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Harlow Oil Co. sets standard for small-town service stations

Updated: May 6

The Harlow Oil Co. crew includes, from left, Phil Harlow, C.J. Meek, Jeff Harlow, and Mark Stark.

The full-service filling station, once a common fixture on street corners in every city, has become a thing of the past. There were once gas stations where an attendant pumped the gas and checked the oil and a mechanic serviced cars in the shop. Now there are convenience stores that have self-service gas pumps and self-service soft drink fountains.

While many of the traditional gas stations have long since disappeared, Harlow Oil Co. in Mound City remains a fixture on Main Street and continues to thrive.

Owner Phil Harlow credits the careful business decisions he and his family have made along the way for the station’s continued success.

That doesn’t mean that service hasn’t changed, because it has. With razor-thin profit margins on fuel prices, the pump attendant has gone the way of the rotary-dial telephone.

The store offers a full line of automotive additives, fuel conditioners and batteries.

What Harlow’s can offer, however, is high-quality gasoline with cleaning additives to help keep engines running smoothly. That is one reason the station has remained with BP, which bought the Amoco brand in 2003.

Phil says that he is able to sell better gas at the same price as his competitors 97% of the time. And when there is a price difference, it’s usually only a few cents apart.

Phil and his father, Frank Harlow, began operating the service station in 1980. Frank had worked at the station through high school until he joined the U.S. Navy. When he returned home he went to work at the station again, eventually becoming owner in 1980.

After eight years working for his father, Phil bought the station in 1988. By then it was pumping gas from Standard Oil Co.

Harlow Oil Co. is recognized as a well-maintained fixture on Mound City's Main Street.

One of the first things Phil did as a new owner was to replace the underground fuel tanks. Six years later he sold off the farm fuel trucks and focused his attention on operating the station.

Since then, the business has expanded the shop and the storage area behind the original storefront. While the days of the filling station mechanic have disappeared – corresponding with the rise of crowding of devices underneath the hood – Harlow’s has found a few areas where they can remain competitive.

Phil says they average about 1,800 oil changes a year, along with selling about 2,500 tires annually. In addition, the shop does brakes, some exhaust system work, and sells batteries.

The four-bay shop area can handle several vehicles at once, and with Phillip’s oldest son Jeff Harlow and long-time employee Mark Stark running the service portion of the business, customers’ cars move in and out quickly.

With the next auto parts store miles away, Harlow Oil stocks tools and automotive accessories for the convenience of its customers.

One of the hallmarks of Harlow’s is neatness. From the outward appearance of the station to the orderliness of the shop, the business projects the image of a well-managed business, which in turn insures customer confidence.

Although there is a rack with common tire sizes in the backroom, the shop can order tires from a wholesaler that represents as many as eight different tire manufacturers. A customer’s order for a full set of tires placed before the truck leaves the warehouse means that tires will arrive at Harlow’s around noon each weekday.

Because there is no auto parts store locally, a good portion of Harlow’s retail area is dedicated to automotive items that include battery post clamps, jumper cables, a wide range of additives and sealants, nuts and bolts, wiper blades, antifreeze, motor oil, and numerous other automotive items including tools.

In addition to a wall of coolers filled with dozens of drink options, Harlow's offers fountain drinks, specialty coffees and a microwave to warm up the sandwiches and snacks it sells.

In 2010 Phil added fountain drinks, candy bars, chips, cigarettes, and chewing tobacco to the retail mix. That section of the store has grown to include a specialty coffee machine, a nacho and chili machine, and a wall of bottled drinks and prepackaged deli sandwiches. C.J. Meek helps run the counter sales, and she has been a part of the Harlow Oil family for five years.

One of the top growth products recently by the station has been liquid propane (LP). The company has an 1,100-gallon tank, and it has so many customers bring in their portable tanks for refills during the winter that its large tank often has to be filled up once a week, and sometimes twice.

With careful decisions on where and how to expand, and with the commitment of the Harlow crew to serve the community, Harlow Oil Co. looks to be a fixture on Mound City’s Main Street well into the future.

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