Making The Grade

These new companies are blazing; hot trails as the newest additions to the B.E. 100s universe

money and applied good, old-fashioned elbow grease to build one of the nation’s largest black-owned oil companies. And after eight years, his hard work has transformed Portland, Oregon-based United Energy Inc. from a one-man operation into a $29 million business empire with 32 employees and a solid roster of corporate clients. Moreover, it has earned the concern the No. 74 spot on the BE INDUSTRIAL/ SERVICE 100 list.

Winters has succeeded in an industry that has not been too kind to black entrepreneurs over the past decade. In the early 1990s, the volatility of oil prices reduced the fortunes of a number of BE 100s oil concerns into little more than fossil fuel. The only BE 100s mainstay has been Boston-based Grimes Oil (No. 53 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $38.76 million)–and that’s after recovering from bankruptcy.

The 37-year-old Oregon State University graduate selected the oil industry after spending several years analyzing financial data for Great Western Petroleum during stints in California and Texas. By 1990, he decided to return to his hometown and start his own business. “I picked the oil business,” says Winters, “because it was an industry that I had gained some comfort in.”

Times were lean, though. For roughly 18 months, Winters used his savings and took a series of professional temp jobs to maintain a liv
ing while he tried to drum up business for newly incorporated United Energy. Initially, he operated the concern from the living room of his home. After work, he spent hours in the public library, poring over business publications and industry journals to identify contacts and potential clients. It took 10 months of sending letters to and cold-calling corporate purchasing offices before Winters landed his first contract. “I had one day to supply a small pipeline company with 55 drums of motor oil,” he reflects. “I took the order but I didn’t have any money to fill it.”

Winters borrowed about $6,000 from an old college chum, Gregory Allen, to purchase the oil and rent a truck to make the delivery. The terms of the loan: repayment of the principal with interest and a 32% ownership stake in the enterprise. Learning how to operate a big rig for the first time, the determined Winters braved treacherous, winding roads to haul the cargo. He proved successful and, as a result, pocketed $75,000.

He reinvested the money and began scouting for new accounts. In 1992, United Energy’s big opportunity came when Winters persuaded officials from American Airlines to have his company supply them with 480,000 gallons of jet fuel–a deal worth roughly $400,000. He was able to parlay that transaction into larger contracts with American and such companies as United Airlines, Alamo and National Car Rental.

Although petroleum distribution represents part of United Energy’s business–the operation grossed $21 million in 1997-Winters has diversified into other areas. In 1993, he developed a subsidiary that delivered and sold discounted home heating oil to consumers. By 1996, he divested the operation, which was selling more than 52,000 gallons of

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