Fifty years ago, propane service was just a sideline for the Pennington family. No big deal. Just another product along with the other items in the family’s small grocery store on Weston Road.
Richard Pennington still remembers how it was in the early 1950s. His parents, Clair and Theola, offered 100-pound propane cylinders to grocery customers who needed fuel for cooking and heating water.
“I drove our 1952 dodge pickup to Jackson, loaded up ten 100-pound cylinders, and brought them back to Morenci,” Richard said. “What my folks and I didn’t use, we sold at the grocery store.”
By the time Richard graduated from high school in 1951, the cylinder business had developed into a delivery route.
“My plan after high school was to work two 8-hour factory shifts, and to save money,” Richard recalls, “but my parents offered me a one-third ownership in the grocery business if I would work until I was 21.”
He took them up on their offer, but he continued to become more involved in delivery propane as interest grew. Eventually, the Penningtons sold their grocery and built a bulk propane plant a few hundred yards away on Weston Road.
In 1960, a business office and showroom were added at the site, and this remains the home of the company’s corporate office.
Clair passed away in 1967, leaving Richard to take over. Some challenging years followed as he struggled to move forward through all facets of the business while his wife, Marvolene, was home with five sons.
“I knew the installation and service end of the business,” Richard said, “but I was often overwhelmed by the financial aspects of running a propane gas company.”
The business grew throughout the 1960s and 70s—sometimes with very rapid growth—but there were times when Richard had doubts about the future. The price controls of the early 1970s, for example, forced dealers to operate under tight margins.
One by one his sons graduated from Morenci High School and later from college. They returned home to help out in the family business—a business that continued to move upward. Richard acquired a small operation in Pittsford and bought a parcel of land near Tecumseh for a satellite location.
A third generation of Penningtons took over the reins of the business in 1980. With Mark Pennington serving as president, and brothers Terry, Keith and Dean on board, the company expanded its customer base into a larger area of southeast and central Michigan, plus northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio.
In addition, satellite offices were eventually opened in Stockbridge, Fenton and Coldwater.
“We’ve grown the business one customer at a time,” Mark said. “But an important key to our success has been the outstanding quality of our employees.”
The workforce now numbers around 45.
Terry explained the company’s belief that every employee plays an important role in customer service. Everyone on the staff contributes toward making Pennington Gas Service a friendly place to do business.
Mark believes there’s still plenty of room for growth.
“I believe there are many exciting opportunities for expanding the company’s influence and territory,” he said. “but only as we stay focused on our core values and customers’ needs.”
The brothers believe that a strong commitment to customer service has led the company to a reputation for integrity and dependability.
Richard still plays a role in the company business, and his sons aren’t in a hurry to see him retire fully.
“Not only is he a great dad,” says Keith, “but he’s also an invaluable asset for the company. We still depend on him for all sorts of projects.”
Richard has seen his share of industry changes over the past 50 years, but he’s pleased that one thing has stayed steady—the values upon which the company was founded.
That brings to mind a small grocery story that once stood a ways down the road, the place where this business all began.
-July 30, 2003