Norm the Dinosaur

Despite nearly a half-century of loyal service, Sinclair says goodbye to one of its finest

When Norm Volkmann started his auto-repair service in 1954, a valve job cost $29.95 and gasoline sold for 18 cents a gallon. Back in those days, he operated the Sinclair station in North St. Louis at Harris and West Florissant avenues, across from O'Fallon Park. Over the next decade, he established such a good reputation that the oil company asked him to open a new location in the suburbs. Volkmann jumped at the opportunity, going so far as to solicit neighbors to allow the site to be rezoned as commercial. He's been running his shop at West Florissant Avenue and Hudson Drive in Ferguson since 1968. In all that time, he has managed to squeeze in one vacation. Most of the time, he puts in six days a week.

Turning wrenches and busting knuckles isn't an easy way to make a buck, but Volkmann feels fortunate to have had the support of his family. For the past 17 years, his two sons, Brad and Keith, have worked beside him, doing everything from tune-ups to installing rebuilt transmissions.

"We're not setting the world on fire," Brad Volkmann says. "We're supporting ourselves. It's our job. It's not a goldmine, but we like it here."

Sinclair Oil Co., however, doesn't share that attitude. After 47 years of association with the company, the Volkmann family is being evicted. Early on the morning of Dec. 5, Brad Volkmann arrived at work and found that the electricity had been turned off by Sinclair's district manager. He surmises that the oil-company official was trying to disarm the burglar alarm so that the locks could be changed. The power outage, which lasted two days, was one of a series of maneuvers Sinclair initiated to oust the Volkmanns. Their imminent dislocation has nothing to do with their welshing on rent. They have always been model tenants and taken care of the property. Instead, the oil company is pulling the plug on Norm's Sinclair Service because it doesn't conform to current corporate policies.

"For three to five years, we've been after him to take over the full station or get out, because we only have full-service operators," says Ronald Willenbrock, Sinclair's local attorney. "At his age, he says he doesn't want to do it. He was a month-to-month tenant, and so we entered into an agreement with another individual, who will take over the station, full-service. It's as simple as that."

The way Norm Volkmann explains his predicament, though, it's not so cut-and-dried. From 1968-77, he says, he pumped gas and ran the repair service at the station. During this period, gasoline sales soared, reaching a peak of a million gallons a year. The company lauded Volkmann for his outstanding performance and declared him one of "Sinclair's Finest" in newspaper ads. Volkmann prospered through good times and bad, surviving gas wars even though he couldn't match the competition's discounts because Sinclair refused to lower its price per gallon. Business was so profitable, he says, that the company decided to take it back over. So he amicably surrendered the gas pumps while continuing to operate the repair service. Fuel sales didn't improve under the company's management, however. After years of decline, the company began pushing Volkmann to again take over the gasoline side of the business. But he resisted.

According to the existing formula, Volkmann says, he would only receive 4 cents for each gallon he sells, making it impossible for him to turn a profit. Indeed, the station's low sales volume, coupled with additional operating costs, could actually end up costing Volkmann money. "If a guy comes in and gets $20 worth of gas and takes off down the street [without paying], you're hurting," Volkmann says. He sees his current plight as a lose-lose situation. When he turned down the final offer last fall, Sinclair ordered him to vacate the premises.

"What it boils down to is, Sinclair wants one person to run this whole operation," Brad Volkmann says. "They set your gas prices. They dictate how you're going to run your business, the hours you are going to be open and how you're going to operate, so, basically, you're a glorified manager. It's a raw deal," he says. "Some of your profits have to go to pay secretarial help up in Salt Lake City [at Sinclair's headquarters]. You also got to take some of your profits and give it to them for depreciation on the lot out there. They won't adjust your prices to allow you to compete. The only way to keep your sales up would be to cut your own profit out."

According to the agreement the Volkmanns' lawyer hashed out with Sinclair, Volkmann and his sons must pull up stakes by March 31 -- this Saturday. They have been looking for a place to relocate in the Hazelwood-Florissant area or possibly St. Charles County. So far, they haven't had any luck.

"Here's a guy who dedicated his life to Sinclair," says John Hea, a former district manager for the oil company. "I think it's a shabby way to treat him after all these years." Meeting Sinclair's demands would put Volkmann in the red, says Hea. "It's a losing proposition for him. It increases payroll. It takes a substantial amount of gasoline [sales] to pay the help that you're going to hire there."

The oil company's history is rooted in controversial deals, having been founded in 1916 by oil baron Harry Sinclair, the principal figure in the Teapot Dome scandal. In the early 1920s, during Warren G. Harding's presidential administration, Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall leased valuable naval oil reserves near Casper, Wyo., to Sinclair in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts and no-interest loans. Fall was ultimately convicted of bribery in a related case. Although Sinclair initially avoided punishment, he was later found to be in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with a second government investigation into the same affair. He served six-and-half months in jail for that charge. Sinclair died a billionaire in 1956.

Robert Earl Holding, the 74-year-old current president and CEO of Sinclair Oil, will probably go to his grave just about as rich as the founder of the company. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated Holding's wealth at approximately $925 million. The executive owns about 450,000 acres in Montana and Wyoming, making him one of the largest private landowners in the country. His company controls 2,600 service stations and convenience stores in 22 Midwestern and Western states. It also operates two pipelines, three refineries and a trucking fleet. In addition, Sinclair owns a chain of hotels, including the Grand America Hotel, the headquarters for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Another Holding development, the Snowbasin resort, near Ogden, Utah, will receive $13.8 million from the International Olympic Committee for hosting the downhill-skiing competition during next year's games. In 1999, Holding was forced to resign from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee by Utah's governor after it was revealed that International Olympic Committee members had taken bribes from SLOC officials and that Holding had earlier benefited from a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service.

Holding is a contemporary of Volkmann's. He started out running a truck stop in his younger years in Green River, Wyo. But that's where the similarity ends. Since buying Sinclair's assets in 1976, he has grown to be one of the richest men in America. And at the corporate headquarters in Salt Lake City, the devotion that Volkmann has shown the company for nearly a half-century seems of little consequence compared with more pressing corporate concerns.

"It's little guys like Norm who made Mr. Holding who he is today," Brad Volkmann says. "It's funny how they can just seem to forget all that."

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