After more than 58 years filling Chattanooga's gas pumps, Benton Oil is no more.
In the past few years, market demand for low-priced gas pushed margins so low that to stay profitable, company President Ross Benton either had to expand or sell. With the economy down, expanding seemed out of the question.
"A lot of businesses are scaling back. Growing is a difficult option," he said. "The business is patterned a lot more aggressively in 2012 than it was in earlier years."
Benton said he tested the water for buyers, and quickly found a good partner in nearby Sweetwater Valley Oil.
The Sweetwater-based company bought Benton Oil in November, agreeing to keep staff and management in place and grow the young Midnite Oil brand of gas stations.
In addition to gas stations, Benton Oil distributed kerosene for home heating. It was important to Benton that a buyer be able to continue to serve the company's customers, and he said Sweetwater was able to meet his expectations.
"Pretty much all that looks and smells and tastes the same as it did six months ago," he said. "It's not just a buyout, it's more of a merger."
Scott Shankle, president of Sweetwater Valley Oil, said his company had wanted to be in Chattanooga for a long time. He viewed Benton as friendly competition, and saw a lot of Sweetwater's business model in the Chattanooga-based distributor.
"We'd always done about the same thing as they did," Shankle said. "We had a lot of synergy there."
Shankle wouldn't say how much he paid for Benton Oil, but he said he sees good growth potential in the area.
"We're just happy to be in the Chattanooga market," he said. "You don't want to say it's the lack of competition, but we'd always just been interested in the business we have down there."
Sweetwater owns 22 gas stations between Cleveland and Loudon, Tenn. With the acquisition of Benton Oil, the company will start managing the Midnite Oil brand, which covers 15 independently owned area stores.
Shankle plans to update the brand's logos.
Benton hopes to see Midnite Oil expand to more independently owned gas stations. He expects the local brand will encourage Chattanoogans to fill up at the Midnite pumps over rival brands.
"They're all selling the same thing. They're selling gasoline and Coca-cola and potato chips," he said. "It's hard to differentiate your store from any other store. We can give them an identity that a broader range of people can relate to."