Christian Demere is the fourth generation to head the family-owned, Savannah-based company, which celebrates its centennial this year. He brings a huge sense of responsibility to the role along with a healthy mix of confidence and humility.
(Article originally published in July/Aug 2021 edition.)
Congratulations on your appointment as President & CEO last December! Were you groomed from the beginning to someday take over the company founded by your great-grandfather?
No, I was never groomed to take over. My mother came from a very humble background, and my father was very sensitive to any notions of entitlement. For someone who’s experienced the kind of success he has, he still cuts his own grass, drives cars until they won’t run anymore and fixes everything himself.
He and my mother instilled similar values in me throughout my childhood. Work ethic, sense of humility and integrity were always reinforced. If I wasn’t in school or on the athletic field, I was helping my father with various chores around the house. He’s the ultimate handyman, so any time there was an issue of any kind it became a weekend project and I was always his helper!
My parents were so focused on ensuring I never had a sense of entitlement that I actually had no desire to work for the company. I wanted to feel a sense of independence and blaze my own trail. All through college my plan was to go live and work elsewhere. It wasn’t until my junior year that my father broached the subject of working for Colonial. By this time I was already entertaining job offers in Chicago after graduation so he thought the timing was right to discuss it. He never pressured me into working at Colonial. In fact, his preference was for me to work elsewhere for a few years.
The issue was our gap in age. He’s 41 years older, so if I was interested in ever working for Colonial it had to be immediately after college so he had time to provide the needed mentorship and guidance. It was actually a very difficult decision for me because, though I realized it was a great opportunity, it really challenged my desire for independence.
Ultimately, I made the decision to come back, and I’m very glad I did because it really is an incredible company with incredible people and I feel very humbled to be a part of it.
Give our readers a brief overview of the company and its evolution over the last 100 years.
When my great-grandfather, Raymond McAllister Demere, returned to Savannah after serving in World War I, he recognized the need to supply fuel for the new internal combustion engines powering vehicles replacing the horse and buggy. He purchased a 55-gallon barrel of oil and founded Savannah’s first independent wholesale petroleum company, the American Oil Company, on July 21, 1921.
He opened his first service station in 1923 under that name but would rename the company Colonial Oil when Standard Oil Company of Indiana purchased the American Oil Company name in 1933. So the company was born out of the growing demand for petroleum products, and the evolution that ensued for much of its history was centered around petroleum distribution.
Colonial Terminals, Colonial Towing and what is now known as Enmarket were all born from my great-grandfather and grandfather’s era of providing petroleum products to commercial and retail markets. My father then began diversifying by leveraging some of our existing assets that supported petroleum into other industries, whether dry bulk commodities like Kaolin or the storage and distribution of chemical products.
As we sit here today, I think our core competencies are really centered around intermodal logistics and the transportation, storage and distribution of bulk products (dry and liquid), whether petroleum-related or not. As we move forward, we’ll continue to leverage these competencies in industries that make sense and build additional competencies in areas where we think we can be successful and add value.
How has Colonial managed to survive for 100 years and become one of America’s largest privately held firms?
One, great people. Two, the company has always come first – we’ve always maintained a strong balance sheet and kept earnings within the company. And three, we’ve stayed very nimble and have continued to diversify so we can react to changes quickly and don’t have all our eggs in one basket.
How is the company organized?
Colonial Group, Inc. serves as the parent company. All the support functions that the various operating entities leverage are housed here – HR, Finance/Accounting and EHS. Each operating entity is otherwise a standalone business. While we’re all one company and one team, I think it’s important that we don’t have a “one size fits all” approach to how we operate the businesses. So there’s autonomy at the subsidiary level to do what makes sense for each business.
How many offices and employees are there? Do you have international operations as well?
The bulk of our offices and employees reside in Savannah. However, we have several regional offices scattered across several states. We employ over 2,000 people. With the recent acquisition of Aqua Smart, we now have an international presence in many countries throughout the globe.
Diversity has played an important role in the company’s growth. Tell us about that.
Much of the company’s growth occurred under my father’s leadership from 1986 to 2020. But what’s perhaps more remarkable is how that growth occurred. Dad diversified the company very nicely over the years to strengthen our foundation while creating multiple channels for new areas of growth. We’ve grown steadily, expanding into new markets and cultivating business relationships that span the globe.
Tell us about the two newest businesses – the Savannah Yacht Center and Aqua Smart. How do they fit under the Colonial umbrella?
While we want to continue to focus on our core competencies, we also want to continue to embrace an entrepreneurial spirit in areas where we believe we can be successful. On the surface, Aqua Smart may seem like it doesn’t fit within the family of companies, but we’re very familiar with the chemical industry and how chemicals support the water industry via Colonial Chemicals. So though Aqua Smart is dedicated to the water industry, the product it makes and distributes is very much aligned with what we believe we’re good at.
Savannah Yacht Center is a bit more of a stretch in embracing our entrepreneurial spirit. This company was born out of leveraging the real estate asset we owned, which is where SYC is located today, and trying to make a go of it ourselves by doing research on the mega-yacht industry and yard capacity around the world. In the end, we felt like it could be a good opportunity for us.
You describe Colonial as a “family of companies,” and the concept of “family” is very strong in the company’s culture. In fact, “Growing a Business. Building a Family” is the Colonial motto. What does all that mean?
In the world of business, “growth” is often the measuring stick associated with success. However, there are some potential pitfalls to growth because you can quickly lose your purpose in the process. The real magic at Colonial has always been our people. Generations of other families have worked here over the years. Employees have met their spouses at Colonial. Many lifelong bonds have been made.
So the “why” and the “how” matter greatly to me as we continue to move forward and grow. I’m not looking to grow and become bigger if it means sacrificing the culture that makes me excited to come to work in the first place. The concept of family is reinforced because we need to stay grounded in the why so that we continue to be very intentional in the how. The day we become too big or too “successful” to lose our sense of family is the day we lose our identity and purpose for doing the hard work we do each day.
“Giving back” is another big part of the Colonial culture, and the company is a model corporate citizen. Tell us about that and some of the causes the company supports.
Yes, and this helps feed my passion and drive. The platform Colonial has developed to be a force for good and support our communities provides a huge motivation to succeed in business so that we can have a greater impact each year in how we give back. The success of local companies like Colonial and communities like Savannah are very interdependent, so our focus is primarily on the local communities in which we have a presence and our primary pillars for giving are education, basic needs and the arts.
Have you ever considered going public?
No, and never will.
What’s your biggest challenge right now?
From an industry perspective, it’s trying to think about what Colonial will look like in 50 years – because that evolution starts now. I think we’ve got a solid foundation and are in some really good industries, but you can never get complacent and how we manage the evolution is very important and very challenging.
From a more practical standpoint, it’s developing our people. I don’t think we’ve been as intentional as we should be in developing our people to reach their full potential, to challenge the status quo, to delegate and empower, and to train and mentor. So this is a huge focus for us right now across all levels of the organization, and it’s a big effort to tackle.
What’s your vision for the company going forward? How do you see it evolving in coming years?
Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve got a grand vision. I’m certainly trying to ensure that we’re looking ahead at potential blind spots and paradigm shifts in each of our businesses so we don’t become obsolete or uncompetitive, but I’ve got to balance those high-level thoughts and conversations with making sure we stay laser-focused on improving what we’re doing today. I think the rate of change is only going to increase, so we’ve got to have a dynamic culture that embraces change and stays nimble. – MarEx
Jack O’Connell is the magazine’s Senior Editor.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.