Story By Denice Patterson
Photography By Megan Deitz and Contributed Photos
When William D. Holt bought his first service station in Fayetteville in 1930, Herbert Hoover was president and the price of gas was 17 cents per gallon. Holt sold gas at the store, but he also bought a truck and a 5-gallon can and began delivering heating oil to the neighbors, calling his new business Crystal Oil Company.
The business did well, not only surviving the Great Depression, but also thriving as Holt added new stations and delivery trucks. He incorporated the business in 1939, and Holt Oil Company was born.
Over the years, three sons came along — William Jr., Charles and Henry. Charles and Henry joined their father in the family business and the two managed it well over the decades. The heating oil business grew and was sold, a small venture in heating and air conditioning sales and service came and went, but the gas station and convenience store operations thrived.
Eight decades after the founding, one son and 11 grandchildren own and manage the family business, and the name of Crystal Oil has been long forgotten.
Although last surviving son, Henry, has retired from the daily work, he remains active as chairman of the board. The rest of the board shakes out like a family tree — Charles’ son-in-law, Louis Cox, is the current president; he is the husband of Sarah Holt Cox. Henry’s son, Bill, is the youngest Holt at the helm and is the treasurer. Henry’s son, Walter, is Holt’s vice president.
Their cousin, Hannah Holt, the company secretary, is Charles Holt’s other daughter and is the director of convenience store operations for the business. She joined the company in 1989 after a brief career as a sales representative for a wine distributor.
“When I graduated from UNC, I wanted to have a career of my own,” she says. Holt Oil Company was not on her radar. One day her father called and offered her a job. “I hesitated, because you are always your parent’s child, no matter what you do.” But she gave the idea a great deal of thought and a new career was born. “It turned out one of the best parts of being here was getting to work with Dad,” she says.
The 84-year success of the three-generation business is based on three ideas: put family first, be an industry leader, and give back to the community. Over the years, this model has worked. Holt has grown to two offices, 22 stores and 300 full-time and part-time employees. The company owns and operates 11 of those stores and leases out the others.
Brunswick County is home to three of Holt’s stores. The oldest, Magnolia Greens Country Store on Highway 17 in Leland, was the pioneer store in the Magnolia Greens development 14 years ago. The Maco Depot on Maco Road in Leland is 8 years old and pays homage to the Maco Lights phenomenon.
“The country-store design of the Maco location really offered the community a sense of place,” Hannah says. “The day we opened, a group of eight locals came and claimed the rocking chairs on the front porch. One older woman even made sure customers wiped their feet before entering.”
The newest store in the Holt portfolio is the Ocean Highway Country Store in Bolivia at the intersection of Old Ocean Highway and Highway 17. It is home to a 45-seat Subway restaurant, featuring a separate entrance from the store. The 4,000-square-foot building sits on 2 acres and has been in the pipeline for more than six years. It was only last year that the land owners were ready to sell, and Holt broke ground right away. The store location is perfect for Holt.
“We want to be a presence in rural communities,” Hannah says. “We love the feel of the old timey country store, and our customers do as well.”
Charles Holt was the brainchild behind the country-store design and business model. Holt’s first country store was built in Fayetteville near I-95 in 1985. Louis Cox helped develop and oversee the construction of that store.
“The store had a deli and offered local handmade arts and crafts, similar to a Cracker Barrel,” Hannah says. “As time went on and we opened more country stores, it was clear that the customers liked the easiness of the front porch, rocking chairs and the feeling of community that the design offered. We moved away from the arts and crafts offerings and focused more on convenience items.”
Being a good steward of the environment is very important to the company. In 1990 Holt purchased and developed the site at the corner of Porters Neck Road and Highway 17 near Hampstead and purposely placed the store where it preserved the live oaks that are on that lot.
The products that Holt offers in the stores also reflect their desire to do the right thing. Their signature coffee — Pura Vida — is an organic, free-trade product.
Supporting the community is also very important to the Holt family. In Brunswick County Holt sponsors the Dixie Youth Baseball League. And the first fundraiser for the new Ocean Highway store will benefit LOPE equine rescue volunteer Lauryn Zepeda in Bolivia.
Company-wide, the Holts donate thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to local charities. Their annual golf tournament benefits the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. “Over the past 11 years we have raised more than $225,000 for the Coastal Land Trust,” Hannah says.
After Charles’ death, the company set up a scholarship
with UNCW in the master’s degree program for public administration.
The future looks bright for Holt Oil Company. The directors are taking the slow approach to growth and expect to add a new store only every two years or so.
The fourth generation of Holts is growing up and graduating from college now. In fact, at age 23 Charles Cox — Louis and Sarah’s son, Charles’ grandson, and William’s great grandson — is showing an interest in Holt Oil. “Won’t that be something?” Hannah says. “Four generations and counting!”
You can find out more about Holt Oil online at holtcstore.com . Or stop by their newest location on Ocean Highway in Bolivia opening this summer.