The Eblen name is recognized by most people from the Asheville area in association with both fuel and charity. Scores of drivers refuel their vehicles each hour with gasoline and diesel at independent filling stations and Eblen Short Stop Stores. Many homes in Western North Carolina are heated with fuel from Biltmore Oil Company. In the winter Eblen Charities offers heating assistance to underprivileged families in our community and ones living with illnesses or disabilities. In partnership with other businesses and nonprofits, the charity also provides assistance for those in need of medical care, housing, education and emergencies.
The Biltmore Oil Company was founded in 1930, and inherited by Joe and Bobby Eblen. The Eblens have three daughters and a son, Anna Lynn, Myra “Margie,” Paul “Rock” and Jenny, whose husband Rick Perkins is the operations manager for both businesses. Margie manages their administrative duties. Rick started working for Biltmore Oil in 1979 after graduating from Western Carolina University the previous year with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. He said, “It’s a funny thing. I majored primarily in mathematics and just knew the one thing I was not ever going to be in my career was a business person, but that’s where I found myself.”
His decision to join the family business was affected principally by family. “My wife and I have four children. That’ll motivate you right there.” Beyond necessity, Rick said he takes pride in how they take care of their employees. “We give them good wages, supply them with health benefits, vacations, sick days and all the things you expect from a quality job. For customers in our convenience stores we try to distinguish ourselves by showing concern for them, our community, our employees and our environment. That’s the philosophy our family lives by.” The family counts on this philosophy to continuously retain their loyal customer base in a ruthlessly competitive market.
Rick started as a driver and later worked at the office learning the billing system and dispatching tankers between the terminal in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where Biltmore Oil purchases their products and the stations who buy their gasoline and the companies with wholesale and commercial accounts such as taxi services or trucking companies.
Biltmore Oil sells gasoline, kerosene and diesel and supplies 22 independent stations regionally. Rick explained that the petroleum distillates are produced by refineries in Texas and Louisiana and transported to terminals in states throughout the Southeast by pipelines running as far north as Virginia and Washington, D.C. “Most of the product that comes into the Southeast comes in through those pipelines, but Blue Ridge Biofuels in Asheville supplies the biodiesel sold at four of our seven retail outlets, and to several of our commercial accounts.”
Rick said he’s troubled by what he has read about the ecologically destructive method of extracting oil from sedimentary rock termed hydraulic fracturing, or more commonly fracking. “It’s a new technology and hopefully they’ll solve the problems associated with it soon. Evidently there’s quite a lot of reserve there. Whether or not those reserves are ever used ultimately to supply us with fuel, I think it might help to stabilize pricing and maybe let the rest of the world know we’re not so dependent on them that they can hold us hostage with their pricing.”
Rick said, “We may not always have the least expensive fuel, but we try to compensate by having better services, the right products and being more convenient, cleaner, friendlier, and an asset to the neighborhood. When people come into our store they can see, hear and smell the difference.” He would encourage shoppers who look to save a few cents per gallon by purchasing their gasoline from a corporate entity to consider that profits made by Biltmore Oil and Eblen Short Stop Stores stay in Asheville and Western North Carolina. Before they choose where to spend their money he wants them to question whether that company prudently supports the local church, little league and community at large.
In 1991 the Eblen Foundation was created by Joe Eblen to help families with illnesses and disabilities that weren’t able to get help from other agencies and organizations. Since then the scope and depth of assistance they offer has expanded dramatically. The charity now serves more than 130,000 families each year through 75 programs. Joe said his family including himself, his daughter Jenny, coincidentally his son-in-law Rick, and three of their four children have a genetic predisposition whereby their immune system is unable to effectively fight off bacterial infections. Joe said he had to do something to save the grandchildren. “We got grants from Duke University, had treatment for the children, and they’ve all grown up to be healthy, beautiful kids. I said to myself, what would have happened if we hadn’t been able to get help and felt we needed to start a charity for our community to help others receive help as we did.”
The thing Rick finds most surprising about the industry is how easily people forget that petrochemicals are a finite commodity. “Gasoline is a limited resource globally and people should be conscious of how much they’re using and try to conserve more. It’s disappointing to see how it’s marketed and sold as if there was an endless supply. You see these supermarkets and big box stores putting in pumps and selling gas at artificially low prices to bring business to their stores. They’re actually subsidizing those facilities with profits from elsewhere which makes it hard for a little company like us to compete with their prices.”
Rick’s father-in-law Joe Eblen was born in 1925 and raised with five sisters and a brother on a 250 acre farm in eastern Tennessee. From an early age Joe remembers having had an awareness of the Great Depression. “My dad was what I call a ‘boss farmer.’ We had tenants on the farm and he was their boss. We weren’t an affluent family, but we had lots of food during the depression time. In fact, I was five years old when we went downtown with my dad. There were people lined up all around this building and I said, “Hey, Dad, what are all those people doing?” He said, “they’re in the soup line waiting for lunch.” At that age Joe was already service oriented and thinking about a career in business. His dream then was to own a hardware store.
After graduating from high school his education continued at Emory College, Princeton University and Columbia University to prepare him to serve in the US Navy. In 1945 Joe found employment teaching at two high schools in Tennessee and coaching basketball. The following spring he began classes at the University of Tennessee, where he met a girl from Asheville, Roberta “Bobbie” Simmons. The two were wed within six weeks.
After Joe earned his Masters of Secondary School Administration degree from Vanderbilt University the newlyweds moved to Asheville where Bobbie’s father, Paul Simmons, owned and operated the Biltmore Oil Company. Biltmore Oil had a number of stations, and Mr. Simmons worked from the main office at 233 Biltmore Avenue. The storage facility where the oil and delivery trucks were kept was located on Glendale Avenue, conveniently near the railroad tracks, until it was moved to 191 Amboy Road in the mid-1990s.
Joe said, “I had taught for Asheville City Schools for about ten years, but worked for him from the time we came to Asheville. He ran a one man business, drove his own trucks and delivered his own oil. He did everything, but he had a bad case of gout and couldn’t even walk at times. He would call me in the afternoon at school and ask if I could come by and make a couple deliveries. That’s how I got started with him.”
Joe resigned from his teaching job in 1958 and began working full time at the Biltmore Avenue station. In 1967 when Mr. Simmons died, Bobbie inherited the business and Joe had the experience needed to successfully run it. When the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) proclaimed an oil embargo in 1973 it resulted in shortages of fuel in the United States. Biltmore Oil was getting all their gasoline from Atlantic Richfield Company, and ARCO moved entirely out of the Southeast leaving Biltmore Oil without any product. “I went begging. I happened to know some people in the oil business who were independent operators, so we took out the ‚Äòcrying towel’ and got some product.”
It is necessary to sell fuel under a registered brand name, and Biltmore Oil could no longer sell fuel under the ARCO banner. At this time Eblen became their registered brand name, and Bobbie borrowed a stork from the family coat of arms to use as their logo.
Joe went to Washington, D.C. with his attorney John “Jack” Shuford to make an appeal to the NC State Representative. “After we got back, I had an offer for 120,000 gallons of product. The company that promised it said we had to come up with the total payment of over $100,000 in advance. Somehow we came up with it. We struggled through the previous year and things started easing up,” Joe said.
Having been married for 65 years, the senior Eblens can complete each other’s comments. Joe’s business ethic is simple and clear, “Any business is personal. You’ve got to know your customers. You’ve got to take care of your customers. You’ve got to thank your customers.” Bobbie added, “And get there on time with the right amount of product.”