Honesty, passion and concern for others mean a lot in the business world. That is one of the many lessons that Alfred “Fred” Slifka left from more than 50 years of exceptional success in the petroleum industry.
The Chairman of the Board at Global GP LLC was one of the most accomplished executives in New England energy when he passed on March 9 at age 81, but he never forgot his humble roots or all the people he met along the way.
Edward Faneuil, Global’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, said the Dorchester native never put on airs. “If Fred Slifka walked into a restaurant and saw the President of the United States at the front of the room and a guy that used to drive an oil truck for him at the back, he’d go sit with the oil guy first and spend 20 minutes. He never for one minute forgot anyone from when he was a youngster.”
Mr. Slifka’s brother, Richard, said the family grew up poor in a six-family house where the brothers shared a bedroom. “He was hard working, entrepreneurial and very well liked. He had a great way about him, very loyal and honest.”
Fred met Gilda Koritz when they were teenagers and “there was definitely an attraction,” said Richard. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he returned to Boston, joined his father Abraham’s business, Slifky’s Reliable Oil Co., and married his sweetheart. Mr. and Mrs. Slifka eventually raised three children together, Adam, Jennifer and Eric, became grandparents seven times over, and enjoyed more than 58 years of marriage.
When Fred Slifka joined his father in business in 1948, Slifky’s Reliable had one truck and was selling about 700,000 gallons a year. The son soon demonstrated the deal-making skills that would become his hallmark. Mr. Slifka described one of his early deals during a presentation he gave at Brandeis University: “One day when I was making a delivery and blocking the street, another oil truck pulled up behind me. I was 18 years old at the time. The driver came out of his truck and started talking to me. He said he would like to sell his business. I grabbed him by the hand. We went to see my father’s lawyer and bought the company that same day, admittedly with some smoke and mirrors, in other words, with no money. The name of that company was Atlas Oil, and it became our flagship company.” By 1955, the Slifkas’ retail companies were selling a combined 3 million gallons a year, and by 1971, about 9 million gallons, and by 1980, 50 million gallons.
A Winning Partnership
Richard Slifka said his brother succeeded by being himself. “People think that when you’re successful in business, you’ve got to be ruthless, but he was the farthest thing from it. He was always fair and would never do a deal if he didn’t think it was right for the other side. It was in his DNA.”
Richard joined the business in the 1960s at Fred’s request. He had gone to college and taken a job in Pennsylvania as an industrial engineer, and Fred called to ask him to come back to Boston as a 50-50 partner. That began a very special relationship. “He was much more the outside guy, the business go-getter. I was more happy as an inside person, more of a detail person,” Richard explained. “We had an unusually good arrangement, and we trusted each other enough that if he went away for two weeks and left me in charge, whatever I did in the meantime was fine with him.”
Dick Horan, former principle of Hughes Oil who had known Mr. Slifka since they were loading fuel trucks side by side at a terminal in Jamaica Plain, Mass., in their 20s, said Fred and Richard’s relationship was a key to their success. “Fred was the deal maker, and Richie kind of kept score,” he said. “They were hand in glove.”
When oil supplies became tight in the early 70s, the Slifkas entered the wholesale arena and leased 500,000 gallons of capacity from Chevron in South Boston. Texaco was Atlas’s largest supplier at the time and did not want to lose Atlas’s business, so it leased 8 million gallons in storage to Mr. Slifka’s company along with the rights to move oil in an out of the terminal by barge. “This changed our whole game,” Mr. Slifka told the Brandeis students. “We formed another corporation called Global Petroleum and Trading, later changed to just Global Petroleum. This gave us the ability to buy oil cheaper and then wholesale heating oil to other retailers.”
Global received another important boost in the early ’70s by bidding for Department of Defense oil supply contracts. “No one in New England, including the major companies, bid except us,” he told the Brandeis students. “That was because I was fairly stupid and did not know any better. I just assumed that no matter what happened the U.S. Government and the Defense Department would never be allowed to run out of oil, and therefore I would get it somewhere.” Sure enough, when the Oil Embargo hit in 1973, the government passed laws to ensure that its suppliers would be able to get oil.
