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Keeping the heat on in a changing world

Thomas S. Santa, president and CEO of Santa Energy, on how the business got its start, how it has adapted to the times and the importance of being involved in the community.

CT Post Article – By Keila Torres Ocasio

Q: Tell us how Santa Energy got its start.

A: Santa Energy was started in Stratford by Stephen and Madelyn Santa. It began with a single truck, which they parked at their home on Paterson Avenue. Steve had worked for Mobil Oil Corporation in Bridgeport and purchased Mobil’s kerosene delivery route in November of 1940. Steve and Madelyn’s sons joined the company in the early 50s and in 1959 they purchased and moved to Mobil’s Bridgeport office, where we are located to this day.

Q: How has the home heating business changed since Santa got started?

A: There have been many advances in the oil heating business over the past 75 years. Oil combustion technology has improved dramatically, resulting in higher efficiency (and) lower emissions while improving safety and reliability. Today’s delivery vehicles carry three to four times the volume of trucks in use in my grandfather’s day, making delivery more efficient. Like in every business, the computer was a huge improvement. It has automated the billing and accounting functions but also allowed for more accurate and timely delivery projections. The futures market was also a great improvement allowing customers to manage fuel costs.

Q: Why did Santa begin offering electricity to commercial accounts and expand into the natural gas market?

A: (We) entered the commercial and industrial market in 1982 with the acquisition of Buckley Brothers, a major industrial marketer supplying petroleum products to industry and institutions throughout New England. When the sales of natural gas and electricity to commercial customers was enabled by deregulation this was a logical extension of our business. We entered the gas and electricity markets in 2001 and last year we entered the propane business to give our customers a complete slate of choices. We developed the strategy of being “fuel neutral” and work closely with our customers to select the fuel source, oil, gas, electricity or propane that best meets their needs. Each fuel has its own unique advantages and ideal applications and we feel we are uniquely positioned to help our customers determine what is best for their specific use. Many of our larger customers can use more than one fuel and we work with them, even changing fuel source in mid-season to take advantage of opportunities the markets present.

Q: What percentage of the company’s business is now oil distribution? How quickly or slowly has that percentage been changing?

A: Petroleum distribution continues to be the major piece of our business. In addition to serving residential and commercial markets we are also very active in wholesale fuel distribution, marketing out of five terminals in Connecticut and Rhode Island. While our natural gas, electricity and propane sales have risen dramatically, our oil sales have kept pace.

Q: The cost of heating oil seems to rise each year, how does that impact your business?

A: Everyone mistakenly thinks we do better when oil prices are high. The reality is just the opposite. Since we don’t own any oil wells, when the cost of oil goes up, our costs go up as well. Whether it is financing our oil purchases or buying fuel to power our trucks, the costs go up and we are hesitant to pass those costs on when our customers are already being impacted by the higher prices. Fortunately, it appears we are finally getting a break from higher prices. Thanks to the vast new supplies of oil, natural gas and propane that have been discovered right here in the USA we are seeing energy prices finally crack, a trend we hope continues.

Q: People are now looking for alternative and green ways to fuel their homes. How has that movement affected the business?

A: We have looked at a number of alternative energy sources over the past several years including wind and solar. We have sold Bio-heating oil, a blend of renewable biofuel and conventional heating oil for over a decade. We have also marketed propane and compressed natural gas as an alternative motor fuel which measurably reduces emissions. Unfortunately, due to our climate and location, wind and solar will never make up more than a fraction of our energy use. Where we do see a great opportunity for being more green is in the area of energy conservation. We are now running three energy audit teams that go out to homes and businesses and perform complete energy audits. They identify and correct sources of air leaks in homes, replace inefficient light fixtures and make recommendations for heating and air conditioning upgrades. There have been great advances in heating and air conditioning system efficiency and upgrades yielding 30 percent or more in energy use reduction are not uncommon. There are also a number of way to finance these improvements so the systems pay for themselves through the savings.

Q: You’re active in trade and community organizations. Which ones are most important to you and why?

A: We fully recognize our obligation to give back to our industry and our community, a tradition started by my grandparents. I have been active in the Connecticut Business and Industry Association for a number of years. It is a terrific organization representing the many great businesses in Connecticut. More recently our activity has focused on three organization based here in Bridgeport. The Bridgeport Regional Business Council, The Barnum Festival and Junior Achievement of Western Connecticut. I see these three organizations as the three legs of sturdy support for the city. The BRBC advances the economic development of the city. The festival celebrates the spirit, life and legacy of P.T. Barnum, one of the greatest businessmen and promoters the world has ever known. Junior Achievement teaches our young people how to be successful in today’s world so everyone, Bridgeport children included, can benefit from the great things this county and specifically our region has to offer. That is not to diminish the importance of or our support for the many other great organizations and institutions in the area, from the United Way or the Cardinal Shehan Center to the University of Bridgeport, St. Vincent’s Medical Center or Bridgeport Hospital, to name a few.