Parting Thoughts with John and Ken Towner, of Towners Conoco
Karina EliasMarch 2nd, 2023
Brothers John and Ken Towner retired late last year after selling the family’s 55-year-old business, Towner’s Conoco gas station, located at 1906 N. Ash in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood. The new owner is local businessman, Avtar Brar, who runs the station with his family.
In 1951, the Towner brothers’ grandfather, World War II veteran John C. Towner, moved his family to Spokane and leased his first gas station from the Mobile Oil Corp. The station was on West Riverside Avenue but was torn down with the construction of the Maple Street Bridge. After his son Carl C. Towner returned from serving in the Korean War with the U.S. Air Force in 1963, the father-son team formally stepped into the gasoline business and purchased the family’s first one-bay service station on Boone Avenue and Belt Street from Union Oil Co. They sold that station in 1966 and purchased the four-pump station on Ash Street in 1967.
Ken Towner, 65, went to work for Carl, his dad, in 1972, when he was 15 years old. Ken Towner received a degree in automotive mechanics from Spokane Community College.
Carl’s younger son, John Towner, 63, started working at the station in 1978 while attending Eastern Washington University, where he received a degree in business administration.
In 1986, Carl Towner sold the Towner Conoco gas station to his two sons.
The Journal recently sat down with John and Ken Towner to talk about the gas station business, its place in the Spokane community, and what the two have planned for their retirement.
Why did you decide to sell the station now?
John: It wasn’t listed. I thought I would be working at least another five years, but someone approached my son, Ryan Towner, a real estate agent, and we decided it was time.
Ken: It was just time. Our kids weren’t interested in taking it over. We’ve been working for 40 years, six days a week, getting a bit older. It was a tough decision, but it was time.
How has the gas station business evolved over the four and half decades that you worked it?
Ken: When I started working for my father in 1972, we sold gas for anywhere from 27 cents per gallon to 31 cents per gallon. I also went out and pumped the gas into the cars, washed the windows, checked the oil, and the air in the tires, too. We were full service. I was making $1.35 an hour. In the fall of 1973, there was an oil embargo and gas went from about 27 cents per gallon to 47 cents per gallon. I couldn’t believe it when a guy with a 26-gallon car purchased $10 worth of gas.
Back then, we had four pumps, and dad employed about eight people. Over the years, we’ve had to make changes to keep up. We now have six pumps and 12 stations where people can pump gas. About 20 years ago, we built a convenience store. Over the last 15 years or so, we’ve had to make changes, mostly with technology. We’ve had to change our operating system twice and the gas pumps had to be updated to accept credit cards. Now the pumping stations can be open 24 hours. The store is open from 6 a.m. to 10p.m.
John: It used to be that 98% of our business came from just gas. Now with the convenience store, it’s about half.
How much do you make from gasoline sales alone?
John: Gas is not as profitable anymore. We take in between 12 cents and 15 cents per gallon.
Ken: There are a lot of fees and regulations. Right now, there is a 76-cent-per-gallon highway tax between the state and the feds. There are credit card fees and business and occupation fees, Clean Air Tax, as well as tank insurance and testing the tanks on an annual basis. We’ve always been competitive on gas prices. Sometimes, you’re doing well on gas, and sometimes, you aren’t making payments. We’re always low on prices. That’s our reputation.
It sounds like a lot of changes, how is revenue?
Ken: It’s enough to raise a family. If I was 20 years old and going back into it, it would be a good business. You just have to work hard and put in lots of hours.
John: I can’t think of a better business overall. One thing I would have done differently is I would have bought more stations. Over the years we did buy the two homes next to us, and eventually we did own the whole block going east toward Maple Street. Our dad, before he died in 2001, put together the deal for us to purchase the tavern on the corner.
Ken: We sold the tavern, along with the properties on the block as one package deal, to a local businessman, Avtar Brar, who runs it with his family now.
What are some of the highlights from over the years?
John: I would say just the people, the customers. They are like family. When we started in the business, some people weren’t even married yet. Now their grandkids come in and get gas from us. We feel very blessed. A perfect career for me. One girl once told me that her dad advised her to find a gas station, go there all the time, and if you ever need anything, they’ll take care of you. We always used to take care of people. We had customers who were $10 short, and we would say, pay us back next Thursday.
One time, a friend of mine came to the station, and she needed to get to Seattle for her daughters’ operation. We filled her up with gas and gave her some money and sent her on her way. She still comes back to the station to this day. We were always able to do that—support people.
Ken: At the station, we had four generations—our grandad, our dad, us, and our kids. They didn’t have a choice. When they hit 16, if they weren’t in sports or doing anything, I put them to work. In all the years, we had one armed robbery, in 1976. Since the time John and I took over, we never had anything like that. A couple times people broke in, but that’s it.
What were some of the challenges?
John: When Albertsons grocery store came in and placed gas station pumps, it made it hard for us to make money that year. We thought they would take all our gas volume from us, but because of our reputation and customer base, we kept it. That was huge. If it wasn’t for that, we probably would have been done.
Ken: About 15 years ago, Ash Street was closed for repaving. Maple Street too. They started on Francis and moved down to Wellesley Avenue. So traffic was shut down coming toward us, and customers had to maneuver around to get to us. The next year, during the summertime, Ash was shut down from Wellesley down to Northwest Boulevard for six months, and the following year from us down to the Maple Street bridge. We thought we would have to lay off most of our staff, but we only laid off one part-time person. Our customers still found a way to get around all the construction to get to us.
What plans do you have in retirement?
John: I want to travel and have more fun, go to the lake in the summer. Spend more time with my grandkids. I can’t believe I’m not working. It’s just a different feeling, like when you’re a kid.
Ken: My wife is in charge of our bucket list. This summer, I’m sure we’ll be doing more traveling. The new owner called me a few weeks ago and asked me if I wanted to work a little bit. So I’m still at the station a couple days a week.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.