Global’s transition from retailer to wholesaler accelerated in 1983, when the brothers sold Atlas to Petro. In the ensuing years, the Slifkas re-entered the retail business by purchasing Griffith and also began selling gasoline through a network of filling stations. They eventually purchased Atlantic and renamed it Alliance Energy. Mr. Slifka and his family successfully completed Global Partners’ initial public offering and listing on the New York Stock Exchange in 2005.
A Generous Spirit
Through it all, Fred Slifka earned the deep admiration and friendship of colleagues and competitors throughout the industry. “There will never be another Fred Slifka,” said Bob McCool, former Mobil Americas Vice President and now a member of the Global Board of Trustees. “He was a great businessman, a great philanthropist, and he cared about everyone.”
Horan said, “I absolutely loved Fred. He never met anyone that if they needed help that he would refuse. He started a lot of people off in business and helped them be more successful. He was also very charitable. Most people did not know the depths of his charity.”
One of Mr. Slifka’s favorite charities was the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Pam Spitzer, Executive Director of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Chapter, said, “Fred Slifka was a force of nature, a man with many passions, but family was first. We were very fortunate that he was passionate about Cystic Fibrosis. He was always a tremendous supporter and served in leadership roles in Massachusetts and in Palm Beach. He and his wife, Gilda, brought great connections and awareness to our disease.
“He has his family supported us not only themselves but also through the business,” she added. “He was a man who used his connections in a very quiet, dignified yet powerful way. When Fred asked, people gave. And he was a giver to so many other organizations as well. He was a great man.”
Within the oil industry, friends and colleagues are mourning a huge loss. “Fred was the most dynamic, most generous and shrewdest oil man I’ve ever known,” said Jack Sullivan, former Chief Executive Officer of the New England Fuel Institute. “He had the ability to motivate people, he surrounded himself with excellent decision makers, and he supported his customers and his employees to the very best of his ability.”
The former NEFI chief said Mr. Slifka was always ready to help. “Whenever there was an issue where we needed support, the most prominent person to step up to the plate was Fred Slifka, without exception. He didn’t make a lot of noise, but he was there when you needed him, and other companies followed.” Ed Noonan, of Noonan Energy, also admired Mr. Slifka’s commitment to his industry. “He was always supportive of NEFI and also of NORA.”
Mr. Sullivan greatly admired Mr. Slifka’s business acumen. “He could make decisions based on what he felt, as opposed to having to go through the mechanics of it. He had a gut feeling. He was a kind of wildcatter, one of the last. He had that instinct.”
Mr. Horan said that Mr. Slifka seemed to understand the business in ways that many of his colleagues did not. “Fred knew there was a lot of pent-up value in our businesses. Most of the companies had HVAC services that created a relationship with the customer, and he had a facility for understanding that. That is why he’d pay that something extra to make a deal. He was a very smart businessman.”
Richard Salmonsen, former Vice President of Sales at Global, expressed great admiration for Mr. Slifka’s personal qualities. “Freddie was a hard worker and a very sincere guy. He said what he meant. He was very determined but also very likable, a regular man.”
A Man of His Word
Several colleagues commented on Mr. Slifka’s honorable reputation. “As a supplier, he was always very fair and a man of his word,” said Mr. Noonan. “If I had Freddie’s word on a deal, I did not have to worry about it.” “When you made a deal, Freddie honored the deal,” said Mr. McCool. “Today you need 8,000 lawyers, but not with Freddie. A handshake would do.”
“What he said is going to happen is what’s going to happen,” said Dave Eagle, of Arlex Energy. “You always knew where you stood. If you had a question, you got an answer. You might not like the answer, but it was straight. I respected the heck out of him. If you needed a hand, he was the first guy to step up.”
Through all his success with Slifky’s Reliable, then Atlas, and then Global, Mr. Slifka always cared deeply for the colleagues, friends, employees and others he met along the way, according to many who knew him.
“He was very generous,” said McCool. “He never wanted anyone to say anything, but he took care of a lot of people.” Faneuil, the Global attorney, said, “As large as Fred was, he was the most down to earth human being you could ever meet.”
Mr. Slifka’s ability to maintain friendships with all kinds of people served him well, according to Faneuil. “It served as an excellent example of us who were fortunate to know him. It speaks to his recognition of how fortunate he and his family and his brother were. They did not forget the humble beginnings from which they came.”