland has convened a task force to examine zone pricing. The California attorney general's office is studying that state's high prices, and the initial report raises some thorny questions. A Federal Trade Commission look at antitrust issues should be completed soon. An explosive Hawaii price-fixing case involving a whistle-blower has the companies squirming. And a batch of lawsuits led by formidable lawyers coast to coast has raised dealers' hopes that the outright plunder of their assets may be halted, that they'll get fair compensation for their years of hard work.

That would suit former Shell marketing chief Bill Schutzenhofer, who keeps in touch with dealers and has heard one disaster report after another. "If you don't want them, tell them you don't want them," he says. "Give them a fair price and buy them out, if that's what you want to do."

In the late 1990s, Chevron notified its dealers that the company planned to move in a different marketing direction. The company set up a buyout fund for the stations it wanted for itself and for a while was willing to pay at least something for the businesses, even if a 1997 rent hike reduced their worth. Others were given an opportunity to buy their properties and rebrand with another supplier. Though dealers can share plenty of Chevron horror stories, they generally appreciate the company's honesty about its intentions.

The same cannot be said for the others -- especially Shell, though that's partly because the wounds are so fresh. "Shell built their whole network on independent businessmen who put everything they had in it," says Jeff Armbruster. He sums up his view of the company in a single word: "Dirtbag."

For those who lost it all, one word and a few sentence fragments is about all they can muster. "Betrayal," says Dan Self, a former Shell employee who locked the door to his St. Louis station after 23 years. "Anger. A lot of it is disbelief, that after all those buddy-buddy talks and all the effort I put into that place . . ."

On October 6, Dallas Texaco dealer Greg Kraft offered a little more via e-mail. "Just thought I'd let you know that they finally got me," Kraft wrote. "After 16 years, I just closed the doors to my last station and walked away with nothing but the keys and a trip to my attorney's office to start bankruptcy proceedings.

"I really hope something can be done for those of us that gave our lives to this miserable business."



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