Family business comes full circle Opportunities drive Guarcos’ entrepreneurial spirit

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by Emma Smith

Many people born just after World War II can recall the stories of their grandparents leaving the rigid European caste-like society in search of a chance to enjoy a middle class, or maybe-even-better life in America. Millions came through Ellis Island in New York and eventually moved to other states, often to live with those of their same nationality. These days many baby boomers are third and fourth generation and well detached from the lifestyles of their ancestral great-grandparents. Brothers and sisters often reside great distances from each other and parents watch their adult children pack up and move cross country in search of more promising jobs.
Here in Granby, however, dwells an extended family, most of which, has remained in the same hometown for four generations. The Guarco family lives and works together in the oil and propane heating business; installing, maintaining and selling furnaces/equipment, and delivering oil and propane to local residents. In fact, this family has actually been in the heating business here in America since 1915.
Doro and Matilda Tamborini Guarco, left Salogni, Italy, and moved to New York City in 1914. They soon made their way to Granby, bought land and started earning a living cutting wood since that was what residents needed to heat their homes. They set up shacks for workers and cut trees throughout the region and into Massachusetts. (A great deal of these forests have grown back.)
Eventually the family transitioned to farming some of the land they owned in Granby. Michael Guarco Sr., together with his brother Alessio, learned about farm chores in their early grade school years. At the age of 6 Mike was too young to lift the hay into the wagons but he was strong enough to climb onto the tractor. Thus he became the driver, no license required.
Because all the roads in Granby were dirt roads, getting from one place to another was arduous. The more cows the family had and the more crops they grew, the easier it was to become self-sufficient. In essence, farming involved the entire family and was key to their survival. In 1932 the family built a home on Notch Road and in 1934 Doro owned and worked a tavern in Hartford along with tending his farm.
Right around 1946, Doro was told by a local physician that he had tuberculosis. This doctor stated that if he wanted to survive, he would have to move to New Mexico. So as any brave, strong-willed patriarch would do, he sold his equipment and all his animals, packed the family in the car and drove to New Mexico. Soon his x-rays were sent to the nearby New Mexico medical center where it was clearly determined that his illness was actually bronchitis. Not ready to make another drastic change, Doro and his wife decided to remain in New Mexico for a year if only he could build a “cellar” for his new home. This was essential so that he could continue to use his precious family recipe to create red and white wines. It was at this point in time that Mike Sr., while attending high school, helped pour that cellar’s foundation. Within days all the other Italians in the area also wanted wine cellars for their houses. Mike then started a small business building those basements and came to the realization that having his own business was his dream for the future.
With Doro’s health intact, after about a year’s time, the family moved back to Granby. When Alessio came home one day with 10 heifers, Mike and his brother could get the farm back up and running. Mike also had to fall in line, so he purchased 10 milking cows on good faith and repaid his debt with fresh milk and checks from farm sales. Mike soon was facing combat in the Korean War in 1951. He left Alessio to care for the farm. When he returned from Korea they purchased more cows from the Dunning family and increased the size of the barn.
During the early 1960s, their herdsman ran out of oil one day so Mike contacted his friend Skip, an oilman, for an emergency oil delivery. Skip was trying to simultaneously run another business pouring foundations for buildings on the Connecticut shoreline. Somehow Mike convinced Skip to sell him the oil business. This was the spark that ignited present day State Line Oil.
Michael Guarco Sr. started with 25 accounts, all friends and family, thus he also had to keep toiling on the farm. In order to keep both plates in the air he began doing plumbing work for his customers. The company was growing.
Throughout the years, Mike Sr. has kept his brothers, sister, sons and daughter busy learning all aspects of the oil trade. He observed each family member’s diverse talents and guided them into positions that matched their skills. His daughter Mary Anne came home every weekend, while attending Fairfield University, to keep the books at State Line.
A better sense of how this balancing act was managed was learned by speaking at length with one of Mike Sr.’s sons, Brian. Brian’s work history gives a glimpse into how the company evolved over time. Brian said that his dad “gave equal consideration to the needs of men and women; always expected his kids to be busy; and that if a son or daughter was willing to truly work hard, he found opportunities for them.”
