With a family name like "Santa," some businesspeople might opt for a Christmas theme year-round. Not Tom Santa, president and CEO of Santa Holding Co., the parent company of Santa Energy in Bridgeport, Conn.

Oh, there are one or two coy references thrown in here or there. "You can believe in Santa," is used prominently in the company's marketing, as is "Just call Santa ... any time of night or day, even on Christmas Eve."

But in general, the company relies on its reputation and the natural warm-and-fuzzy feeling people may get from reading, "Let Santa service your furnace!" There's no need to back it up with a red suit and whiskers.

The contractor is a dedicated servicer of oil-fired heating equipment. Other companies in the Santa family sell and transport fuel oil wholesale. Santa Energy also installs and services air conditioning equipment, water heaters, humidifiers, electronic air cleaners, and fuel tanks. However, fuel oil is its passion.

Working for Santa: Technician Jim Velgot has been with Santa Energy since 2001.

Fuel Oil Believers

Santa explained that the company owns and controls its own terminal and maintains a corporate policy of selling only low-sulfur (0.02-percent), high-quality fuel oil. "That's 30 percent less than the sulfur content allowed by the state of Connecticut," he said.

The company cleans its bulk storage tanks annually. "Santa is the only terminal in Connecticut with such an aggressive maintenance program," Santa said.

The contractor also offers a detergent additive package, developed in collaboration with Mobil Oil, to help improve the reliability and efficiency of oil-fired heating equipment. In the early 1990s, "There was a greater occurrence of clogged filters, nozzles, and strainers than we thought was acceptable," Santa explained.

Santa worked with Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., for a number of years to try to find a solution to the problem of fouling fuel systems. "Mobil had assigned a couple of their research people to work with Brookhaven," he said.

The product they came up with is "more than detergent," Santa said. There is a stability additive, a metal deactivator (to prevent metals from breaking down fuel oil, which leads to particulates and sludge in the system), and a dispersant to break down and dispense the sediment.

"After a three-year controlled experiment conducted by Santa and Mobil, the fuel-related service calls of the Mobil test group dropped by at least 45 percent - actually more like 50 to 75 percent," Santa said.

Service Details

The company installs and services a number of manufacturers' oil-fired equipment. The boilers it installs are made by Weil-McLain and Buderus; furnaces are from Thermopride. Oil burners are made by Beckett and Riello on the residential side, Power Flame on the commercial side.

The company's Basic Comfort Plan and Total Comfort Plan offer 24-hour emergency service, parts-and-labor coverage, and a scheduled tuneup. The emergency calls can get a bit harried depending on the season, but the tuneups help keep customers' equipment in good shape, in addition to alerting them to potential problems.

"We take care of our technicians," said Santa. "We give them all of the training and encouragement that they need." The company has created its own apprentice program. "Because it's so hard to find good, knowledgeable technicians, we find it's more advantageous to create our own," he said.

The Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association (ICPA) "has a terrific training facility and excellent courses for burner licensing," Santa said. "Connecticut has among the strictest licensing requirements in the country. It literally takes thousands of hours of experiences for a burner service license [B license]."

The most important factor in keeping techs satisfied, he said, is communication.

"Management tries to keep close to the technicians," he said. "Burner techs are out on the road all day. It's infrequent that they come into the office. We need to keep good communication with them. The dispatch team needs to be sensitive."

Regular tech meetings bring them into the office - training meetings, safety meetings, and roundtable discussions where selected techs meet with representatives of other departments. For instance, a meeting may put techs in touch with the customer service group, "to make sure we are collecting the correct customer information so the tech has enough information when he goes out there."

Technicians do tend to stay there. "We just had one of our 30-plus-year guys retire," Santa said. The next longest has been there since 1986. He also pointed out that some employees who left to pursue other opportunities have returned to the company. "Several that have left have come back," he said.

What's In a Name

The Santa name has a certain charm at this time of year, but to Tom Santa, the company's reputation is built on service, not on the image of the man in red. "My grandfather came over from Hungary with the Santa name," he said. (The family name was originally pronounced "Shanta.")

Other than the "You can believe in Santa" motto, "We really haven't capitalized on that; we've kind of avoided that [holiday tie-in]. We don't want to appear whimsical in our approach to business."

In fact, "Customers in our marketing area have kind of gotten used to it. They think of us and not Santa Claus. Next state over, I always get a chuckle."

Sidebar: A Moving Experience

Santa Energy has taken an interesting tack on a relatively untapped market: people moving into an existing home.

"Let Santa Energy Services help you get organized when it comes to the heating, cooling, plumbing, air duct, and chimney systems in your home," the company says. "Whether it's a simple inspection, cleaning, or estimate on repair or replacement, Santa is ready to assist you."

The company also offers a Home Seller's Action Plan, "so you know exactly where you stand on the condition and value of your heating, cooling, plumbing, tank, chimney, and air duct systems."

The company also offers Heating & Cooling System Evaluations for people building new homes or additions. The company bids on the design, layout, and installation of a new home's HVAC and domestic hot water systems, including heat loss/heat gain load calculations.

Finally, the company offers underground fuel tank evaluation and service for people buying or selling a home. The contractor helps them determine the tank's condition, whether or not to leave it in the ground, and who is responsible for removing it.

- B. Checket-Hanks

Publication date: 12/13/2004