Despite the inflated prices - $9.88 for regular and $9.99 for premium — customers flocked to the Lukoil station at the intersection of Boot Road and Rt. 100 yesterday. Fortunately, most didn’t come to fill up since there was no gas at any price. They just wanted to say good-by. After 10 years, Ghanshyam Patel was walking away from his $300,000 investment and blaming Lukoil.
As soon as his pumps went dry, Patel, 50, of Norristown, posted the highest prices he could - given the number of digits the sign allowed — a protest he hoped would call attention to his predicament. “You are snatching the business from me,” he said he told company officials during one of the rare times he was able to communicate with them.
He said the company had been selling him gas for more than the street price, preventing him from being competitive and forcing him to close shop. He said other Lukoil franchisees had also gone out of business.
“That’s what they want,” he said, explaining that Lukoil owns the property and will likely reopen with new operators handpicked by the company. Among Patel’s last customers was another Lukoil franchisee who echoed Patel’s complaints. He said he had been struggling as well with the high prices he was charged and did not know how long he could hold out. A 2005 article in The Inquirer chronicled the complaints of other area franchisees who said Lukoil had set its wholesale prices too high for them to survive. In 2004, Lukoil, Russia's largest oil producer, bought more than 750 Mobil stations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania from ConocoPhillips for $266 million. The stations had been cut loose from Exxon Mobil Corp. in 2000 to satisify antitrust concerns.
Patel said he would really miss his customers, and it was clear from the reception he received yesterday that he had endeared himself to many. “My father [John] is really going to miss this place a lot,” said Jill Adamson. “This was a place he enjoyed coming to; he’d scratch off his lottery tickets and hang out.” As another customer approached the counter, Patel shook his head and apologized for being out of Bingo. “See?” said Adamson. “He knows what everybody wants.”
Patel, who said he valued customer service, said some of his most loyal patrons also bought gas at his station even though his prices were high, but others said they could not afford to pay so much more. “I only came here once, and that’s when I ran out of gas right up the road and coasted in here,” said Gil Montgomery, 27, of West Chester. “He was sometimes 17 cents higher than the Wawa; I could never understand why there was such a big difference.”
Patel said he believes there should not have been. He said he bought the franchise from Mobil in 2002 and enjoyed an excellent working relationship with Mobil. That situation changed dramatically in 2004 when Lukoil took over; since then, Patel said he struggled to stay afloat. Now, after 10 years of getting up before dawn to travel from Norristown to Exton to open the station at 5 a.m., he doesn’t know what he will do. He said his only son is a high-achieving high-school senior who deserves help with college tuition. “This isn’t right,” he said. “I operated safely, honestly and legally all this time … no bounced checks, no problems. The oil companies are making billions and I get forced out of business.” To hear Patel's own words, he has posted a video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MK5zjDVdLDI.