In these times of inflation and high gas prices combined with the threats of climate change, listening to those of experience can prove soothing to those concerned.
Mark Whitehead spoke Monday to Executive Club members at their weekly luncheon in downtown Lincoln at the Graduate Hotel. He is president of the Whitehead Oil Co., which owns the U-Stop convenience stores that dot the map of gas pumps across the Star City metropolitan area and beyond.
“I’ve been a part of this industry since I was in the fifth grade when I would help my dad,” Whitehead said in recalling his late father and founder of Whitehead Oil, Milton Edgar “Bus” Whitehead. “I can still remember when we founded our first convenience store at 27th and South streets in 1982. And, I can still remember the first day with my responsibility of managing on a day-to-day basis. I had this eerie feeling when we flipped the light switch and the only thing we could hear was the sound of the hum of the ballast, and that strange feeling of what if no one showed up.”
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Local gas prices back in the 1980s were hovering around $1 per gallon. Flash forward to today, and the price at the pump is well over $4 a gallon and had threatened the $5 mark. This kind of pricing does not help the bottom line of Whitehead Oil and U-Stop.
“Our end of the industry goes better with cheaper gas. A reality is we are able to make more money and our margins are better when people are able to drive more miles,” Whitehead shared. “When it gets up to $4 and close to $5, guess what happens to our margins?”
Whitehead Oil Co. has established 24 U-Stop locations over the past 40 years, and he said they’ve been fortunate enough to flourish.
“We come into work each and every day trying to figure out how we can differentiate ourselves from our competition, and I am well aware of the fact that each one of our competitors are doing the exact thing,” he said. “So, it’s a fascinating aspect to try and figure that out, and we’re proud of some of the things we’ve been able to pioneer.”
One of the things he listed was working with developing Ethanol in the 1980s through a partnership with the University of Nebraska. He said U-Stop was one of the first in the country to enable electronic payment options at the pump for convenience.
“And I’m quite proud of what we were able to accomplish at 27th and I-80 in working with conservational groups to turn a cow pasture back into a wetlands development,” said Whitehead, who has been on the Environmental Quality Council for the past 13 years. “I’m incredibly proud of that aspect in our development at 27th and I-80.”
Whitehead also embraced the issue of climate change and the impact of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the environment.
“As technology continues to improve, the need for energy is going to continue to grow as well,” he said. “We need to be aware of what we can possibly do to curb CO2 emissions without a dramatic impact on the environment. Sometimes it seems we’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole. It is not going to work. We need to continue to improve ways to absorb more CO2s within the environment. But, it’s completely unrealistic to divorce ourselves away from any fossil fuels over the road or otherwise. It is not going to be feasible.”
He said it becomes a risk-reward scenario with fossil fuels. Part of the rewards are some of the evolutions that have taken place to reduce some of the air pollution problems over the past 50 years, he said, adding that the advent of the Clean Air Act of 1990 has improved air quality.
“The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970, and we wouldn’t be where we’re at today without that agency,” he said. “The environmental efforts are definitely worthy. We need to keep those emission standards.”
The author, Tim Brusnahan, is program chair for the Lincoln Executive Club and employed by Marco.