From the conference room window of their year-old digs at 702 Hamilton St., Lehigh Gas Corp. employees can watch the progress of construction at Allentown's new PPL Center hockey arena complex.
"We basically have a front row seat to the largest redevelopment project in the country," said Pete Waldron, Lehigh Gas vice president of public affairs and corporate communications and a former Lehigh County director of development. "I think it's pretty exciting to be in the middle of it all."
Over the past two years, Lehigh Gas — a wholesale distributor of motor fuels that owns and leases property used in the retail distribution of motor fuels — has been creating some excitement of its own by going public and expanding significantly.
After moving its corporate headquarters from Mountain Drive North in Lower Saucon Township to the Wells Fargo Bank Building at Seventh and Hamilton streets in late 2011, the company issued its initial public offering in October. Units of the public company, Lehigh Gas Partners, began trading on the New York Stock Exchange Oct. 25 as LGP, with the unit price closing at $20.23 that day.
On Nov. 7, the day after President Barack Obama won a second term, Lehigh Gas Chief Executive Officer Joseph Topper Jr. rang the opening bell at the Stock Exchange. Waldron was one of numerous Lehigh Gas employees at the event, which was broadcast by several morning TV shows on hand to see how stocks were faring the day after the election.
"The hospitality of the stock exchange employees was unbelievable," Waldron said. "It was a great moment for the Lehigh Valley as well to have recognition."
The company reported that it garnered a net $122.3 million from the sale of non-voting shares in the initial public offering.
Within weeks, Lehigh Gas had used a chunk of that money to finance the purchase of 45 gas station convenience stores in the Florida panhandle for $43 million and 24 more in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area for $28.5 million.
The acquisition meant that by the end of last year, the company was distributing motor fuels to 798 locations in nine states — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Maine and Florida. Of those locations, Lehigh Gas controls 526 properties.
The acquisitions were a smart move, according to Mitch Morrison, vice president and group editor at CSP Business Media, which reports on the convenience store industry.
"The Wilkes-Barre-Scranton deal buttresses their East Coast distribution positioning and provides a natural outlet for a strong gasoline supply," Morrison said at the time. "The foray into the Florida panhandle positions them in one of the fastest and most competitive retailing markets in the country."
Waldron didn't offer specific plans for more expansion but said, "Obviously, the whole premise of going public is to grow."
Even before the purchases, Lehigh Gas reported $13.7 million in profits on $1.3 billion in revenue for the first nine months of 2012. The company has 1,700 workers in the retail operations and 166 corporate employees, including 65 who work in Allentown.
"We feel we have some of the best employees who have been leaders in the petroleum industry," Waldron said. "We're always trying to think of ways to help our customers. It keeps us nimble."
As crude oil prices rose during the 2000s, Big Oil companies such as Exxon Mobile and BP started getting out of the retail business, which was seeing increasingly smaller profit margins. Topper saw the opportunity to acquire more stations.
To make money these days, gas stations combine with convenience stores, using gasoline to drive traffic to their mini-marts and express eateries, which are usually more profitable.
In the case of Lehigh Gas' recent acquisitions, 14 of the stations have quick-serve versions of Subway, Pizza Hut, Domino's and Hardee's.
As the first tenant to sign up to move into Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone in 2011, the company has shown it's committed to the city, Waldron said.
The Wells Fargo building — where its offices are — is owned by City Center Investments, which is building offices to house Lehigh Gas' corporate headquarters.
City Center Investment President J.B. Reilly is partners with Topper in the development company.
Morning Call reporters Scott Kraus and Sam Kennedy contributed to this story.
Margie Peterson is a freelance writer