Mid-South Sales Adapts to Market Changes

Mid-South Sales has evolved from the small business that in 1945 began selling fuel, tires, batteries and other automotive and tractor accessories to farmers from a bulk oil plant in Helena.

(Click here for a list of the largest private companies in northeast Arkansas.)

The regional wholesale oil and fuel distributor, which is now headquartered in Jonesboro, has grown and has tried a variety of avenues for selling.

Over time, it has adapted to changes in the industry and to consumers' varying demands.

The company now sells gasonline, diesel and aviation fuel, as well as lubricants (hydraulic fluids, motor oils, gear lubricants and greases) to buyers in a variety of industries.

Typical of companies in the petroleum industry, its revenue increased more than 20 percent last year, to $92.4 million, which moved it from No. 72 to No. 70 on the list of Arkansas' largest private companies.

About 40 percent of Mid-South's sales are to agriculture-related businesses, meaning made directly to large-scale farmers, farm equipment dealers, chemical and fertilizer companies and feed companies; about 30 percent are to companies that use the fuel or other fluids for manufacturing processes; and about 30 percent are made to a variety of buyers such as cities, car dealers, oil-change shops, schools and trucking companies.

Mid-South is also certified by the Coast Guard to fuel barges on open water from land.
"We try to cover most of the fuels out there, for all types of transportation," said Murray Benton, company president.

The Beginning
The company's founder, M.O. Rasberry, was a multistate BFGoodrich tire salesman from Helena who got tired of long weeks of train travel away from his family.

As a result, he turned entrepreneurial. Rasberry used his experience with BFGoodrich to inform his work on the company that became Mid-South.

Prior to the ubiquity of self-serve gas stations, Mid-South opened a series of full-service stations with employees who washed cars and pumped gas for customers.

The company converted to self-serve stations in the 1970s, and finally to convenience stores, before selling that retail side of the company - 20 convenience stores and two truck stops in northeast Arkansas - in 1998.   

Mid-South is a family business, as it has been for 65 years. Rasberry would eventually leave Mid-South to focus on ventures in real estate, banking and insurance, but he kept the fuel company in the family by selling it to his son-in-law, Bill Benton, in 1976.

Bill Benton had originally joined the company in 1960 and helped spearhead development of Mid-South's service stations.

Bill Benton is now Mid-South's board chairman and part owner. His son, Murray Benton, became company president in about 2002, and he led Mid-South's change in focus, selling the retail side of the company and expanding its wholesale work.

Selling through convenience stores didn't look promising for small companies at the time, Murray Benton said, since large chains like Kroger and Wal-Mart were jumping into the retail gasoline business.

The Future
Adjusting its focus has worked for Mid-South, despite changes in demand for fuel and the pressures of the Great Recession.

Since 2009, revenue has increased nearly 80 percent.

And those increases came in spite of improved gas mileage in vehicles, new cars that need less frequent oil changes and longer lasting synthetic lubricants. They also came at a time of industry consolidations due to economic pressures.

Implementing efficiencies, working with suppliers and vendors to get better pricing and getting "very aggressive in sales" were among Mid-South's strategies for weathering the recession, Murray Benton said.

"We really were able to do OK during that tough time. As you know, people still need fuel and lubricants," he said. "America's a traveling country, and Arkansas is the same way."

Mid-South currently has eight locations, all in Arkansas, but also delivers to Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. The company has a staff of 83.

MRB Transport Inc., a subsidiary of Mid-South, provides the delivery truck fleet for the wholesaler.

For the changing market, Mid-South already sells biodiesel, and ethanol and compressed natural gas are products the company would consider selling in the future, Murray Benton said.

"We want to be a company that's open to change," he said. "We want to be open to new and better ways to do business. It helps your company and helps your customers."
Murray Benton said 2011 brought gains from new business, not just higher oil prices.

He said that growth came in the areas of construction and farm, and some large road projects helped the company in areas where it sells fuel.

Murray Benton added that some of Mid-South's competition consolidated into larger companies, providing opportunities for Mid-South to gain customers away from competitors.

2012 should show even more revenue growth, thanks to an acquisition: In March, Mid-South bought the assets of Ritter Oil Co.'s fuel, lube and fuel services business and added Ritter's Marked Tree (Poinsett County) and Crawfordsville (Crittenden County) locations to Mid-South's collection of bulk fuel facilities.

Bill Benton said the company has goals of making more "strategic acquisitions, smart acquisitions" in the future.