Corbin Fuel Company, Inc.
It’s a family-business success story to emulate. Founded in 1918 as the Corbin Ice and Fuel Company, it was the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of Nathan P. Corbin. Corbin worked delivering firewood to area residents in Harford County and decided to start his own business and work for himself. Gesturing a circle over his head indicating the area adjacent to his office, great-great-grandson and current Vice President Greg Ensor says, “He bought the property right here on Ellendale near the rail yard. This is where it all started – the ice, the firewood. Eventually, he got his deliveries of firewood and coal right off the trains that ran on the Ma & Pa Railroad.”
Ice? Yes. In addition to supplying residents with their heating fuel needs, Corbin also sold and delivered ice to residents and shop owners in an era prior to the commercialization of the electrical refrigerators.
“He would load up his horse and buggy with ice and keep it covered,” says Ensor. Holding a small two-sided printed card lettered with the word ICE and the numbers 25, 50, 75, 100, Ensor explains how customers would put the sign in their windows indicating how many pounds of ice they needed delivered that day.
Corbin built an ice plant on-site and started manufacturing its own block ice as well as cubed. “We used to sell to 7-11s and ‘mom-and-pop’ stores all over the county,” Ensor says. “I started bagging ice when I was 10 years old.”
In addition to manufacturing and selling ice, Corbin’s company also provided cold storage and butchering services to the public. “We would sell the meat, butcher it the way you wanted, package it and store for you.” They exited the cold storage business in the 1960s and, in time, closed shop on the ice business as well. “I don’t remember why we got out of the ice business,” admits Ensor. “I guess we just focused on other things.”
When Nathan Corbin passed away in 1971, his son Claiborne took the reins. Claiborne’s daughter Barbara was and is still involved with the family business, but it was her husband and Greg’s father, Richard Ensor, Sr., (Dick) who was elected president after Claiborne’s passing in 1978. “My mother has always been involved in the business, but she concentrated on raising us three boys,” Ensor adds. Now in his early 70s, Dick still comes to work and helps to oversee the whole operation, providing vision and sharing his well of knowledge. He is joined by all three of his sons, Rick Jr., Greg and Mark, as well as grandson Corbin Ensor, Greg’s son.
Even though they each hold a legal title for incorporation, there isn’t a genuine hierarchy when it comes to running the business. “We’re all on the same level,” says Ensor. “We just decided to take care of the areas we like and do best.” Greg’s responsibilities include purchasing, accounting and financials. In a paneled office filled with toy trucks and worn file cabinets, the juxtaposition of a mounted flat screen TV airing a muted financial station and stock market ticker is unusual. “I purchase our fuel on the futures market. I’m in at 5am watching the market and making decisions about what to buy. It’s not like the old days when you just bought fuel and passed a mark-up onto the customer. The margins can make a real difference in our profitability and success.”
Greg’s older brother Rick Jr. runs Corbin Bus Company, a school bus operation that the family purchased in 1981. “A local contractor gave up his ‘runs’ and the county needed someone to replace them so that service wasn’t interrupted,” he explains. “We had a very good rapport with the county, and they reached out to us to see if we would be interested. We were and it’s been a very good relationship ever since.”
Younger brother Mark concentrates on the company’s expanding heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) business. “You don’t want to spread yourself too thin. You want to concentrate on what you do best, but take it to the next level. Adding HVAC products and services was a natural evolution,” says Greg.
Lastly, Greg’s wife Elizabeth helps out during the busy heating season and his 23-year-old son Corbin works at the company. “He is continuing his education taking college business courses. He loves what he does and working with family. He’s been a real asset to the company.”
Corbin, like his cousins and his father and uncles before him, worked at the company during summer breaks and holidays. “All of us and our kids have worked here. My brothers and I started bagging ice, then driving tucks,” recalls Greg. “We’ve done every job there is to do here at the company. Our kids wash trucks, clean the school buses … there’s always something they can do.”
