Family Business Looks to Future

Written on: November 26, 2018 by ICM

As published in the East Hampton Star on November 21, 2018
By Johnette Howard
Marshall Prado is 73 — or, as he says, old enough to remember when Montauk had only 50 or so families living there year round and everyone relied on everyone because life in such a remote place wasn’t easy. “It was all about survival,” Mr. Prado recalled last week, sitting in a diner just a few doors down from the Marshall & Sons Fuel Oil offices on Main Street, where he and his two brothers, Ed and Bobby, still work in the business their father started 75 years ago.
With the sale of Schenck Fuels Services in East Hampton last month to the Star Group, the publicly traded parent company of Petro Home Services, Mr. Prado noted that Marshall & Sons is now among only four family-run fuel businesses remaining between Westhampton and Montauk.
He and his brothers have diversified their company greatly since their father, Marshall Sr., a Spanish immigrant, came to Montauk and married their mother, a native of Nova Scotia, in the 1940s. In addition to the Mobil station, attached convenience store, car repair and a towing service, the Prados also now offer indoor vehicle storage, and fuel oil delivery. They have a 24/7 plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning service called Prado Brothers. They also sell diesel fuel and kerosene and just recently began providing propane service too.
But Mr. Prado says all of that hasn’t erased the challenges they face to stay afloat.
“We’re running out of tricks — we really are,” he said. “And I’m not getting any younger.”
Mr. Prado and his daughter, Dana Arikian, one of seven family members who work in the various businesses, both said they understand completely how Chris Schenck and Rodney Herrlin, the final owners of Schenck Fuels, could have decided to sell their 117-year-old family business.
“I’m very sorry to see the Schencks go, which may sound funny because we were competitors, and we did just hire three of their workers,” Mr. Prado said. “But I knew the Schencks. And we lost another respected company out here that we didn’t have to lose.”
How so? Mr. Prado explains by telling a story: He said his father used to talk about “the circle of economics,” meaning the way local businesses and the communities were inextricably connected to each other and patronized each other, especially in small towns like Montauk.
“The people in this community are the people who built this town into what it is — it didn’t just happen lately,” Mr. Prado said.
Montauk has changed a lot since then. Longtime residents aren’t always sure it’s for the better. Ms. Arikian wonders if the people who find Montauk so hip and trendy now realize they could love it to death someday if they destroy the very fabric of the community that attracted them to town in the first place. If Montauk becomes the latest East End town to see its mom-and-pop shops pushed out, if its real estate prices continue to skyrocket, and significant swaths of its main streets sit boarded up or vacant in the winter because of the pop-up or chain stores that arrive on Memorial Day and leave by Labor Day, then is Montauk still Montauk anymore? And if so, Ms. Arikian asks, for how long?
“ ‘Buy local’ isn’t just a bumper sticker,” Ms. Arikian, the company’s director of finance, said. “It’s what keeps this town going.”
The Prados are often at the center of it. Mr. Prado said he’s always done some kind of work as long as he can remember, and it wasn’t uncommon for him as a boy of 13 to jump in the tow truck and drive to a local job when a motorist needed help. Sixty years later, he’s still liable to make a tow truck run, or pump gas, or call a customer unbidden to say he noticed their power is out as he drove by their place, or they left a door slung open — whatever it may be — because that’s what good neighbors do. Not just good business owners.
Marshall & Sons’ business cards and brochures read “Welcome to the Neighborhood” and show a sepia-tone photo of the three Prado brothers as young boys wearing one-piece coveralls with Esso patches on the chest and captain’s hats on their heads.
“Last Thanksgiving Marshall was literally in someone’s basement fixing their furnace for them,” Ms. Arikian said of her father. “If someone needs their car dug out of the sand, he will go dig them out of the sand. Bobby still drives the oil truck. Eddie is running the shop.”
Mr. Prado shrugged now and said, “We just don’t believe any job is beneath us. I don’t mind running out to the gas pump if someone needs gas and I pump their gas. It doesn’t ‘degrade’ me. We have young kids come in here now and I’m like, ‘Are you for real? You say you don’t do that? You don’t do what? Get the hell outta here.’ ”
Mr. Prado admits he can’t match Petro’s fuel prices because of the economy of scale such bigger companies enjoy. He speaks of having to compete, too, against “gypsy” drivers with fuel rigs who travel UpIsland and back to deliver oil but carry none of the overhead he does, and engage in none of the community work his family still finds important.
Mr. Prado said to remain competitive, he has to hope that clients still value the highly personal attention, 24/7 care, array of services and values and integrity that his family’s businesses provide. But he wonders if that still matters to as many people as it used to — and if it does, are there enough such people?
Ms. Arikian said Marshall & Sons is constantly looking at how bigger companies create efficiencies, and “by trying to implement some of those tactics, we may be able to become profitable enough that we can keep operating the way we always did.”
To which Mr. Prado replied, “Yeah, but if you can’t become profitable enough, why keep doing it? What are you doing then? Again, I totally understand why the Schencks sold. To take a job for 20 hours a day, it makes no sense.”
“It’s hard for people here to make ends meet,” Ms. Arikian said. “Nearly everyone we know rents out their house at least some, if not most, of the time.”
How long can Montaukers keep it up? Mr. Prado asks the same questions.
“These stores that show up for a few months each summer where you can buy a $3,000 sweater, they don’t care about us here,” Mr. Prado said. “It’s just a billboard for their companies. Then they’re gone. The circle of economics my father talked about? It served us well here for two generations, and now it’s almost gone too.”
The longer Mr. Prado talks, the harder it is to know if it would be harder to keep the company going. Or harder to stop.
“We have 30 people working for us today — and not just our family, but families with families,” Mr. Prado said. “It’s nice to have a family business. But it’s a lot of pressure too.”
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