When Stephen Hightower applied for a sales position at Armco Steel after graduating from high school, he had good reason to think he would get the job.
After all, he had been heavily involved in his family’s cleaning business—interfacing with and servicing customers—since age 14. At 18, he sold his first commercial account.
But Hightower’s sales experience fell on deaf ears at the Middletown, Ohio, steelmaker. He was told to either go to college or settle for a job on the factory floor.
That was the last job Hightower ever applied for.
“I knew that at the end of 30 years at Armco, I would get a watch and maybe some type of retirement package,” he recalled. “I thought I would be better off if I actually worked for myself for that 30 years. It proved to be a better choice.”
Today, Hightower heads Hightowers Petroleum Co., a fuel-distribution company that has grown at lightning speed, is flourishing among the Goliaths of Big Oil, and counts Kroger, Ford Motor Co., Duke Energy, AK Steel, and General Motors as customers. Every GM vehicle that comes off the assembly line in the United States and Mexico has Hightower-delivered fuel in its belly.
This year, Hightowers Petroleum is projecting to post $300 million in sales.
“Our growth has been exponential,” Hightower said. “The phones won’t
Hightower credits much of his business success to communication abilities he developed while a student at Wright State University from 1974 to ’78.
His first literature professor, Lillie Howard, Ph.D., helped him hone his writing skills.
“She once told me that I am very intelligent and bright, but that until I change how I write, no one would ever know,” Hightower recalled. “This inspired me to pay attention to what I write and what people see in my writings.”
Majoring in management and commun-ication, Hightower also took part in speaking competitions that sharpened skills he would later use to build business relationships and sell his products and services.
“Being a competitive speaker is similar to being a competitive pianist—you become very, very good at it,” Hightower said. “It doesn’t matter what it is that you’re communicating or selling or managing, it’s how effective you are. And that effectiveness has served me
Hightower got lessons in human and race relations at a young age. When his became the first African American family to move into an all-white Middletown neighborhood, family members eventually hired armed guards to patrol outside his house.
Hightower became adept at what was a delicate balancing act—relating to, communicating with, and connecting with both whites and blacks. This early insight into human nature, coupled with his sales experience, speaking skills, and determination to be his own boss, would become the Hightower model for success in the business world.
“At a very early age, I got to interface on the outside without ever going on the inside of corporate America,” Hightower said. “Being on the outside, working with procurement folks, and working with plant managers, gave me a sense of what they were looking for and what they really wanted to hear. That was an advantage over my competitors in the
Hightower began with sales in the cleaning, construction, and medical industries. Then in the 1980s, he founded Hightowers Petroleum, buying fuel from refineries, then selling and distributing it.
A big break came when he won a statewide contract from the State of Ohio, supplying gasoline and diesel fuel for state vehicles from Cleveland to Cincinnati. He was supported by BP in 1985 and became a contract carrier throughout Ohio.
“It’s an industry where you actually have to be let in,” he said. “The BP connection was a turning point where I changed from being a broker to a carrier in the industry.”
Then, Hightower began to do some innovative things. He prepared his company to do business electronically, enabling it to be among the first in line to sell fuel to the auto and utility industries via e-commerce as they moved from paper to electronic procurement management.
That put Exxon Mobil and Chevron Texaco in the Hightowers Petroleum supply chain and sparked the transformation from a regional to a national company. Winning a utility contract from Cinergy Corp. boosted Hightower’s business in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. When Cinergy was purchased by Duke Energy in 2005, Hightower’s reach was strengthened in Virginia as well as North and South Carolina.
Because of its smaller size, Hightower’s company is faster, more flexible, and more responsive to potential customers than its Big Oil counterparts. When GM was going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and looking for a supplier to tank up its vehicles as they came off the assembly line, Hightower was there, proving his company to be flexible enough to make the adjustments necessary to win the contract.
Hightower does not confine himself to North America when it comes to drumming up new business. Nigeria, Jordan, and Egypt have been among stops on his recent business trips.
“One thing you find out early is that business is not going to find you, you’ve got to find the business,” he said. “I’m still the No. 1 salesperson, even though everyone in the company serves as salespersons. I spend my time creating relationships. And it is those relationships that allow us to continue to enjoy the growth we’re having right now.”
Despite his dizzying, world-travel schedule, Hightower finds time for other things.
His five children are a priority, and he serves as a trustee for the Wright State Foundation. He volunteers for projects that feed hungry children, mentors fatherless black children, and helps prepare young people to succeed in a global economy.
“Those are the things you try to do to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “When you’re growing your business and people think you have money and you really don’t, all you can do is give them advice and your time.”
Scuba-diving and skydiving are also among Hightower’s pursuits. He recently jumped off a mountain in Brazil, parachuting to a beach below for a 20-minute thrill ride.
“I’m pretty adventurous in life and in business,” he said.