Fourth-generation, family-owned heating companies are a bit rare, but New England still has a few of them. J. J. Sullivan Fuel and Propane, in Guilford, CT, got its humble start as a gas station and grocery store in 1925.
Coal, kerosene and fuel oil delivery were added to their list of services over the years, and eventually air conditioning. Over the past nine decades, and through three acquisitions, they’ve built the company up to 15 employees, five service vans and seven fuel trucks. But they’ve never lost their local focus.
“To maintain efficiency and provide rapid service, we limit our territory to a 20-mile radius,” said Paul Sullivan, who along with his brother Jim, makes up the third generation of Sullivans to provide heating expertise to south-central CT. “We’d rather do a great job nearby than a good job farther away.”
JJ Sullivan has an on-site fuel storage capacity of 200,000 gallons, which saves them running to New Haven, the nearest place to buy wholesale oil, in the midst of a blizzard.
It’s not rare to deliver 25 or 30,000 gallons on a mid-winter day. Between Sullivan’s fuel capacity and small territory, customers know they’ll never be put on a waiting list when they need oil.
But sticking to their guns on a traditional way of business and manageable size doesn’t mean they’re not evolving. J.J. Sullivan’s latest acquisition, the purchase of nearby Madison Oil in February of 2016, brought with it the ability to deliver propane and expanded their services.
They’ve also implemented new data management, service and delivery scheduling software. Nearly 85 percent of their fuel customers are signed up for automatic delivery, which is based on heating degree days.
When it comes to equipment, Vice President JP Sullivan has kept a pulse on the industry as well. J.P. is Paul’s nephew, and has worked for the family company now for 12 years.
Along with propane comes installation of condensing boilers and furnaces, though they’ve serviced high-efficiency systems for quite some time. The state’s utility program, Energize Connecticut, has helped drive adoption of new technology, from circulators to solar arrays.
Much in the same way that the company has grown—through tradition with an eye on technology—Sullivan’s owners kept pace with, and remained loyal to, the same set of reps and manufacturers. Many of them for decades. They install Weil-McLain and Buderus boilers, HTP and Vaughn indirect tanks, Honeywell thermostats and Taco circulators.
“Dino Malespini, at Emerson Swan, has not only been a great source of information for us in the past 15 years, but he’s been a friend,” said Paul. “If any of our techs has a question, he’s very quick to reply, and he keeps us up to speed on new technology that affects our business.”
In mid-2016, Malespini brought new Taco 007e circulator to the Sullivan shop. It’s an ECM-powered version of the venerable 007 circulator, featuring the same pump curve but a lot of upgrades beyond energy savings.
“We’ve used Taco pumps for much far longer than I’ve been in the trade,” said J.P. Sullivan, Paul’s nephew and vice president of the company. “I’ve gone into mechanical rooms and seen the Perfecta circulator—the grandfather to the 007—still in service.”
It wasn’t long before J.P. had a jobsite lined up to try the new circulator.
Fast change out
A local automotive service garage not far from the Sullivan shop had recently become an oil and service customer, and lamented some issues they were having over the past heating season.
When J.P. visited the job, he found all the hydronic unit heaters and a few sections of baseboard radiation to be in good shape. The 20-year-old, cast iron Weil-McLain boiler seemed to be in good shape as well, but not as much could be said for the original circulators. Two of the three pumps were leaking and were the likely cause of the air issues the garage had experienced.
“It took me about an hour to exchange the circulators,” said J.P. “The flanges are the same, and the 007e doesn’t require a ground wire. The LED operation light on the front of the circulator is a nice feature too. It shows that there’s power to the pump, and it turns white if the circulator is self-purging.”
The circulator features “BIO Barrier,” a technology that prevents the strong magnets in the ECM motor from collecting the ferrous sludge inside an old hydronic system from building up within the circulator. Given the age of most homes in CT, it’s a valid concern when putting ECM circulators in existing systems, especially where cast iron boilers and radiators are present.
“This circulator allows customers who don’t need a variable-speed pump to capitalize on the $100 rebate that Energize Connecticut is offering for ECM circulators,” explained J.P. “The 007e is a drop-in replacement for 90 percent of the systems we service. Saving customers money this way is now just one more thing that we can offer.”
Commitment to community
Just as Sullivan actively seeks ways to help customers, they do the same for their community. In 2016, Connecticut State Representative Sean Scanlon was invited on a propane delivery ride-along, to see the impact of the tax that the state had recently placed on propane for customers whose property included a backup generator. Sullivan’s goal was to work with Scanlon to lift the tax.
“It was an unfair tax,” said Jim. “If you had one LP-fired generator on the property, all your gas was subject to a tax, despite the majority of it being used to heat your home.” Later in the year, the tax was removed with much credit due Scanlon.
Sullivan’s community outreach efforts don’t generally include political activism though. They’re best known throughout the Guilford area for the annual J F. Sullivan Annual Sideliners Golf Tournament, which is in its 13th year. The June event commemorates John Sullivan, J.P.’s grandfather. Proceeds from the event support Guilford High School’s athletic program, and draws a crowd. One frequent attendee is Dino Malespini.
“We really try to do business with companies that invest heavily in their own communities, like Emerson Swan and Taco,” said JP. It’s how we operate, and we think it’s the best way to do business.
“As the fourth generation in the family business, I’ve come to appreciate what it takes to have a family-owned operation last as long as it has,” continued JP. “It feels very similar to what we’ve seen and experienced at Taco.”
“And, thinking locally,” added JP, “we’ve grown with our community, not apart from them. Just knowing this has sharpened our awareness that building long-term relationships and a solid reputation for quality work are among the keys to success in staying local. It’s a privilege.”