Allison Heaney truly grew up in the Oilheat business. At age 5, she was helping to wash trucks at Skaggs-Walsh, the Queens, NY, company run by her father, Peter Heaney, who succeeded his own father, Fred Heaney. At 9, she was stuffing envelopes in the customer service department with her mother, and at 14, she was cleaning boilers. By age 21, she was running the sales department, and when her father took ill in 1994, she stepped into the company presidency as a 24-year-old.
Her ascent to company leadership came only slightly ahead of schedule. Peter Heaney had planned to step aside in 1995 and let his daughter take over, and when lung cancer ended his career prematurely, the plan was accelerated by one year. “My dad was ahead of his time,” Allison Heaney recently told Oil & Energy. “He was gender neutral and never saw women as inferior. In fact, he might even have seen us as superior.”
Like her father and grandfather before her, Allison Heaney is also deeply committed to industry association work. She has served as chairperson of the New York Oil Heating Association (NYOHA) and is currently chairing the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA).
She recently shared her story in an in-depth interview with Oil & Energy Editor John MacKenna.
Oil & Energy: Please explain how you got into the heating oil industry and the jobs you have held along the way.
Allison Heaney: My dad ran the business before I did, and he took over from his dad. The original owners, Norris Skaggs and Stanley Walsh, had hired my grandfather as a consultant. They specialized in installations, and they offered him a piece of the business to teach them how to sell fuel oil. I started when I was 5, 6 and 7 washing trucks, and then when I was 9 and 10, I was stuffing envelopes with my mother, who worked in customer service. When I was 14, my dad gave me a job doing data entry in sales, and it was brutally boring. My brother, who was three years younger, came on at the same time, and he went out with the guys doing installations of new boilers. When he came back, he was talking about all the filth in the basements and the rats and the boiler removal junkies, and I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I implored my dad. He said it was too dangerous, but at age 14 I started going out on cleanings and YOs (yearly overhauls).
I loved it, and I did that for three summers and got a great working knowledge of boilers and burners and developed a love of the business through the service side.
When I finished high school, I wanted to get a “real job” that wasn’t through the family business, so I worked in a bakery and as an ambulance EMT. But I always loved working at the company, and I did come back for Christmas vacations.
I went to college at Georgetown and majored in economics. I was also doing pre-med and thought I would become a doctor, but when I graduated in 1991 I realized I did not want to do four more years of school and would rather go into business.
I graduated on May 28 and asked my dad if he would hire me. He suggested I start the following Monday. “But that’s Memorial Day,” I said. He said, “All right. Tuesday then.” I started on Tuesday, and he put me in sales. I was devastated, and I said, “Dad, I thought you loved me.” He said this work was important and powerful, and that sales was not a dirty word.
He let the sales manager train me for two-and-a-half weeks, and then he let him go. He said he hadn’t been doing a good job, and he put me in charge. I ran sales for three years, and it turned out to be a great experience. I learned about hiring and firing and personnel evaluation. I had good contact with the credit department and the service manager. As the owner’s daughter, I’d be in at 10 p.m. and be asking the night dispatcher, “Why do we do it this way?” It was a great way to learn how the office works. Then my Dad got lung cancer in 1994, and he said I was in charge, at age 24. It was a little bit of a baptism by fire.
O&E: Your father sounds like an interesting man.
AH: He was a really wonderful guy who was almost larger than life. He was very charismatic, and he went out of his way to be generous with his time and advice. He had a very good working relationship with coworkers and always referred to them as “people he worked with” and not “people who worked for him,” and I have done that as well. We are all working together to achieve common goals.
He was an interesting fellow. He had been a failure at school and got kicked out of three high schools for being sort of a bad actor. However, when he got to college he really turned things around and graduated seventh in his class at St. John’s University. He hated public speaking, because he stuttered, but he did take on leadership roles in the associations. The Empire State Petroleum Association (ESPA) was near and dear to his heart, and he was instrumental in their move to Albany. He was the Chairman when he got sick in 1994. He never did become president of NYOHA, which his father and I both did. It would have been nice to be the only three-generation family leading that organization.
I miss him. This October will be the 21st anniversary of his death. I often think of how different things might be if he had lived, but actually it might not have been all that different. He had a plan for me to take over in October of 1995. He intended to leave the company then and entrust it to me, which is pretty outrageous, but that was his plan, and he had it all written down.
