At Holiday Oil, the Wagstaff brothers keep their dad's vision alive

From left, Scott Wagstaff and Mike Wagstaff, co-presidents of Holiday Oil, pose for a portrait at a Holiday in Magna on June 27.

From left, Scott Wagstaff and Mike Wagstaff, co-presidents of Holiday Oil, pose for a portrait at a Holiday in Magna on June 27. (Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)


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WEST VALLEY — Brothers Scott and Mike Wagstaff are the leaders of one of Utah's most successful home-grown businesses.

Their company, Holiday Oil, turned 60 this year. Year-in, year-out its growth has been as steady as a metronome. In July they're set to open their 75th store. By the end of the 2020s, they plan to hit 100. They have 1,000 employees on their payroll and counting.

How have they survived, thrived and expanded when so many other family-run gas station businesses have been kicked to the curb, engulfed by the fuel companies and the big corporations?

What's their secret?

Basically, it boils down to four words:

What would Jerry do?

From left, Scott Wagstaff and Mike Wagstaff, co-presidents of Holiday Oil, talk during an interview at a Holiday in Magna on June 27.
From left, Scott Wagstaff and Mike Wagstaff, co-presidents of Holiday Oil, talk during an interview at a Holiday in Magna on June 27. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

Jerry is Scott and Mike's father. He died two years ago, a month shy of his 80th birthday. But it's Jerry Wagstaff's fingerprints that remain, testifying to the practicality of Holiday's rather unorthodox way of doing business. For one thing, he built an empire without going into hardly any debt. For another, he insisted on owning the ground his gas pumps stand on. For yet another, he never stopped changing with the times.

"That goes through my head a lot, what would he (Jerry) have done," says Mike, 53, as his older brother Scott, 60, nods his assent. The brothers are taking a break at the big 10-pump Holiday Store in Magna, sitting at an outdoor table, telling Jerry stories.

The family enterprise was launched innocuously enough in February of 1964. Jerry had just returned from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Scotland and married Floy, the girlfriend who waited for him. The newlyweds settled down in what was called Granger then and is now called West Valley City. Through oil contacts of his father, Nathan, Jerry took over the leases of a few struggling gas stations that were on their last fumes.

He named his new business after Holladay, the city where his grandparents had a small farm on the east side of the valley, but he changed the spelling to Holiday. In time he added a smiling clown as the logo.

"He said, 'I want something happy,'" says Mike.

Some of his leased stations found their footing, others did not and had to be shut down. All the while, Jerry, with no education beyond his diploma from Highland High School, lived by his wits.

"He had a gift with people," says Scott. "I think a lot of the success of the company was due to the kind of charm he had in getting people to help him and get excited about what he was doing."

In 1969 Jerry made a sharp pivot out of the leasing world and decided to buy an acre of land on Redwood Road and build a small station on the corner.

That, according to his sons, is the only time Jerry Wagstaff ever went into debt.

"And it only lasted maybe five years," says Scott. "He was very opposed to having any type of debt."

From the start, Jerry made it his goal to have the lowest gas prices in town. That would be his niche; his way to attract and keep customers. To see what his competitors were charging, he would get in his car and circle the valley, then come back and lower his price a penny or two, sometimes going under cost.

His boys smile when they tell about how, on Friday afternoons, their dad would watch until the manager of the gas station across the street would go home; then he'd run out to the sign in front and lower Holiday's price, ensuring a weekend with the cheapest gas.

Besides attracting customers with the low prices, "it was about volume," says Mike. "His game was always, 'how can I get enough volume to be able to negotiate with the refinery to get a better price?' He'd say margin would come eventually, but if you lose all your volume it's really hard to get back."

A major change came in the 1970s when 7-Elevens started adding gas pumps.

Seeing this, Jerry said, "Well, if they're going to start selling fuel I'm going to start selling Twinkies."

He hired a veteran of the grocery business, Darwin Sorensen, to help him transform his stations. Out went the two-stall mechanic bays, cemented over and replaced by soft drink machines.

Another change came when Phillips 66 stations added free self-serve car washes.

Seeing that, "Our dad said, 'well, I guess I need to go get a car wash,'" says Scott. To this day Holiday Oil stations have self-serve car washes, although they're no longer free.

"He was always innovating," says Mike, "and we continue to try to change and do something different."

It's not like Scott and Mike are new to any of this. They've been working at Holiday since they were kids and have been largely in charge since 2003, when Jerry and Floy left for three years to serve another church mission.

But it's Jerry's core philosophy they zealously keep in place: low debt, high volume, own the property every station sits on — and be sure to not let the world pass you by.

Among other things, that means nobody gets in the car anymore, Jerry style, to circle the valley and check on the other guy's price.

"We used to spend four or five hours every Saturday morning taking a loop around the valley. Now you can find out everything on your cellphone," says Scott, a bit wistfully. Jerry's was a good world to live in.

Daniel Garcia, an employee of Holiday for six years, wipes the counters by the soda bar at a Holiday in Magna on June 27.
Daniel Garcia, an employee of Holiday for six years, wipes the counters by the soda bar at a Holiday in Magna on June 27. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

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Lee Benson
    Lee Benson has written slice-of-life columns for the Deseret News since 1998. Prior to that he was a sports columnist. A native Utahn, he grew up in Sandy and lives in the mountains with his family.

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