Albina History Book

The Cycles of Business and Family: The History of the Albina Fuel

Introduction

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of immigrants came to the United States seeking better lives for their children if not for themselves. A majority of the new Americans found few opportunities for advancement. Among the more fortunate was the Arntson family of Trondheim, Norway. Upon arriving in Oregon around the turn of the century, the Arntson family members worked a succession of various blue-collar jobs, which allowed them to enjoy an independent, though modest existence.

For youngest son, Sam, his energy and enterprise precipitated his ascension into the white-collar sphere. In 1910, and before his 30th birthday, Sam joined a promising, young Portland home fuel supply firm called the Albina Fuel Company. Sam’s arrival at Albina Fuel approximately coincided with the company’s consolidation of the Steel Bridge Fuel Company. Steel Bridge Fuel greatly resembled its successor in organization and size (and had even been one of Sam Arntson’s first Portland employers).

From that time forth, Albina Fuel’s experience has largely been the product of the Arntson family’s hard work, ingenuity, and inspiring leadership. Sam helped the fuel company overcome the economically desperate periods of World War I and the Great Depression. Also, he was unyielding in his efforts to bring Albina Fuel into the fuel oil distribution business, even when the company’s supplier, Texaco, proved a mighty adversary.

Upon Sam’s death in the early 1940s, his son, Cliff, assumed a leadership role in the company, which, at the time was reeling from poor market conditions and labor shortages. Cliff deftly revived the ailing company through a series of expansion and diversification ventures. Cliff’s son, Neal, started with the company in 1958. By the time Neal was elected Albina Fuel president 20 years later, he had moved the fuel company into important new arenas. Now retired, Neal’s sons continue to oversee a great range of diversified operations, the least of which is home fuel delivery. The contributions of the father, son, grandson, and great-grandsons represent nearly 200 years of service. As Albina Fuel advances through its second century, the familial cycle continues as the fourth generation of Arntsons guide the company’s various divisions.

Through the years, the Arntsons’ management approach has been characterized by diligence, resourcefulness, and a willingness to risk diversification and try the unconventional. This liberal and adaptive business philosophy, on occasion, caused the Albina Fuel Company to suffer the consequences of ill-fated side ventures, but more generally, proved an effective combatant against Portland’s erratic fuel market.

Over the course of this century, Portland’s fuel market has generally been dominated by one of four major fuel products—wood, coal, fuel oil, or natural gas. Due to inconsistent supplies and technological advances, the dominance of each product has been relatively brief. At the turn of the century, wood fuel had no competition in the Rose City. Coal made inroads over the next decade and then its sales escalated as supply routes were refined and Northwest coal mining operations began. Fuel oil sales grew in number from the turn of the century but did not compete with coal and wood as an alternative fuel source until the 1930s. In more recent years, fuel oil assumed the dominant position that wood had previously held. Then in the early 1970s, the oil embargo changed many Americans’ perception of oil heat and of oil companies, initiating that product’s decline. Within the last 20 years, natural gas and alternative energy products and systems have played a more visible role.

Predicting the life cycles of their products was a constant challenge for the city’s fuel dealers. Another cycle inherent in the fuel business was associated with the natural seasons. Similar to a farmer’s calendar, the annual work schedule of a fuel dealer was interrupted by a dormant period. In contrast to farming, however, the fuel supply business was busiest during cold weather and slowest in the summer months. Because fuel dealers could not afford to be inactive for one quarter of every year, pursuits during the warm off-season was a primary concern. To lay off yard laborers and teamsters for approximately three months out of every year jeopardized a fuel company’s labor pool for the next season because a percentage of workers did not return. As means for boosting their incomes and retaining workers, fuel companies constantly struggled to secure off-season work.

The industry’s cycles and uncertainties presented formidable challenges for every fuel dealer and underlay the failures of many of Albina Fuel’s competitors. The Albina Fuel Company stands as one of the area’s few fuel dealerships to not only survive but to thrive. Albina Fuel’s prosperity can largely be attributed to the leadership of Sam, Cliff, and Neal Arntson, each of whom have fostered and promoted diversification, sometimes out of desperation, and sometimes without success. Significantly, though, the Arntsons’ recognition that diversification is as inherent to the fuel business as its cyclical characteristics, has been the source of Albina Fuel’s success.