O&E: Please give an overview of Skaggs-Walsh.
AH: We are located in College Point, NY, and we are primarily a fuel oil company. We deliver heating oil and provide 24-hour service. We install boilers and burners and all things relating to oil. We have grown through the years, mostly through acquisition of companies. We just recently acquired a plumbing company, so we are branching out into plumbing. In January we started doing service on gas units as well, because we realize our core strength is fixing heating equipment, and that works with everyone regardless of whether they heat with oil or gas. This is making us a stronger company.
O&E: Have the reductions in heating oil prices been helpful for Skaggs-Walsh?
AH: It is great for cash flow. We have a small terminal in College Point, and we bring in barges with 160,000 gallons of product, and it’s nice not to have to lay out over half a million dollars for one load. It’s also great for sales, because customers are less focused on conserving and putting on more sweaters, and they are more willing to turn the thermostat a few degrees higher. Low prices also make it easier for them to pay, so we get paid more promptly, and I don’t have to borrow from the bank to float them.
O&E: How has the marketplace for fuel delivery and home comfort changed in recent years in your service area? Has it become more competitive?
AH: I have been in the industry for 25 years fulltime, and it’s always been very competitive. The difference now is that you have some players who are just not operating in a logical and businesslike manner, and that puts pressure on all of us. It also pushes our company to be better and promote our core strengths. You have to keep providing value. As long as you do that, you’ll be all right.
O&E: How challenging it is to find and retain the skilled workers you need, such as technicians and drivers?
AH: On the driver side, we have been very lucky. We have low attrition, and we’re in a market where there are many qualified drivers. On the service side, it’s a little harder. We realize that the best tactic is to grow our own, so we hire people with no experience, and we train them to start with tune-ups and let them get experience there. If they show some initiative, I will offer them training. They give me a three-year commitment, and I provide the training that qualifies them to be a B Mechanic.
If they prove competent in residential work, they can train to become A Mechanics and do commercial work. We’ve had quite a few move through the ranks that way. Sometimes other companies like to poach the farm team, but for the most part if we treat them well, they do tend to stay, and we try to do that.
We are a union shop, but if you have good relations with the men, they don’t need the union and they come to me with their problems just like other employees, with no need for third-party involvement.
O&E: How did you get involved in industry leadership?
AH: I followed the lead of my father. When he became ill in 1994, he asked NYOHA to let me join the board, and that was a wonderful learning experience. I was the only woman, and many of his peers and my peers were generous and kind and helped me understand how associations work, which is kind of a microcosm of how life works.
With NORA, I got involved right from the start. I was lucky that when they formed the first NORA board, I was on it. I consider [NORA pioneer] Bob Greenes a real mentor. I got to serve as his chauffer, driving him to meetings in Albany. Just by being active in those groups, you get asked to be active in other associations.
O&E: What would you be doing if you weren’t working at Skaggs-Walsh?
AH: I often think of that. Had I not come to Skaggs-Walsh I probably would have gone to medical school. Whether I would have practiced medicine, I don’t know. I think
I would have become frustrated with healthcare the way it is, but I love the idea. I was an EMT all through college.
I would definitely still want to be a mother, but I have often thought that I’d like to be an accountant, because I like how concrete numbers are. Having a definite answer to questions is something that I really crave nowadays. Another interest I have is planning indoor spaces and designing office space. But I love what
I do now.
O&E: What do you like about working in industry associations such as NORA?
AH: The associations are so important. They protect us from legislators who are constantly coming up with crazy ideas to put us out of business. I don’t think they actually want to put us out of business, but they’ll see trucks rumbling down the street and decide they don’t want to see that anymore. Or they’ll decide that oil leaks are bad and say, “Let’s remove all the oil tanks from below houses.” If it weren’t for the associations, ordinary dealers would not know about the laws and regulations being introduced. We need groups like NYOHA to protect us from the legislatures and regulators.
NORA has a different approach, and it is such as phenomenal aid to our industry, because the oil industry is so fractured, and NORA has the ability to bring us all together for consumer education campaigns and research. We have been very lucky to have John Huber at the helm, helping to guide us through all of the difficult challenges we have faced. The fact that [NORA pioneers] Bob Greenes, Jack Sullivan and Don Allen were able to conceive of this plan is great. It enables us to get all these separate dealers on the same page. And after conceiving it, we were able to get it through Congress three times.
