Peeved at Prices? Don't Blame the Dealer

Exxon keeps Sohaila Rezazadeh's profit to pennies on the gallon, even as it raises the lease on her Oakton station by about 10 percent a year.
Exxon keeps Sohaila Rezazadeh's profit to pennies on the gallon, even as it raises the lease on her Oakton station by about 10 percent a year. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

Every time Sohaila Rezazadeh rings up a sale at her Exxon station on Chain Bridge Road in Oakton, her cash register sends the information to Exxon Mobil's central computers. If she raises the price of gasoline a couple of pennies, chances are that Exxon will raise the wholesale price she pays by the same amount.

Through a password-protected Web portal, Exxon notifies Rezazadeh of wholesale price changes daily. That way the oil giant, which is earning about $3.3 billion a month, fine-tunes the pump prices at the franchise Rezazadeh has owned for 12 years.

Now, however, Rezazadeh says she cannot stay in business. Credit-card fees are eating her profit margins. Exxon, which owns the station land, last week handed Rezazadeh a new lease raising her rent about 30 percent over the next three years. She stuck a copy on the window of her station to show customers who are angry about soaring pump prices. Rezazadeh has told Exxon that she cannot make money with the rent that high. Her territory manager's reply, she said, was simple: When you go, leave us the keys.

Rezazadeh, who fled to the United States from Iran in 1979, is part of the long chain that links motorists with the big oil companies. Major integrated U.S. oil companies -- which produce crude oil, own refineries and sell gasoline -- have been reaping billions of dollars in profit from high oil prices over the past two years, but they are still working to extract every penny they can from the marketing end of the business. Exxon Mobil doesn't break out its earnings from marketing alone, but its 2007 profits in worldwide refining and marketing -- known as the downstream part of the oil business -- reached $9.6 billion, 43 percent of that coming from the United States.

Although Exxon owns and operates few stations anymore -- less than 10 percent of the 12,000 Exxon outlets in the United States -- it uses franchise agreements to maintain tight control over stations that bear its brand. The company dictates everything from the number of pumps to hygiene practices to the placement of food on convenience store shelves. "They monitor everything," Rezazadeh said.

Exxon says it does all this to maintain uniform quality, while recognizing dealer needs. "We recognize . . . that we are in a difficult time with the run-up in crude oil prices," said Ben Soraci, director of U.S. retail sales for Exxon. "Retailers are under a lot of pressure, and they are on the front lines every day with the motorist, who is also feeling a lot of pressure."

Ultimately, Soraci said, "it's in our interest to see them succeed. It's not in our interest to see them hand us the keys."

But some Exxon dealers say the company is trying to squeeze too much out of them.

Like Rezazadeh, Scott Burnham was struggling to cope with low margins and rising rents. On May 9, he closed his station on scenic Knickerbocker Road in Closter, N.J., and abandoned it to Exxon. In March, Exxon had said it would raise his rent by a third over two years. Burnham tried to line up buyers for the franchise, which he purchased for $475,000 just two years ago. But one backed out, saying that the station would lose money no matter how much gasoline it sold.

"Why is the government giving Exxon subsidies and tax breaks when they're making billions of dollars and when they squeeze every dime they can out of every dealer who made that profit for them?" Burnham said.

Soraci said rent increases reflect rising real estate values. "We have excellent real estate out there that is superior to our competition," he said, which allows the dealers to "compete more effectively."

Even some of Exxon's successful and loyal dealers complain. Jerry Daggle owns five Exxon stations in Northern Virginia, and even though they have different competitive conditions and prices, "Exxon magically lets me make about 8 cents a gallon" at each one, he said.

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