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Bridging the gap: Hawaii Petroleum, industry straddle past and future sources of energy

“We know that if we don’t change with the market, we’re not going to survive.”

By Hilary Reeves

Steve Wetter moved from Camden, New Jersey to Maui in 1970. His father, a chemical engineer turned attorney who worked for Arco in Philadelphia, had flown to Honolulu for a work conference the previous year and decided to tour an outer island before returning home to the East Coast. From there, Wetter said, began a family adventure for the ages.

“He came back and immediately put the house on the market and moved us all out to the island,” said Wetter, who was five years old and accompanied by his parents and four brothers. “At the time, he was probably considered a bit crazy, because it wasn’t necessarily a good career move. It was a pretty bold move that he made.”

Wetter and his four brothers, all close in age, adapted quickly, and spent their formative years windsurfing and indulging in all the island has to offer. His father joined an island law firm specializing in contract law, and eventually became a real estate broker. When Wetter was 14 years old – nine years after the move – his father died.

“Things really changed,” he said. “My mom went back to work as a lab tech. My brothers and I all worked from an early age, because we attended a private high school and we wanted to continue there, so we worked to put ourselves through.”

After stints mowing lawns and working a paper route, Wetter landed a job in high school that would change his life forever as a Service Station Attendant at a ’76 dealer in Kihei. After graduation, he enrolled in the University of Hawaii’s Business Management program and began work for another ’76 dealer in Honolulu.

“When I graduated in 1991, the owner of the service station I worked for through high school and during the summers during college wanted to move to North Carolina, but continue to own the station. I became a dealer for him and ran the station for three years.”

When that station was eventually sold, Wetter moved to Honolulu and got a job in sales for Pacific Petroleum.

“At that time, we had taken over a warehouse and distributorship on Maui, but it was small. I contracted Hawaii Petroleum to distribute the Wetter leans on a tower of barrels wearing a Hawaii Petroleum polo shirt.lubricants, and they ended up offering me a job.”

Wetter joined Hawaii Petroleum in 1998, and now works as the company’s Vice President of Wholesale Operations. He counts himself among the few who remember the islands’ first self-service station.

“I sometimes come across people in the industry who asked me how long I’ve been involved, and they’re shocked when I say ‘38 years.’ It’s funny, because I’m still relatively young. When I came to work for Hawaii Petroleum, my boss didn’t know that I knew everyone as well as I did. Some of the guys were employees of the ’76 jobber [wholesale distributors] when I was working in high school. They delivered the fuel to us, so I got to know all the drivers.”

Along with Wetter, the company has grown, not only organizationally, but also via new sites, including two new convenience store locations on the Big Island. There are 35 employees on Maui and the Big Island in wholesale distribution.

“We’re a pretty small crew,” said Wetter, “and we’re responsible for distributing all the fuel. We have accounts ranging from government to commercial to retail service stations and, of course, our own stations.”

The industry, he said, is competitive, but shrinking – as is the number of wholesale distributors – or “jobbers.”

“Hawaii is a big alternative-energy state,” Wetter explained. “We harness solar power, wind power – even the waves. The Legislature would like to see everyone off fossil fuels for both power and transportation. Electric cars, bio fuel…that will change our industry here in the long run.”

The change is welcome, he said, but the trick is bridging the gap between what is the status quo now, and what will come in the future.

“Change is difficult,” said Wetter. “We know that if we don’t change with the market, we’re not going survive. I put solar panels on my house, and we have them here at the office. It’s not something we intent to ignore. The first step in bridging the gap. No one wants to make investments here in refineries if they’re going to be obsolete within a few decades. And if that happens, what’s going to happen to people who can’t afford electric cars? Gas may be cheap, but what if they can’t get to it? We’re hoping to be among the problem-solvers who figure out how to phase in alternative energy while still maintaining affordable petroleum products. The key is phasing it in, and allowing time for technology to catch up.”

Wetter sits on the board of the Hawaii Petroleum Marketers Association, a board composed of industry leaders and representatives of the state. He also sits on the board of the Western Petroleum Marketers Association, a collaborative effort of seven western states.

“Our biggest challenge is how to transition during the next 20 years to alternative energy,” he said. “It’s a tricky, but exciting prospect.”

Wetter’s daughter attends the University of Hawaii on Maui; his wife is the concierge of the Four Seasons Maui at Wailea. An active Rotarian, he counts education as an essential building block of success.

“We’ve done many wonderful projects in the community,” said Wetter, who served on the board of the Rotary Club of Kahului for 10 years.

With the help of a grant, Wetter and his fellow Rotarians recently completed a complete re-painting of the Maui MEO Head Start Preschool, a preschool created as part of an area homeless shelter. Wetter also serves on the club’s scholarship board.

“I’m a big supporter of education, having put myself through college,” he said. “I’m an especially big supporter of those who are under-priveledged and unable to pay for it. I get very excited by those who are the first in their family to be able to go. I think if I had been a little more driven, I couldn’t have expanded past my bachelor’s degree.”

To that end, Wetter enrolled last summer in a six-week leadership course at Stanford University in California.

“I had a long weekend in the middle of it, and my daughter flew over and stayed in the dorm with me – she was blown away by the campus and the level of education offered there.”

Wetter acknowledges he’s come a long way since his days of windsurfing.

“A lot of people probably don’t know that while two of my brothers were professional windsurfers, my mom was the last family member doing it,” he laughed. “Our family was even featured in an ‘80s television ad for the Hawaiian Moving Company. Life’s worked out differently than I envisioned, but better than I could have imagined when I first stepped off the plane as a five-year-old boy from New Jersey.”