Stephen Hightower has never accidentally been in the right place at the right time. He’s always made sure he was prepared for any opportunity.
In 2009, at the peak of the Great Recession, GM was in the throes of a government-assisted bankruptcy. And the president and CEO of Hightowers Petroleum Co., a licensed wholesale distributor of petroleum-based products, was prepared to sell to the battered auto manufacturer. He had to be ready to provide “initial fills,” or place fuel in cars coming off the GM assembly line. Although it only took two years to gain product certification and approval from GM to produce a top-tier branded product with stabilizers that helped the fuel last longer, it took five years total before he was given a contract; three of those years were spent convincing all participants in the supply chain, from buyers to the CEO, that his team had the expertise and capability to perform on time.
During that time both a vice president and a supplier diversity executive who had championed Hightower left the company, so he had to start the relationship-building process all over again.
“What got me back on track was an automotive summit, hosted by the Rainbow PUSH Coalition,” says Hightower. “They put me back in front of the CEO of GM, [who introduced us to] Barbara Whittaker, a senior procurement manager.” She went back to the buyers and told them to move forward with Hightowers Petroleum, giving the company a shot at the contract. This was historic. Hightower says no other company aside from BP had ever handled initial fills for any auto manufacturer in the U.S.; not Exxon, Chevron, or Sunoco, nor any jobbers—those who buy, sell, transport, and store fuel.
“Bad times are great times for small, innovative, and emergent businesses to take advantage of instability in the marketplace,” says Hightower, who says the company does not have an 8(a) federal designation but is registered with the National Minority Supplier Development Council and has a minority business enterprise (MBE) in select states. “GM gave us the opportunity with 48 hours to implement it … nationally. We had carriers step up and we outperformed our suppliers. We worked 24 hours for two to three weeks but we never let any plant run out of fuel.”
GM got the benefit of witnessing the promise that Hightowers makes to all of its customers: “You come first, every time.” Every drop of fuel that Hightowers delivered met the required specs and was delivered on time, which is the most important part of the job.
“There are great financial penalties for shutting down an assembly line to any supplier to the automotive industry. That would have been the end of our career with General Motors,” says Hightower.
Since that time, Hightower says, every car that comes off a GM assembly line throughout the U.S. and Mexico runs on Hightowers gas. The company now delivers 14 million gallons of fuel to GM every year. Hightower says nobody aside from BP has these kinds of contracts, which in GM’s case is a contract in the neighborhood of $50 million and growing now that the industry has rebounded.
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