Brian began working at the age of 11 filling the company trucks with gas, washing them and moving them into their appropriate bays at day’s end for $1/hour. This led to maintenance of the trucks, i.e. oil changes and tire repair, all the while attending Granby schools.
At the age of 13 he worked under his Uncle Carl, an electrician who had cataracts. Brian served as Carl’s eyes in the construction of an industrial building and basically learned the trade from him. One day Carl stuck a screwdriver into a switch box and “the place lit up like a Christmas tree.” Brian worked quickly to connect shorted wires. Another day while at the Granby dump with his grandfather, he found an old galvanized horizontal water tank. He took a compressor out of an old refrigerator, mounted it on top, wired up a pressure switch and hose and made his own air compressor. Perhaps this would be considered hands-on learning by 2016 professional educators.
He continued to soak up electrical and mechanical knowledge in a non-traditional manner. At 14 he had a pipefitter named Ivan as his mentor and learned to put in baseboard heat for $4 per hour, and at 16 he went to A.I. Prince Technical School to learn air conditioning. In 1982, while in college, Brian was told that one of State Line’s customers, Kane’s Market in Simsbury, was building a new store and they planned to open their doors to the public very soon. Brian installed refrigeration units until 2 a.m. in order to hit the target for opening day. This was like putting together a Chinese puzzle under serious time constraints, because to save the customer money, they installed used equipment.
Brian continued to work for State Line Oil over the years. One day while installing gas logs into customer’s fireplaces, he found out that they could only get a propane delivery once a week, often at an inconvenient time. Realizing the inefficiency of this arrangement, Brian began to think about beginning his own propane delivery system. He also wanted the challenge of experiencing the struggles of business ownership.
In 1999 he started the State Line Propane Company with a one-man operation and one account. With patience and determination, the business prospered. Today State Line Propane has 25 employees and 8,000 customers. State Line Propane eventually became lucrative enough for Brian to consider purchasing his dad’s company, State Line Oil. This recently became a reality and family members are still working as hard as ever to keep people in warm houses just as Doro and Matilda did when they cut wood in 1915.
Emma Smith sat down with both Brian and Mike, Sr. to talk about their experiences.
Q&A with Brian
ES: What are the most important lessons you learned from your father?
BG: Always try and please your customers. Take proper care of them. Because of this advice, I have made it a practice to keep notes after every interaction, and I never let a customer go without heat and hot water on weekends.
My dad also showed us the value of persistence and seeing a task through to its completion.
When Storm Alfred hit in the fall of 2011, I had to go out at night to make a propane delivery. I could barely get through to the customer because the route I needed to take was Hungary Road and it was like a war zone with trees, limbs and wires strewn all over the pavement. Somehow I made it around and past the disarray with trees and limbs falling on the top of my truck all the while. I did reach that customer. At another point during that same Halloween storm, I was driving my truck to a delivery in West Hartford and saw a house coming up on Mountain Road that was engulfed in flames. There is no way I should have been there, I gritted my teeth and successfully hurried by that residence.
ES: What was your dad like during your teenage years?
BG: My dad was like a foreman. One day after coming home from school and finishing a project for Pierce Builders, I was sitting down cleaning fittings on the front porch. He said, “Why are you sitting down?” I then explained to him all the tasks I completed that day.
ES: Now that you are able to oversee a large local company, how do you feel about giving back to the community?
BG: I was the founder of the Granby chapter of UNICO, which is an organization that gives annual scholarships to Italian-American students. For me though, the most satisfaction is at Christmas time because after we raise money through charity events throughout the year, all the money comes back to benefit families of any nationality that live here in Granby and are in need of support.
Q&A with Mike, Sr.
ES: How did your parents encourage you to eventually purchase and run a business of your own?
MG: Really it wasn’t anything they said but more the way they lived their lives. By observing what they accomplished I came to know my own path.
ES: What are some Guarco family traditions?
MG: I still make my own wine and my own sausage just as my parents did.
ES: What were some of your most worrisome times?
MG: After the Korean war when I was both farming and helping to run Doro’s Tavern in Hartford, at the same time.
ES: Who do you go to for support when you need it?
MG: My kids.
State Line Propane (above) and State Line Oil (left) are both located on Salmon Brook Street.