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The future looks bright for Alaska Petroleum Distributing – General Manager and second-generation business owner Lisa Sundborg said things changed for the better after joining NorthStar Energy in 2019.

Lisa Sundborg has never created a resume, and she’s never filled out a job application.

“When I tell people that, they can’t believe it. But I never wanted to work anywhere else.”

Lisa joined Alaska Petroleum Distributing, the business her father had founded two years earlier, in 1984 when she was 20 years old. As the company marks 40 years in the fuel business this year, she said she and her siblings – who still run the business together – are looking forward to the future again after joining NorthStar Energy in 2019.

“We’ve loved every minute of being part of the Saltchuk family.”

Alaska Petroleum Distributing

Sundborg was born in Seattle. In the late 1960s, her father, Gus Johnson, owned the famed Blue Moon Tavern near the University of Washington campus. After meeting Sundborg’s mother and starting a family, the couple married in the spring of 1969. The next day, the family set off for Gus’s hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska.

“I started Kindergarten at North Pole Elementary,” Sundborg said. “North Pole is a little town about 15 miles south of Fairbanks. “And I graduated from North Pole High School. My dad always said that if you lived in Fairbanks, you either needed to be in fuel or beer.”

He tried the bar business first.

“But the bar business isn’t good for family,” Sundborg said. “So, when the pipeline started, he went to work there.”

Gus eventually transitioned from pump stations to a transportation company, driving a van up and down the haul road to deliver mail and passengers.

“They started calling it ‘The Gus Bus,’” Sundborg laughed.

In 1981, Gus Johnson convinced his boss to bid on a fuel contract at the Eielson Air Force Base.

“They won the contract, but they had to sell it to North Pole Fuel since they didn’t have a fuel truck,” she continued. “But in 1982, my dad applied for a line of credit from the bank and bought a fuel truck. As well as military contracts, he began delivering to customers. There were no cell phones – people would leave messages on an answering machine in my parent’s bedroom, and my dad would deliver fuel for cash only. Then, he’d come back, and my mom would have the next list of deliveries ready.”

By 1983, she said, there was so much business, he needed an office.

“He got an office upstairs in a roller rink not too far from the house. I was 20 years old in

1984, and he asked me if I wanted to come work for him.”

Sundborg answered the phone, took orders, and logged the deliveries – all on paper. By 1986, her brother, Jay Johnson, joined the company as a fuel delivery driver, followed by Raleigh Johnson in 1999. In 2004, sister Teresa Johnson joined Alaska Petroleum as well, and the company expanded to include a line of convenience stores. In the years before Gus’s death in 2012, its success made it the second-largest fuel company in Fairbanks.

“Everybody on the pipeline knew him because he drove that bus. I can’t tell you how many people still call and say, ‘I knew Gus.’”

Lisa poses with her family.
Sundborg, center, with her brother, Jay Johnson, and her sister, Teresa Johnson.

De-stressed success

Sundborg said there’s no doubt the company is successful, but there were hard times.

“When you grow and grow like that, your debts can get out of hand. Fuel is a challenging business to get into,” she laughed. “I always tell people to get into a business where you can buy something for a nickel and sell it for a dollar. Don’t get into a business where you buy for a nickel and sell for six cents.”

And working with family, she said, always adds to the drama in ways good and bad.

“They’ll be the best days and the worst days of your life. It’s impossible to separate your work from your personal life. We all live in the same neighborhood. We’re a really close family.”

Sundborg said much of their decision to join NorthStar depended on the fact that it’s hard to be a small, independent company in the fuel business.

“You don’t get any pricing breaks,” she explained. “Even if you buy a lot of fuel, you’re only one business. There’s just so much competition. If you have the margins to compete, you’re not making any money. We were also trying to provide our employees with insurance and pay them what the market was paying.”

A conversation with a visitor from Inlet Energy opened the door to talks with NorthStar, and Alaska Petroleum officially joined the Saltchuk family of companies on Sept. 13, 2019. While Sundborg’s brother, Raleigh, left to pursue his dream of working in the radio business, the remaining three siblings continue to run the business their father created.

“At the start, they really made us feel our family business was going to stay a family-run business,” she said. “And two years later, I’m telling you, that’s the way it is. Do you know how nice it is to be a small family business with an HR department, a legal team, an environmental team, a safety team – all standing by to help us? When you get as big as we were independently, we had to do all that on our own. We still have a desire to be successful – but we don’t have that constant stress.”

Twenty-year volunteer

Nineteen years ago, Sundborg’s friend,  development director of the American Heart Association, called her about a new event she was starting for the American Heart Association: “Go Red for Women.”

“It basically centered on the idea that most the studies on heart disease were on men – women are different,” she said. “AHA was raising research dollars to study heart disease in women since heart disease is the number one killer of all people.”

Sundborg’s friend decided to hold the first “Go Red” event in Fairbanks and wanted Sundborg to be on the committee.

“My dad was very much like, ‘Unless you’re dead, you go to work,’” she laughed. “I’d never done any volunteering before. I wasn’t even an organ donor at the time.”

Sundborg said her father “reluctantly” agreed she should take on the project, which was a big success. The following year, she was asked to be a co-chair of the entire event, which she did for two years, and then remained on the executive committee ever since. One day, she was watching the World Series of Poker on television and had an idea.

“I called my development director friend and told her I wanted to do a poker event and call it ‘Queen of Hearts.’ There are 100 players who buy in at $100. There’s no gambling (for money) allowed in Alaska, so the winner receives a champion bracelet, a plaque, and bragging rights! That first year, we raised $10,000. We just did our 16th tournament, and this year we raised $35,000.”

Sundborg said that over 16 years, the Queen of Hearts poker tournament raised more than $400,000 for the American Heart Association. As a result, Lisa was presented with the all-time Top Giving Heart Achievement Award for the entire state.

And her commitment to philanthropy has only grown stronger. This year, Sundborg co-chaired the Heart Walk in Fairbanks with TOTE Site Manager Amy Cook. Together they were the top fundraisers and awarded the Leaders with Heart Award.  She was also named a 2020 Woman of Distinction by the Girls Scouts of America’s Farthest North Council. In March 2022, Sundborg and her daughter will be the keynote speakers for the city’s Breast Cancer Detection Center (BCDC) Gala, telling their cancer story.

“It’s actually a compelling story,” Sundborg said. “My daughter had a lump in her breast, and the hospital didn’t have any imaging appointments available for three weeks. I was insistent that she get a mammogram that day and BCDC fit her in. Her scan showed that the concerning lump was nothing but a cyst – but there was cancer in her other breast. She ended up having a double mastectomy at 37, as well as a hysterectomy to help prevent her cancer from coming back. The really scary thing is that the cyst disappeared a few days after the first scan. If she’d just accepted that she had to wait three weeks – and it had gone away in the meantime – would she have kept the appointment? Would we have caught it before it was too late?”

Sundborg said she’s planning to split the Queen of Hearts’ proceeds between BCDC and American Heart Association next year.

“It’s a great organization that performs mammograms for anyone even if they can’t afford it or don’t have insurance. They even send a fully equipped truck out into the villages and do mammograms there.”

When she’s not working or volunteering, Sundborg spends time with her friends and family, including her grandchildren, performs standup comedy – and she loves to cook with her daughter, often donating six-course dinners for 12 to several different community auction events.

“Right now, I’m learning how to make duck confit. Life is good.”

Related Story: TOTE Community Relations Program Manager works to give back to Alaskans

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.