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DANBURY — It was 100 years ago, on November 15, 1917, that John W. Leahy took the monumental step of opening his first business in Danbury — a small machine shop. But as current Leahy’s Fuels owner Jack Stetson and President Stephen G. Rosentel explained it, it was only a short time later that Mr Leahy learned about a brand-new invention.
“Mr Leahy trained as a machinist and graduated eighth grade from the Balmforth School right up the street,” said Mr Stetson while chatting with The Newtown Bee in the Leahy Fuels headquarters at 130 White Street. “He went on to apprentice at the old Turner Machine Shop and later at the Mallory Hat Company. But when his father died, he wanted to do something to ensure he could take care of his mother, so he bought some machinery and started his own company that built automotive hardware and accessories.”
But then somebody came through town, and Mr Leahy saw a demonstration of an automatic oil burner.
“When he saw that oil burner, he saw the future,” Mr Stetson continued. “No more shoveling coal, stacking wood, or hauling ashes away. So he went into the fuel oil business and had very little competition.”
That was in 1928.
Mr Leahy soon acquired a track side depot where trains would come into Danbury and fill his storage tanks with oil. That led to a second depot purchase on the Norwalk River some distance up from the Norwalk Harbor where he believed he could benefit even more by bulk purchasing oil from large tankers and barges.
“Unfortunately, during the prime heating months, the river and even the drawbridge would freeze, and he’d have to hire an icebreaker so deliveries could get up to that depot,” said Mr Stetson, who started working at the company as an office boy at age 12. “So it wasn’t long before he sold that property.”
With his business completely refocused in Danbury, Mr Leahy’s fuel company grew on the reputation of good service and fair if not competitive pricing, as well as expanding its offerings to propane in the early 1930s.
“Back then, there were fuel companies, and service companies, and equipment retailers, but very few, if any, were doing it all under one roof,” said Mr Rosentel, a Newtown resident who solicited a job with Leahy’s after serving the company as a CPA employed by a big New York accounting firm.
That one-stop concept has served the company well in the ensuing 90-plus years.
Today, Leahy’s Fuels showroom is packed with propane- and oil-fueled appliances, and its staff works in a reconfigured facility, part of which is still housed in the original building John Leahy purchased adjacent to the new Danbury courthouse. The company now delivers fuel oil and propane to thousands of customers across southwestern Connecticut, responds to customer calls, and its technicians still service fuel-burning appliances, boilers, and furnaces out of that same office.
The company sells and services the latest in state-of-the-art, high-efficiency heating equipment and utilizes high-tech, on-board computers in its service and delivery trucks. While still owned by the same local family, Leahy’s is proud of its multiple generations of employees who are currently working for the company mentoring the newest generation of freshly minted technicians and staff.
Mr Rosentel started at Leahy’s as the controller shortly after superiors at his corporate CPA firm decided to recommend the company create such a position. He was hired and went to work there under the leadership of Mr Stetson, whose “step-grandfather” was John Leahy.
Mr Rosentel was elevated to the position of president in 1987.
“In my accounting years I worked for very large companies and smaller companies, and I always liked the smaller companies because they offered better work environments and more opportunities to make a difference,” he said. “In public accounting you’re always coming in as an advisor, so this was my first step into management and Jack guided me through it every step of the way.”
The move dovetailed nicely with Mr Rosentel’s young family, including a newborn son, and his move to neighboring Sandy Hook.
“I was not a fan of getting on and off airplanes, and I really wanted to work for a local company, and be involved as a parent,” Mr Rosentel said. But it was one thing that Mr Stetson said that sealed the deal.
“He said to me that most people go to work concerned about supporting their own family, but he went to work every day to help support all of his employees’ families. That is pretty rare, even back in the 1980s,” Mr Rosentel recalled.
Shifting the business model to accommodate hearth products, along with promoting whole house heating appliances fueled with propane, are mainstays of the companies recent success.
“Even today, there are not too many propane companies that want to go into the hearth products business,” Mr Rosentel said. “But we offer the whole package. We can sell you the gas, we can run the gas line, we can sell and install the fireplace equipment, and service that insert. When you can deal with us turnkey, it becomes much simpler and less expensive than dealing with several entities.”
Not surprisingly, one of Leahy’s biggest challenges is Connecticut’s regulatory environment.
“We have a political battle going on with our state government that seems like it would like to see us go out of business,” he said. “They’d like to see natural gas lines expanded across the state, and at first were planning on using taxpayer money to do that.”
So Mr Rosentel headed to Hartford, testifying against the proposal alongside others seven times.
“I didn’t think it was right to use taxpayer money against our company and the multigenerational employees who have been paying taxes for years to put them out of work,” Mr Rosentel said. “We don’t have a problem competing, but we do want the competition to happen on a level playing field.”
Leahy’s customers not only support the company through the purchase of products and services, but a growing number of homeowners enjoy the convenience of a propane fireplace where they can turn it on or off and enjoy the ambiance and warmth instantly with the flip of a switch.
“A lot of people also prefer gas cooking, they prefer gas clothes dryers because they dry faster, pool heating, and feeding generators are also very popular with our customers,” Mr Rosentel said.
Looking toward the future, Mr Rosentel said the company would always be interested in acquisitions if the right local/regional prospect comes along, and continuing to improve its services and product lines.
“Probably the newest products we are selling and installing are the instant hot water systems,” Mr Rosentel said. “Most people only use hot water around three percent of the time, and most customers who get this system find they are seeing incredible savings because it only calls for fuel when the customer calls for hot water. It’s the size of a suitcase and we keep one in the showroom because people don’t think something so small can do the job of a water heater that is the size of a person.”
Learn more about Leahy’s Fuels by calling 203-748-3535 or visiting leahys.com