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A South African Born, Texas Based Entrepreneur Realizes a Game Changing Opportunity with Alternative Fuels - By Sharon Bell - June 2006
For decades, the biodiesel industry grew slowly with little mainstream attention until a phone call from Willie Nelson helped clarify Peter Bell’s vision to inject a fresh perspective into an established, but little known industry.
While closing his ten year old accounting software business in mid 2002, then 36 year old Peter Bell searched for a more meaningful way to make a living, one that contributed to society and had a positive effect on the environment. Bell had applied for U.S. citizenship and he was concerned about foreign oil imports straining the U.S. economy and influencing decisions at all levels of government. He determined that a diesel fuel replacement made from vegetable oil, called biodiesel, could eventually help improve conditions in the U.S. where oil prices were rising, foreign relations were suffering and environmental issues were coming to the forefront of awareness. Though conditions proved right for the venture, he still needed a unique idea if he was going to have any real impact. After a year of searching for the big idea, Bell created the first brand of biodiesel marketed to the biggest users of diesel fuel, over the road truckers.
Vegetable oil as fuel for diesel engines is nothing new. At the 1900 World’s Fair, Rudolph Diesel, surely made stomachs growl when he introduced his engine fueled with peanut oil. Today the oil seeds most often used are soybeans, which are crushed and processed to reduce viscosity in order to run in current diesel engines. When biodiesel burns in a diesel engine it smells a little like cooking oil heating in a pan. Using it to replace just 20% of diesel fuel dramatically reduces the smell and black smoke associated with burning diesel.
From its commercial beginnings in the 1990’s, the U.S. market for biodiesel has grown slowly until 2005 when it tripled in one year and predictions indicate that it will double again in 2006 to 150 million gallons. Increased oil prices and environmental awareness are two contributors to industry growth.
Another factor making this business viable is a tax incentive for distributing biodiesel blended with petroleum diesel that went into effect in January, 2005. Non-profit trade associations including the National Biodiesel Board and the United Soybean Board progressively worked on getting these incentives introduced and passed in the U.S. house and congress.
The industry would have grown at a steady clip anyway, but what turbo charged biodiesel and sped up adoption among the largest diesel using constituency started with a phone call from Willie Nelson.
From Bell’s tiny home office where he received that first phone call in November of 2003, he gave this perspective, “I grew up in South Africa, so I didn’t know who Willie Nelson was. That saved me from becoming a gibbering idiot on the phone. From my wife’s reaction when I told her who called me that day, I was glad that she hadn’t picked up the phone. I soon discovered the force of Willie Nelson.”
Nelson called Bell to inquire about providing biodiesel for his tour busses as they passed through Dallas. Nelson had been using biodiesel for a couple of years after his wife Annie discovered it in Hawaii. Biodiesel distributors across the country had provided Nelson with biodiesel, but Bell saw further potential. As Bell was filling Nelson’s tour buses, he looked at his little red portable tank and thought “Since Willie Nelson supports biodiesel and many truckers love him, wouldn’t it be great to have his image on the tanks and pumps.”
Four Legged Table
Bell and Nelson talked daily and it was clear that they both shared a passion for improving the environment and reducing dependence on foreign oil. Nelson brought the “third leg”, as Bell refers to it, to the table – a focus on the American farmer and biodiesel as a new market for their crops.
What provided the all important fourth leg was Nelson’s connection to a locally famous Texas truck stop called Carl’s Corner, located just south of Dallas on I35. Carl Cornelius opened Carl’s Corner in 1984 and since then it has gone through stages of thriving trucker’s paradise with show girls and entertainment to ghost town when they temporarily stopped carrying fuel and the restaurant closed.
As soon as Nelson mentioned Carl’s Corner, the idea began to take shape. Bell and Cornelius made a pilgrimage to Nelson’s ranch outside of Austin. While playing chess, they discussed the opportunity of providing biodiesel at Carl’s Corner and revitalizing the truck stop. Carl’s Corner became the first truck stop in the nation to carry Nelson’s own brand of biodiesel, BioWillie.
BioWillie was born in the back offices of Carl’s Corner in May 2005. In Bell’s office, a dusty snapshot sat on his desk, showing five smiling men with white Styrofoam cups of whisky in their hands. Bell had his arm around one of the men who was unmistakably Willie Nelson. “After living in Texas for 10 years, this was the defining moment, when I truly felt like a Texan. What could be more Texan than hanging out with Willie Nelson and toasting our new venture with whiskey,” said Bell.