But joining the family business was not a foregone conclusion for Greg or his brothers. “My dad’s side of the family were farmers and still own Rocks View Farm in Street. So, between here and the farm, I had plenty of opportunity to work. I had a choice to do anything. My mom and dad left it open for us to go to any school we wanted and study and follow any career path we liked. They said we could always come back. Of course, none of us left. We all stayed right here. We didn’t get very far. We’ve lived in a 6-mile radius of the office our whole life. Three of us are on the same property and my brother Mark built a house right up the road,” Greg says smiling.
While “green” has become a marketing buzzword, the national debate over fossil fuels doesn’t worry Ensor much. “Our fuels burn so much cleaner than before. Everything has evolved. Heating fuel. Diesel fuel. Over time, the equipment has gotten more efficient and state of the art. It’s not like the coal furnaces of yesteryear with black smoke pouring from the chimneys. It’s cleaner burning with low sulfur, lower emissions. It’s a new wave of fossil fuels.”
Ensor describes how it used to be that one grade of fuel was used to heat your house, run the truck and run the tractor. The government cleaned up diesel fuels and started mandating regulations. Heating fuel followed right behind. Plus, according to Ensor, oil heat is the most comfortable heat for a home. That’s why custom homebuilders use it. It’s more efficient than propane and in this zone, heat pumps need a back up, so oil heat is the better way to go.
Like his grandfather and great-grandfather before him, Ensor sees the benefit in keeping up with change. “They migrated from firewood to coal to oil and away from ice. Aside from purchasing our oil on the futures markets, not much has changed in running a fuel company. Where we’ve seen the biggest changes is in technology.” The vehicle evolution is one example. The company started with horse and buggy deliveries then purchased trucks and vehicles as advances came. The green 1932 Ford truck driven in the local parades is one of the original fleet trucks. “When we were kids, my granddad let us ride it out around the yard and just tear it up having fun. Who cared about old trucks back then? But then we had it restored, and it’s registered with an historic plate.
“We also kept pace with computer technology. That’s made a big difference from an efficiency perspective. We actually had one of the first computer systems that ever came out back in the 1970s. It took up a whole room. Then we went to DOS-based then PCs. We customize the software ourselves.
“We also see the benefit in keeping our people trained. We’re always sending our employees to classes and workshops at Harford Community College. We take advantage of training by industry organizations and suppliers. Our HVAC suppliers offer a lot, so we send our technicians whenever it’s offered.”
Having highly trained employees is something that Ensor believes sets Corbin Fuel apart from its competitors. “Our customers know our name and the reputation behind it. They know the kind of professional service they’ll receive. If you came from out of town and never heard of us but tried us just once, you’d never leave us. We’re very fortunate to have a very loyal customer base.”
That loyalty extends to his employees and the local community. With only 75 employees between the fuel and bus companies, they are still very much a small business. Dave Turner is the longest tenured non-family member with 45 years and his father also retired from Corbin. The company also supports local organizations with monetary donations, sponsorships of sports teams, and even provides fuel tanks to the Harford County Farm Fair so that the caterers can run their equipment for the annual four-day event. Additionally, Corbin Fuel provides discounted fuel and deliveries for recipients and clients of the Fuel Fund.
What does the future hold for Corbin Fuel? “Well as long as there is family involved, we’ll keep going. I don’t see it changing. There’s haven’t been many challenges, but working with family members has been the easiest part.” On a more personal level, Ensor says, “I have a lot of years left – another 25 before I start to take it easy. Dad is in his early 70s and he’s still working. It’s just that way – always has been. I love everything about it. I enjoy watching the company grow. We’re graced with excellent employees. We’re making great decisions. It’s the thrill of running a business. You have to enjoy it. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be here. If you don’t like something it’s time to change and do something else. I’m 48, so in 20 years I’m knocking on 70. Maybe then I’ll cut back to part-time – only 40 hours a week. I was off four business days in a row recently, and I was getting antsy. I can’t imagine not working. I can’t imagine not working here. Not every day is perfect, but I love it. It’s been great.” I95