Willie and Friends Market BioWillie
Willie Nelson is on the road with a new group of highwaymen, but this group isn't country's most wanted band of decades past-when Willie teamed up with outlaws Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, which emulated the rough and rowdy lifestyle of Western renegades through song. No, the 'redheaded stranger's' new entourage is appreciably different, consisting of businessman Peter Bell, truck stop owner Carl Cornelius and financier Monk White, who have all come together to promulgate the use of their own brand of farmer-supported, earth-friendly biodiesel. The Willie Nelson Biodiesel Co. is target marketing BioWillie diesel-its own B20 blend-to highway-roving truckers, the largest group of diesel consumers in the country.
Although Nelson first heard of biodiesel in Hawaii when his wife bought a diesel vehicle burning the fuel, the Willie Nelson Biodiesel Co. is a newly formed partnership, the idea of which first came to mind just a few months ago, according to partner Peter Bell, a South African automotive engineer-turned-businessman who lives in Dallas. Bell is CEO of Distribution Drive, a biodiesel distribution company and exclusive supplier of biodiesel for the Nelson-backed start-up. Distribution Drive supplies biodiesel to several locations in the Dallas area, three of which are tailored for end users of B100. "Willie was bringing his tour bus through Dallas, and I had never heard of the guy before,"
Bell admitted in his charming, South African accent. "My wife told me who he was, and we filled his bus for him."
Bell's introduction to Nelson planted a seed for the concept of establishing the business. With Bell at the helm of supply, Nelson's longtime friendship with Carl Cornelius, owner of the renowned Carl's Corner Truck Stop south of Dallas (near Hillsboro, Texas., on Interstate 35, Exit 374), facilitated the rapid realization of dispensing the proposed company's uniquely branded product at the retail level.
Cornelius said he has known Nelson for years. "I met Willie a long time ago, when he was too clean-cut for me," Cornelius joked. Cornelius bought the truck stop in 1979 from Monk White, a Dallas financial broker. When White heard Cornelius' plans of turning the place into the Taj Mahal of truck stops-not to mention an incorporated town of its own-it didn't take an arm-twisting for White to become financier of what has become more of a country club for truckers than just a fueling station with a rest stop. Carl's oasis offered amenities likely found at no other truck stop, including whirlpool spas, a swimming pool, and a strip club. The truck stop burned down in 1990, and owner Cornelius did not carry fire insurance. With help from fans and friends, including Nelson, Cornelius rebuilt the place of Texas legend. Sadly, the manager of Carl's Corner Truck Stop, Cornelius' son, Kyle, passed away three years ago leading to the discontinuation of operations like the truck stop's well-known strip club. However, the infamous Texas hotspot now carries BioWillie diesel, Willie Nelson Biodiesel Co.'s B20 blend.
Nelson, Bell, Cornelius and White solidified the partnership in December 2004 and went public with both the partnership and the company's product in January. The company has its "corporate headquarters" at the legendary Carl's Corner Truck Stop.
Business model to envy
From a product marketing perspective, BioWillie diesel is an advertising dream. At two months old, both the company and its product have received amazing notoriety at little or no advertising cost.
"We threw our hat in the ring in early January, then [an] Associated Press [story was picked up by] over 2500 publications," Bell said. "Word got out. You can't ask for better outreach than that. Then we did the interview with Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News on Wednesday (Feb. 9), because we wanted people to actually see the product, to see Willie using biodiesel."
"Our business model is 'Buy local, sell local,'" Bell continued, voicing a message that is consistent with classic Nelson, the tireless family farm crusader. The company doesn't produce its own biodiesel, but purchases it from local producers whose product meets industry standards. "We are a marketing and distribution company that wanted to create a brand name that truckers could relate to, and the average trucker can relate to Willie Nelson," Bell said. "It's like having Tiger Woods talk about golf clubs."
During Nelson's peak Farm Aid years in the late 1980s, a less known event was held at Carl's Corner. Willie's Annual Fourth of July Picnic was held at the truck stop in 1987, mainly to create awareness for the seldom-recognized truckers, who deliver the goods and services many Americans take for granted.
"I think the industry-the biodiesel industry-is too focused on the farmers and the production side of things, so we want to really relate our product to the mainstream, the truckers who will be using the product," Bell said. The company's focus on selling the cleaner burning fuel to end users like truckers, in effect, closes the loop between Nelson's longtime support of farmers, who grow the crops to make the fuel; the biodiesel industry, which creates a demand for the farmers' products; and the large, diesel consuming trucker population.
The Willie Nelson Biodiesel Co. is making its products and services available to truck stops nationwide, but Bell and his associates are immediately focused on the Texas and Illinois markets.
"The reason we like Illinois is that the Lt. Governor Pat Quinn is a big proponent of biodiesel," Bell said. "We are developing a marketing program with them to encourage the use of biodiesel in that state."
Although Carl's Corner is currently the only carrier of BioWillie diesel, the company has set the stage for the marketing and distribution of a B5 blend, aboveground storage/dispensing tanks and entire truck stops. Bell said that the Willie Nelson Biodiesel Co. is making a strong push for the marketing of B5 rather than B20 because B5 is a subtler blend, and its integration into potential diesel fuel supplies is a more realistic, short-term marketing goal. "B20 is too big a leap for most, so outside of Carl's Corner, we will be working on introducing a B5 blend," he said.
Bell wants BioWillie to have widespread brand recognition and greater market penetration. "Now we are starting to regionalize partnerships with various biodiesel factories, vehicle manufacturers and outlets," he said.
The company is reportedly in negotiations with an Oklahoma-based chain retailer to carry BioWillie diesel at its 169 locations nationwide. Current regional supply constraints might hinder the company's "buy local, sell local" business model if these negotiations lead to a deal. However, with biodiesel production on the rise nationwide, the Willie Nelson Biodiesel Co. will find it easier to buy from local distributors and stay true to its roots.
Customer satisfaction and Texas acceptance
"We have been trying to work with a major oil company," Bell said. "In talking with them, we mentioned how customers that use our BioWillie diesel tell us that their engines run so much smoother, the fumes are much cleaner smelling, and they feel good about using the product. This has got to be quite the contrast from what most petroleum oil companies must hear from their customers."
Feedback from customers at Carl's Corner Truck Stop, according to Bell and Cornelius himself, has been totally positive. "I believe Texans actually prefer biodiesel," Bell said. "They see biodiesel as a premium fuel."
Of all the states, Texas is most associated with the oil industry. With a long history of "Texas Tea" tycoons coming out of the Lone Star State, one might think Texans would be a hard sell when it comes to biodiesel. Not so, according to Bell.
"Texans are misperceived by people all the time," he explained. "Texas is seen as backwards by many people outside the state, but actually, Texas is a very progressive state. Texas has no state tax on biodiesel."
Bell continued to explain why Texans accept the idea of biodiesel by saying, "In Texas, we have the left-wing, 'tree-hugger' types who support biodiesel because of the environmental concerns, and we have the right-wing types-like in Austin, for example-who support biodiesel because it is home-grown fuel, and it allows us to become less dependent on foreign oil. They call it 'the Republic of Austin' for a reason, you know."
When asked whether or not this business venture of promoting BioWillie diesel-and the company itself-will be profitable, as well as one about which Nelson remains passionate, Bell wittily responded, "I think the biodiesel industry needs to move away from being passion-driven and [place itself] on a financial footing to become an economically sustainable and profitable business. Yeah, we'd like to make some money at this. Passion only goes so far."
Ron Kotrba is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (701) 746-8385.