ST. CLOUD, Minn. - Most motorists are feeling the pain as gasoline creeps toward, or over, $3 a gallon — but not Art Altrichter.
"This feels pretty good!" Altrichter said as he filled the tank of his Ford F-150 pickup for $2.03 a gallon on Thursday, when the average here was $2.73. "Right now, to be a few pennies over $2, when it's as high as it is? That's a real deal."
A year ago, the retired milk truck driver bought 500 gallons of gas at First Fuel Banks, locking it in at the then-current price of $2.03 a gallon. He taps that reserve whenever gas rises above that mark. If the retail price drops below $2.03, he can leave his reserve alone and buy elsewhere.
First Fuel Banks bills itself as the only retailer in the country where customers can buy gasoline for the future and hedge against rising prices. It advertises no service charge and no storage charge, just a $1 lifetime membership fee.
Altrichter said one of his neighbors got in at First Fuel Banks several years ago and is now is withdrawing from a reserve that cost him 99 cents a gallon. "How about that!" he said.
Both people and businesses buy gas from the company, which has six stations in and around this central Minnesota city. The city of St. Cloud fills its fleet of cars at the company's stations.
The program is open to anyone who drives off the street. Customers buy whatever amount they want at the current price — the most ever purchased in advance was $400,000 worth — then swipe a card and key in a PIN number when they draw from their reserve.
Chief executive Jim Feneis, who runs the company with his brother, Dan Feneis, said 300 of its members are still filling up with gas that cost them less than a buck a gallon as recently as 2002. Many more are locked in under $2.
"We're offering a pretty attractive concept to the savvy buyer," Feneis said.
Each station has a 50,000-gallon tank for each grade of gasoline — regular, mid-grade and premium — compared with 6,000 to 8,000 gallons for each product at a typical convenience store, Feneis said.
That's enough capacity to handle short-and medium-term demand, he said. For people holding onto reserves for a year or longer, the company hedges its obligations by buying gasoline futures contracts on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
First Fuel Banks started with a single station in 1982 and now has about 8,000 members, Feneis said. It makes its money just by selling gasoline, diesel and some specialty fuels since its stations aren't convenience stores. He said it has less than 5 percent of the St. Cloud area market. But he said it's just one part of a larger business, East Side Oil Co., that has other divisions such as oil recycling.
"Our 43-year-old family fuel business is happy, healthy and completely debt-free," Feneis said. "And I think we're definitely the minority."
A few other stations in the country have tried a similar approach, but none have succeeded, he said.
Lance Klatt, executive director of the Minnesota Service Station and Convenience Store Association, can understand why: price volatility and risk.
"There's no margins anyway" in the gasoline business, said Klatt.
It was a new idea to Ron Planting, an economist with the American Petroleum Institute in Washington. "But in the Northeast and maybe elsewhere there are heating oil dealers that do something similar with a customer who wants to lock in a price for the current heating season," he said.
Sheila Hallerman learned about First Fuel Banks when she received a gift card a year ago, and a few months ago she bought 100 gallons at $2.40.
"It still hurts," she said of shelling out more than $2 for a gallon. "But not as much as it could."
This seems like a great idea, but there aren't many gas stations that have that kind of capacity, I'm sure.
I just filled up for about $2.75 a gallon the other day, and I was happy to get it for that. It had been about $2.90 the previous week.