ROBISON AT 100: Energy Company Evolves to Stay Viable through Changing Decades
By Peter Katz – December 19, 2020
The U.S. government has some rather sobering figures on survival rates of new businesses.
Of the 569,419 businesses that opened during the 12-month period that ended in March 1994, only 89,876 of them were still around in March of this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A business has to evolve to survive, according to David Singer, who is co-president of Robison energy company in Port Chester with his brother Dan.
“You need to change. That’s the secret to staying in business as long as we have,” Singer said of the energy provider that is marking its 100th anniversary.
“The heart of Robison for 100 years has been providing energy. The roots of our company started in coal when coal was the way people heated homes. I was in a customer’s house recently in White Plains and they showed me the coal chute where the deliveries came through.”
David Singer explained that just as oil edged out coal, today’s energy mix is changing to natural gas and renewables and the company has been positioning itself as a source for much more than oil.
“We now sell more natural gas than we sell oil,” he said, noting that the company’s installation and repair services also have been expanded to cover modern heating and cooling technologies as well as plumbing.
The company has expanded to handling installation of electric generators for those times when power outages occur.
“The culture of this company is, ‘We serve,’” Singer said. “We serve on the coldest days, in the worst weather. The day you don’t want to be on the road is the day we’re on the road.”
He said Robison seems to attract people who exhibit a first-responder type of mentality.
“Like firemen and nurses and doctors, the way they kind of run toward the problems, that’s kind of the people that get attracted to our company because we pride ourselves on service and we care so much about service we seem to attract people who have that same value system,” Singer said.
Robison is a family owned business, although it’s no longer by the Robison family. The roots of the company stretch back to 1921 when architectural engineer Eben Robison and his wife operated at a location in Hartsdale that had a gas station, auto parts store and office where he conducted his drafting business.
By the mid-1920s, they had opened a hardware store and expanded into delivering home heating oil to customers in Hartsdale, Scarsdale, Edgemont, Ardsley and White Plains. By 1929, they opened a second gas station in Hartsdale and in the late 1930s opened a fuel oil depot in Hastings-on-Hudson.
Additional expansion of the gas stations, auto parts and hardware operations took place and by 1951 the company had not only thriving retail businesses but a fleet of 61 delivery, service and tanker trucks as well.
By the 1970s, the company’s managers and employees who Eben had years earlier allowed to buy stock in the company were actively running it. Due to the volatility of the oil business at that time, they ran into trouble and Robison was taken over by Mobil Oil.
In the 1980s, the Singer family, which had owned and operated the New York City oil company Original Oil, acquired Robison from Mobil and the operations of Original and Robison were merged.
“The primary territory that we cover is Westchester County and the counties surrounding it to a lesser extent. But we do business over into Fairfield County, Putnam County, into the boroughs,” Dan Singer said.
The company has more than 200 employees servicing in excess of 22,000 homes and businesses. He said they make more than 60,000 individual deliveries of oil every year and more than 33,000 individual service calls.
“If we were having this conversation five years ago all the focus would have been on how effectively can you seal the envelope of the house, seal as much as possible,” Dan Singer said.
“What we’re realizing more now for health reasons, and it’s become particularly pronounced with the virus, with the pandemic, is that healthy air flow through the house is critical for people’s health as well as for the well-being of the house itself. The challenge from a technology standpoint is how can you allow that airflow to effectively get fresh air into the home while you’re maintaining temperature. It’s staying on the leading edge of that technology is where Robison’s trying to position itself.”
Dan Singer said that they have developed a philosophy among their technicians that they’re not going into a customer’s house as hired help but actually are going in as a trusted adviser.
“When you go to the doctor for a sore throat, the doctor is not just going to look at your throat. The doctor is checking everything else about you holistically to see if there’s anything else that’s wrong,” Singer said.
He explained that technicians are equipped with high-tech equipment such as particle scanners to detect pollutants that may be present, humidity monitors to see whether there’s too much or too little moisture in the air and infrared cameras that allow hot and cold spots to be detected.
“We need to stay on the cutting edge of technology,” Dan Singer said. “I have children; I’m a fan of the planet, and we don’t really identify ourselves as an oil company. We don’t even identify ourselves as a fossil fuel company.
“Sure, we started selling coal and we migrated to different grades of heating oil and then we’ve migrated to biofuels and we’re also selling natural gas and now as electrification becomes a larger part of what will be heating peoples’ homes we’re going to stay on the cutting edge of that. Quite frankly, if the demand five, ten, fifty years from now is that people want to power their homes with nuclear energy then we’re going to have to get our technicians trained on plutonium, because that’s what we do.”