Before BioWillie, the trucking industry had not been a market focus for the biodiesel industry. Prior to the tax incentives of January 2005, biodiesel was more expensive at the pump than petroleum diesel. Trucking organizations resisted biodiesel in order to protect truckers from legislation that may have mandated its use and driven up fuel costs. Fuel is the largest operational cost in the trucking industry, so solving the biodiesel cost issue was critical to its success. This was accomplished, at least temporarily, with the tax incentives.
Once the tax incentives were put in place, truckers could buy a B20 blend (20% biodiesel, 80% diesel) for about the same price as petroleum diesel. Even though the price at the pump was reduced, trucking organizations were not quick to endorse biodiesel. When asked why Bell thought they could overcome these objections and sell biodiesel at Carl’s Corner, he said “I guess we didn’t know any better. Carl’s had a loyal independent trucker customer base and they believe in Willie Nelson. Independent truckers are patriotic and many of them come from farming families. We just had faith that they would like the fuel and they do.”
Even so, Bell faced several challenges in growing the distribution side of the business.
Most truckers had never heard of biodiesel, but never underestimate the power of Willie Nelson. In January 2005, Bell got a call from an Associated Press writer, Matt Curry, who had heard about Bell’s and Nelson’s biodiesel partnership. Curry’s article was picked up by hundreds of newspapers around the world and started a flood of radio, television, magazine and newspaper interviews with Bell and Nelson. In the next year, top media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and CBS News covered the story. The most influential media coverage for truckers was with the legendary Bill Mack of XM Satellite Radio’s Open Road. Bill and Cindy Mack provide a constant companion for truckers on the road. The Macks had been talking about biodiesel for years and when Nelson joined them on Wednesdays for a new weekly one hour show, truckers began to ask for BioWillie.
In surveys, truckers say that they use biodiesel to lesson U.S. dependency on foreign oil and help clean-up the environment. As Maryland based independent trucker Michael Frybarger stated recently, “I don’t want to see my grandchildren going to war over oil.” They try it for patriotic and environmental reasons, but they continue to use biodiesel for benefits including increased lubricity and engine efficiency, reduced vibration, smoother idling and in some cases better fuel mileage.
Bell’s next breakthrough was to put biodiesel in the same location where fuel trucks pick up petroleum diesel. The ability to blend biodiesel with diesel at the fueling terminal, without making two stops, creates efficiencies that reduce costs and lower barriers of adoption for truck stops. Bell partnered with Shell to pilot the first biodiesel blending at a major fuel distributor’s terminal on April 3rd, 2006. Love’s Travel Stops was the first customer to take advantage of this increased efficiency and carry biodiesel at several of their truck stops in Texas.
By November of 2005, BioWillie was carried at truck stops across the U.S. and many more were coming on line when Bell sold his distribution company to a public biofuels company called Earth Biofuels. This enabled Bell to move one step closer to another of his visions, seeing Willie Nelson ring the bell on the New York Stock Exchange in support of BioWillie.
Passion, Need and Opportunity
The success of BioWillie and the fact that it even exists cannot be attributed to luck alone. Bell started with a passion and a recognized a need. Biodiesel was always on his mind.
When presented with a game changing opportunity, he quickly developed a plan. He was not a pioneer in the industry, but he was the first to develop a name brand and sell that brand to major truck stops. He was the first to focus on independent truckers as a market. And, he was the first to put biodiesel on a major oil distributor’s terminal. Bell’s advice to entrepreneurs is to “find something that you are passionate about and then look for an unmet need. Don’t over think it; otherwise, you may talk yourself out of a great idea. Look at market forces and major trends. If your passion is there and the trend is in favor, then it’s worth the risk to bet on future markets.
And, always be ready to recognize an opportunity.”
Nelson’s commitment to helping farmers and supporting truckers makes him a likely spokesperson for biodiesel. Truckers are naturally patriotic and gravitate to solutions that help the country and farmers as well as reduce pollution. With the faith that Bell and Nelson have in the trucking industry, they sparked a grass-roots campaign of independent truckers that bubbled up to the truck stop chains and might actually improve everything from the air we breathe to foreign relations.
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