Danbury’s Leahy’s Fuels celebrates 100 years as family business
Any successful small-business owner will say that in order to remain viable and relevant, the company must adapt to changes.
Leahy’s Fuels traces its roots to a piston pins manufacturing plant founded in 1917 by John W. Leahy on what used to be Crosby Lane in downtown Danbury. Through the years, Leahy’s Fuels has serviced and lubricated automobiles, sold appliances, and sold oil and propane.
It is a formula that has allowed the company to reach its 100th anniversary. Even rarer these days is that the company has reached the century mark while being owned by the same family.
“We’re still here and still going forward and adjusting,” John “Jack” Stetson, owner of the company, said.
Stetson is the step-grandson of the company’s founder, who married Stetson’s grandmother, Gladys, when he was 40 years old.
“Up until then he was a bachelor,” Stetson said of Leahy. “His duty to life was work.”
Leahy had been working at a hat factory, like so many others in the early 1900s, when his father died. Leahy felt an obligation to take care of his mother, Stetson said, so he quit his factory job and started a business building piston pins for the automobile industry. The business was located on Crosby Lane, near what today is Crosby Street.
In 1926, Leahy saw a demonstration in Danbury of an automatic oil burner. He knew, Stetson said, that it was the future of home heating and veered the direction of the company toward selling oil. In 1929, he moved the business to its location on White Street, where he also ran an automobile lubrication business.
“He was successful right away because of demand (for heating oil),” Stetson said.
The initial storage yard was on Pahquioque Avenue in Danbury. It is now on Old Sherman Turnpike. The trucks were filled at the train station by locomotive tankers. Leahy’s Fuels used to have a wholesale terminal on Smith Street in Norwalk.
The oil was delivered by barge along the Norwalk River.
Another turning point in the company came in 1939, when Leahy decided to start selling propane in addition to oil. Gladys Leahy helped build the propane business, which is still a big part of the company’s profile.
“That’s been successful over the years,” Stetson said. “We were one of the first companies to get into propane so we were able to capture a lot of the market.”
Today, Leahy’s Fuels sells home-heating oil and propane and has a showroom at its White Street headquarters with home-heating appliances, gas fireplaces and other hearth-related products. It also designs, installs and services high-efficiency heating and cooling systems.
“We’ve carved out a niche on propane appliances,” Stephen Rosentel, president of Leahy’s Fuels, said.
Its oil and propane delivery service stretches throughout most of southwestern Connecticut and into the neighboring counties in New York.
Leahy’s employs about 50 people, many of whom have worked there for decades. Rosentel was an outside accountant working with Leahy’s Fuels until he was hired as the company’s controller in 1984. He became president in 1987.
“I’m a hired gun,” he said of not being part of the family that owns the business. “It’s been a great relationship because this company does a lot of things right. I take pride that we have a lot of second- and third-generation employees who want their family members to work here.”
Starting at the bottom
Stetson, now 72, started working at Leahy’s when he was in eighth grade. Like all family members who join the company, he started at the bottom and had to work his way up.
“I was an office boy and fixed incorrect addresses,” he said. “I also cleaned the showroom with a mop and bucket every Saturday and I dusted all of the appliances.”
Leahy’s Fuels used to sell appliances of all types, but the larger stores forced many of the family-owned appliance stores to close. Leahy’s showroom now features heating and cooling appliances. It also sells retro-style Elmira gas ranges.
Stetson worked many summers at the Danbury Fair. In the 1940s, a customer could not pay a fuel bill in cash, and Leahy was offered a share of the Great Danbury State Fair stock in exchange. Leahy quickly accepted and went on a mission to purchase as many stocks of the struggling fair as he could get. He eventually bought up all the stocks and transformed the fair into a regional phenomenon.
The fair closed in 1981 and the Danbury Fair mall was built on the property and opened in 1986.
Also in the 1980s, Stetson inherited one-sixth of Leahy’s Fuels. His siblings sold their shares to him and Stetson became the owner.
“I grew up in the business and was always interested in it,” he said. “It was my lifelong ambition to own it someday.”
The oil business may not be known for its environmentally friendly practices, but Leahy has taken steps to change that perception.
About 15 years ago, Leahy’s Fuels built its bulk storage yard for oil and propane on Old Sherman Turnpike. It is one of the few in the state in which all piping and tanks are above ground. If a leak occurs, Rosentel said, it will be known immediately and fixed. Underground tanks can leak into the earth for a long period of time before the problem is noticed.
Rosentel said it was more expensive and features less capacity than traditional bulk storage yards, but the potential positive impact on the environment outweighed the drawbacks.
Like many other oil companies, Leahy’s offers its customers bioheat, which is made in part with processed used cooking oil. The oil may be used with any heating system without modification.
“Just like our business, fuels have evolved, too,” Stetson said.
How much longer?
Stetson is one of several members of the family’s third generation to work at Leahy’s. His son, Josh, is the only member of the fourth generation working at the company. Stetson said 20 percent of the employees at Leahy’s Fuels represent the third or fourth generation of the family.
Stetson said the company has a strong future.
“It’s a viable company that should be able to go on forever,” Stetson said.
Leahy’s Fuels will host an open house in October to celebrate its 100th anniversary.