I am a huge proponent of NORA and very appreciative of the fact that we were able to do some positive consumer education over the last year, because we have been so badly bashed by the natural gas lobby. They still outspend us like 20-to-one, but it’s very important to have a dissenting voice out there. The research and development has also grown to be much more important over time. The future of our industry is to bring new products and new fuels to customers in order to change the face of our industry.
O&E: Do you recommend association work for your peers? Why is it important to participate?
AH: The more voices that are in the mix, the greater the support and power we have. Association work is not always gratifying, but it is necessary, and the future of our industry is at stake. I cannot imagine not wanting to be part of the machine that is shaping the future of our industry.
O&E: NORA has a lot of initiatives in the works that will benefit heating oil customers and fuel dealers. Please talk about some of the ones that you find most promising.
AH: As Chairperson of NORA, I see a lot of proposals, and some of them are just amazing. If we can bring these to fruition, it will be great for our companies and our customers. We are working on a burner that burns bioblends right up to B100. We also have testing going on with biofuels to make sure that there are no problems at B20 and above. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that these fuels work without problems, but these tests will make sure so that we can get the equipment manufacturers and UL on board.
We want to have a standard that ensures that biodiesel blends are safe for every application. We are also developing wall-hung boiler units that would be a great addition. Some customers are bothered by the size of boilers. If we can reduce the water volume and the size, that would be very exciting.
There is also a project looking at the use of fuel oil in air conditioner applications. Hopefully we’ll see that sooner rather than later, because it would help us sell fuel year-round, which would really help with maintaining our workforce.
O&E: NORA has been working for years to improve the fuel supply by promoting Bioheat® fuel and ultra low sulfur heating oil. What do you see as the key benefits of cleaner fuels for customers and marketers?
AH: Biofuel blending makes our fuel better, and it keeps farmers in business. Opponents try to argue that it is food versus fuel, but it isn’t, because soy oil is a byproduct of making food from soy. The soy oil was garbage, and we have found a market for that garbage. That is the ultimate recycling.
Plus, there are a great many benefits from the consumer side. The unit does not create as much soot, which is great, because every one-eighth-inch of soot decreases efficiency by 9 percent, so they get more efficiency from the fuel and less fouling with strainers and nozzles, which means fewer breakdowns.
It is fabulous to have fewer service calls. In my experience, service calls go down 30 percent with Bioheat and ultra low sulfur heating oil. That represents savings for customers, and the service technicians have an easier job at annual cleanings. They don’t have to drag the vacuum cleaner in every year. They can just change the nozzle and the strainer, do an efficiency test, tune the system for maximum efficiency, and they’re out. It’s a win-win for everyone.
At Skaggs-Walsh we committed to B20 two years ago, and now we deliver it to all our customers, and it is phenomenal. In New York, we have the penny-per-percent tax credit, so customers benefit financially, and their tanks and lines and burners are cleaner.
O&E: What are your top priorities as NORA chairperson?
AH: NORA is really humming along nicely right now, although I do think we were a little slow getting started on the reauthorization push last time, and we need to get ready for the next one. I’m really excited about the new NORA space in Plainview, NY, where Dr. Tom Butcher is performing his experiments on fuel and equipment.
It is a great space, and it gives us the opportunity to bring training to the technicians in the region.
I’m also very pleased with our initiative to use leftover funds from the former NORA for an educational outreach campaign over the last year. Some of the states were struggling with how to use NORA dollars to benefit the users of their fuel, and that reached a lot of people and was a real accomplishment.
O&E: Does the industry need to raise awareness at the customer level of cleaner fuels like ultra low sulfur heating oil and Bioheat fuel?
AH: Absolutely! As an Oilheat dealer that has constantly tried to educate consumers and has been delivering Bioheat and ultra low sulfur fuel for two years, we still have customers who don’t recognize that they are getting a much better fuel.
I think as a group, Oilheat dealers have not been as good at educating the consumers as we could be, because we are fractured. NYOHA does a good job getting out a newsletter to the Oilheat customers, but the vast majority of consumers in this area are on natural gas. They have no idea about the high quality fuel we are delivering. A lot of work still needs to be done on consumer education.