News

Fred Fuller customers have plenty of questions about lack of fuel delivery, some turn to other methods

Thursday, January 9, 2014

By DAVID BROOKS
and JIM HADDADIN

Staff Writers

Customers around New Hampshire were still having difficulty contacting Fred Fuller Oil and Propane Co. on Monday, Jan. 6, and as questions continued to swirl about the company’s status, some – including the Merrimack School District – began looking elsewhere for help.

School Administrative Unit 26 in Merrimack dropped its business with Fred Fuller Oil last week after a pair of tanks at Mastricola Upper Elementary School ran out of heating oil.

SAU 26 Business Administrator Matt Shevenell said temperatures inside the school dropped into the 60s on Friday, Jan. 3, as the district awaited a refill.

While the cold didn’t impact the school day, Shevenell said it chilled some students and sent teachers reaching for their sweaters.

Shevenell said the company responded promptly, providing a partial supply of heating oil and making sure burners around the school were lit.

But it was an unexpected development, given that the district is on an automatic delivery program, and Merrimack has never had a problem with Fred Fuller in the past.

School employees checked the tanks at the other four buildings in the district that use heating oil and found the supply dwindling. Shevenell said Fred Fuller could offer only a partial supply, so the district called a company in Manchester for a refill.

“We didn’t want to take any chances, so we are no longer with (Fred Fuller) at this point in time,” Shevenell said.

Complaints about missing deliveries from the oil company have been pouring in “fast and furious” since last week, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General James Boffetti, who heads the state’s consumer protection bureau. Boffetti said he personally received 10 to 15 new complaints by email Monday.

While the company has assured him it will address the delivery problems, Boffetti said he isn’t satisfied with the progress to date.

“There’s a promise that they can catch up on deliveries,” he said. “It doesn’t look like that they’re doing that very effectively. I need a firmer time table from them as to when they’re going to catch up and deliver the oil that they’ve promised to deliver.”

Representatives from the company say they were hit with a “perfect storm” of problems in the last several days, ranging from bad weather to a spike in demand and a system-wide crash of its phone lines.

The company says its phones went out at all offices late last week, making it impossible for customers who were running low, or who hadn’t gotten promised deliveries, to contact them.

However, FairPoint Communication said Monday, Jan. 6, that any phone problems were not theirs.

“FairPoint technicians have been working with Fred Fuller Oil & Propane Co. to address the company’s issues,” spokesman Jeff Nevins said in a statement Monday morning. “We responded promptly to the request for assistance, and it was determined that the service problems were unrelated to FairPoint’s network, and we did not have service issues.”

A steady stream of customers showed up at Fred Fuller’s office in Hudson on Monday, Jan. 6, hoping face-to-face contact would bring them closer to receiving a supply of heating oil. The company has a Milford office at 419 Nashua St.

Others were venting their frustrations online.

“Fred Fuller has our money, our pre-buy money, we paid them over $2,000, and they are just not delivering,” Derry resident JoAnne Lazinsky told The Telegraph on Monday, Jan. 6.

Lazinky had to buy an emergency fill up from Rockingham Oil, whose driver told her that Fuller was “only delivering to people that are cash customers, not pre-buy” as it tries to catch up from last week’s debacle.

Eve Fogarty, of Auburn, ended up calling Buxton Oil in Epping and paying an extra $100 for an evening delivery.

“We spent $978, not counting the $100 fee; my tank was bone dry,” she said. “I baked cookies for the driver and my husband gave him a $10 tip. … He said there were four other Fuller customers that he was filling.”

Cynthia Ruonala, of Nashua, a Fuller customer “for probably 40 years,” started calling Monday after reading news reports about issues, but was unable to reach the company all morning. She said employees were either busy or “nobody picked up.”

Some expressed concern about the state’s history of oil dealers going bankrupt, leaving prepay customers high and dry. Customers of Flynn Oil in Exeter, for example, lost more than $500,000 in prepay contracts when it went bankrupt in 2010.

State law requires oil firms to post a bond “in an amount not less than 50 percent of the total amount of funds paid to the dealer by consumers pursuant to prepaid heating oil, kerosene, or liquefied petroleum gas contracts.”

Boffetti said he doesn’t have enough information to comment on Fred Fuller’s financial stability, but he remains concerned the company is not delivering on its agreements with customers, or delivering only small quantities of oil.

“I have been assured repeatedly by Mr. Fuller himself – repeatedly – that he is in good financial standing,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, Oren Havey, general manager of the company’s Hudson office, reiterated earlier statements that the problems were a “snowball” of issues, including weather, holidays and losing phones “for six days.”

Havey said the company did not have any issues with supplies, and was not going out of business. He said deliveries are running in the range of two days behind, and that the weather and media attention are heightening fears.

“People are just panicking,” Havey said.

And despite the uproar, some customers reported no problems getting their heating oil on time. In Grafton, Selectman Steve Darrow said Fred Fuller Oil made good on a promise to refill the town’s supply after it began to run low Friday, Jan. 3.

While town employees had difficulty staying in contact with the company, an oil truck showed up in the evening as promised, Darrow said.

“We were a little concerned, but what happened was they were true to their word and came Friday night and delivered our oil,” he said.

Jennifer Riel, executive secretary for the Hudson Fire Department, said Fred Fuller employees refilled the heating oil tanks last week with no difficulty.

“We haven’t had any issues with deliveries,” she said.

But others, like Cheryl Cafiero, of Deering, ended up buying a fill-up from another provider.

“I feel bad, but I’ve got to keep my house warm,” she said.

Russ Keller, of Londonderry, has been with the company for 19 years. Despite high-quality service in the past, Keller said he began to get nervous when his supply dipped below a quarter of a tank.

Keller spoke with employees at the Hudson office on Monday, Jan. 6, and was assured the company would be at his house within two days. Until then, Keller said he’ll be crossing his fingers and saying a prayer.

“If they don’t, the comfort level’s going to go right down the drain so to speak,” Keller said.

Staff writer Don Himsel contributed to this report. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Jim Haddadin can be reached at 594-6589.

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