Q&A with Andrew Wells, co-owner of UFA petroleum agencies in Rycroft and Spirit River

Andrew Wells, left, has assumed a greater role at the UFA agencies in Rycroft and Spirit River following the retirement of his mother, Debbie. Andrew now owns 50% of the business while his dad, Rick, right, owns the remaining 50%.

The UFA connection of the Wells family goes back a few decades. In 1978, Albert and Shirley Wells, the parents of Rick Wells, were offered the opportunity to own the Wanham UFA agency, built in the 1940’s-1950’s. Those were the days when filling and hauling 45 gallon drums were considered large volumes, and farmers could farm for days on these volumes. Albert and Shirley also operated a tire shop on the side. Rick tells stories about how he and his dad would haul fuel and fill jockey tanks and drums on the dock all day, and fixes tires all night.

As time went on the farms got bigger, and the number of farmers in the area shrank. There wasn’t enough income to feed two families, so Rick left to custom haul grain and fertilizer.

In 2005, Rick, alongside wife Debbie, saw an opportunity to run the UFA in Spirit River, which opened in 1951. They became the agents of the Spirit River location in August 2005. Together, Rick and Debbie ran the agency as a manned petroleum agency for nine years before UFA decided to invest in a large brand-new cardlock and bulk facility in Rycroft.

Once the Rycroft site was completed in 2014, the UFA in Wanham was completely shut down. The office in Spirit River was also closed, leaving an unmanned cardlock in Spirit River for customers to still have the availability to purchase fuel from. Rycroft then became the main agency, where lubricants, fuels, and everything in between is completed.

On December 31, 2018, Debbie decided it was time for her to enjoy retirement while she’s young enough to do the things she wants to. Her retirement opened the door for son Andrew to purchase her share of the UFA business.

Andrew now owns 50% of the business while his dad, Rick, owns the remaining 50%.

“I’m proud to be lucky enough to be in my position, and to be a third-generation Wells to be a UFA agent,” Andrew told The Central Peace Signal.

Tell us a little bit about your business experience.
I graduated in 2009 and didn’t know what I was going to do. I worked after school at the UFA in Spirit River and had the basic knowledge of how to run the computers and knowledge of the products.

In February of 2010, when grandma and grandpa decided it was time for retirement from the Wanham agency, I decided to run that agency for my parents. Between guidance of my parents running Spirit River, and grandma and grandpa guiding me through the way they did business I learned the “do’s and don’ts” of the business.

I believe that the hands-on experience I received and the gift of gab were the best ways for me to learn. Once Wanham was shut down, and we were under the same roof at Rycroft, I’ve further gained knowledge about the background side of the business, including the financials.

What was it like working directly with and for your parents?
It’s interesting, to say the least. There are days when you wonder what you’re doing. Other days you’re proud to have the opportunity of working with them. It’s difficult to differentiate business and personal within a family business. But, at the end of the day, I’m happy that I do have the opportunity to work with them.

The oil business is currently the subject of so much wrangling between the federal and the Alberta governments. How has it affected the petroleum retail business?
Fuel sales fluctuate due to highway traffic, projects in the area, and the amount of money companies are willing to invest at a time when there is less optimism in the oil and gas sector in Alberta. The impact is felt not only by our business but by many other businesses in the area as well. We have seen volatile fuel prices now more than ever.

Who are the majority of your customers?
Agriculture is the largest industry that we service. There is a saying that goes, “Agriculture is everybody’s bread and butter,” and we believe that stands true. Farmers need fuels and products for all aspects of farming, and we’re happy, as a cooperative, that we are able to supply those products to our members and customers. Oil and gas, logistics, and forestry are large parts of our business as well, but agriculture is the foundation of our business.

How do you plan to grow the business – now that you are more than an employee but a shareholder of the business?
We have a large market share in our geographic service area. We supply many products to different industries. When we review how we do business and how we can do better, we look at all industries and consumers as a whole and ask ourselves: what do our members and customers want?

In the last half of 2018, we brought a new diesel fuel to our bulk delivery market – DieselEx Gold. DieselEx Gold is a clear and dyed diesel product engineered to be the best diesel fuel to power and protect. It provides more power to diesel engines, greater efficiency for engines, and gives lasting protection. In preliminary testing with local farmers and trucking companies, they’ve come back and purchased the product again because they’ve seen the difference this premium diesel has made. Users of this product have observed less shifting on hills, more power pulling equipment in higher gears, as well as fuel efficiency improvements of 5%-8%. We think this product, with the ever-changing technology of diesel engines, will give our customers the benefits they want on their farm, while lowering the everyday and long-term cost of maintenance and fuels.

Secondly, we want to expand our consumer market. When people think UFA, they think of farmers. UFA is a member-owned cooperative. Anybody can be a member. Whether you’re fuelling a car to drive to work, a 30-truck fleet operating up and down the road or a farmer feeding cattle, UFA has the products and expertise for your operations. With options such as “FuelLink” (pay at the pump 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,) Commercial Fuel Network (cards that work for fuel in Canada and the United States,) or a regular UFA card for UFA’s network in Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan, UFA has the right products and the right place at the right time.

What are some of the challenges unique to the retail and distribution of petroleum products? How has the business been able to weather through all these challenges?
Timing is one of our bigger challenges. Having the right products, at the right time, in the right places is key to success in our business. For agriculture, spring and fall are “go times” for all farmers, and we respond by giving the service they expect.

To continue that service, we have large trucks and a truck/trailer unit to service these customers. Further, we have four drivers to optimize our equipment, and to work trucks day and night as we need to. As well, we supply rental fuel tanks to customers for remote fuel storage and lessen the time our equipment sits on locations to serve other customers.