WEST ROXBURY, Mass. - Oil-fueled heating system service work has come a long way. Some businesses, like Hughes Oil, struggled through economic hardships and wars before becoming the home comfort businesses of today. William G. Hughes started his business in 1934, selling kerosene, ice, and coal to homes in Boston's Jamaica Plain area.

According to the company, it has been managed by the Hughes and Horan families "for more than 65 years and three generations." Its current president, Dick Horan, has taken the company into the realm of Internet-based oil purchasing to help generate new customers, by signing up as a dealer with OrderOil.com. The company brokers oil heating system service and installation services online, in addition to fuel oil sales.

"It's about a month old as far as our involvement is concerned," he said. "We're getting about two to three inquiries per week. I wasn't sure how many people would respond." He is pleased thus far.

OrderOil's management team consists of "very good people, people who try a lot of new things," Horan said. Becoming one of its recommended dealers is "one more arrow in the quiver" for gaining new customers.

Commercial Hooks

Rob Fawcett is the founder and president of OrderOil.com. He said that the company is going to "broaden our focus from the residential heating oil customer to include commercial users of heating oil," with the addition of two modules.

The first module, he said, is a "Commercial Oil Bidding" component. This would allow property managers "to submit a request for proposals to dealers servicing the zip codes in which the buildings are located," Fawcett said. "For example, a property manager will be able to go to the Web site and list the property locations, size of oil tanks, and annual consumption. With this information in hand, participating OrderOil dealers will be able to submit bids."

The commercial module should "dramatically simplify the bidding process for property managers and increase the number of dealers likely to participate in the bid," he said.

The second module is an "Equipment Bidding" component, designed to permit "those people interested in purchasing new or replacing existing heating or air conditioning systems to submit an electronic request for proposal," said Fawcett. Participating service providers in the customer's geographic area may then follow up the request.

"We are confident that this system will dramatically increase the number and simplicity of equipment installations," Fawcett said. OrderOil expects the modules to be available within the next month. For more information, visit www.OrderOil.com or call 866-673-3704.

Contractor's Perspective

"It will be interesting to see how this goes," Horan said. "Building up comments about [the company] on OrderOil.com would be a favorable sort of thing - a residue of goodwill."

So far Hughes Oil has chiefly used the service for new homeowner solicitations and market building - "all things that keep the company growing," Horan said.

However, "We also do some light commercial work, mainly wet heat and domestic hot water systems for multi-unit residential buildings, churches, schools, nursing homes, hospitals - fuel supply as well as mechanical work.

"Those people really have their own methodology," he pointed out. "They have options and different seasons - they go through enormous quantities of heating oil. They are very concerned about the vendor. When they get reliability, they tend to stay with it." For instance, a church in Milton, Mass., has been with Hughes Oil since 1940, Horan pointed out.

This is how the Web site referrals have worked for the contractor: "We go on their site," explained Horan, "and promote our company out there. We can submit a price for a new customer. Once we establish a presence, we go in and visit that customer in person.

"We establish a human relationship after the Internet relationship," he said. The Internet "is a connector." It also simplifies the payment process. "The use of credit cards takes the credit situation in hand," Horan pointed out.

Credibility, Reliability

If Hughes Oil is a typical contractor involved in the site, it should be a positive venture all around. The contractor also has been voted toBoston Magazine's"Best of Boston" list more than once. The contractor also is a member of the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA), a collaboration of oil heat companies in the United States. NORA said its activities support consumer education, technical training, and research and development.

According to Hughes Oil, "Some oil retailers sell only fuel, usually at discount C.O.D. prices because there are no frills. Other companies, like ours, provide a bundle of Oilheat Services." The company delivers heating oil, diesel fuel, and kerosene. The mechanical staff (based in West Roxbury, Mass.) repairs and maintains oil heating systems and installs new heating, hot water, and cooling systems.

The company stresses the importance of maintenance and tune-ups. "It has been said that the single most important service we provide our customers is the preventive maintenance tune-up of their heating system," Horan said.

"Just as every car needs oil changes and safety inspections, every oil-burning system needs a tune-up once per year.

"We developed our own detailed procedure and wrote a technician's manual," so that all tune-ups are performed in the same manner by any of the company's technicians.

The company also states that it is available "at any hour, any day of the year to respond to interruptions in your heating system." The office staff is on hand from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., or later as needed. After-hours calls are forwarded to an answering center where an attendant can forward the request for service to a technician on call.

The contractor installs and services Unico cooling systems; Runtal, Slant-Fin, and Buderus radiators; Buderus, Energy Kinetics, Weil-McLain, and Viessmann boilers; and Thermopride and Hallmark furnaces.

Two-Way Street

According to OrderOil.com, "Our sole business is based upon working with quality oil dealers and matching them with credit-worthy customers. We establish a fair marketplace where oil dealers can present their offers and customers can make informed choices. Customers are able to purchase oil service online, rate dealer service, and pass these recommendations on to other future buyers."

OrderOil works on a commission basis; "We get paid only after [the contractor] has made a sale." There are no upfront costs, the company says. "We believe that new information technology can effectively serve as a bridge to more effectively bring customers and vendors together," Fawcett said.

The investors and management team of OrderOil have strong roots in the industry and have been successfully operating heating oil businesses for more than 100 years, the company said. "We recognize the importance of a solid reputation and the requirement of strong financial capabilities to succeed in this industry."

Both OrderOil and contractors like Hughes Oil recognize the importance of providing reliable service from a responsible, accountable team of professionals. Yes, the oil heating industry has come a long way - but sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Publication date: 09/13/2004