He’s the chief executive office of a company that has grown to $1 billion in annual sales, but Tom Collins Sr. gives others the credit for that accomplishment.
Collins, 57, has been head of Luke Oil since the death of his father-in-law Ralph Luke, who founded the company in 1967. Collins began working for the company in 1974, but left two years later after completing his electrical union apprenticeship .
“I worked for IBEW Local 697 in Hammond for 10 years, then came back full-time with Luke Oil in 1986,” Collins says. “My father-in-law’s business was growing and he asked me to come back and have an opportunity to do different things.”
At the time, Luke Oil concentrated on dealer fuel sales, home heating oil and lubricants.
“Business was different then,” Collins explains. “We had just three or four people in the office. It hadn’t gotten into convenience stores, but the business was changing.”
He became Luke Oil’s general manager during the 1990s, and president in 1998 as the company migrated toward owning and operating convenience stores as well gasoline stations.
“We continued natural, organic growth and continued to develop sites around Northwest Indiana,” Collins says.
In 1994, Luke built the first of its high-volume sites in North Hammond, and by 2000 the company had more than 20 sites around Northwest Indiana and supplied more than 70 independent gasoline retailers.
As a distributor for Shell, Marathon, Citgo, Mobil, and Phillips 66, the company currently supplied more than 150 customers throughout Northwest Indiana, Illinois and Michigan and operates a retail chain of 25 sites with total annual volumes of more than 300 million gallons.
The company’s volume has grown 20 percent each year for the past five years, and Collins predicts it will increase by the same percentage during each of the next five. Luke Oil’s sales reached the $1 billion mark last year.
Yet Collins is a low-key leader who contends that Luke's success is the work, example and fortitude of others rather than just his own.
“I’m in this business because of my late father-in-law, who started the company,” Collins says. “I’ve tried to continue the things he taught me with as much ambition and enthusiasm as he always had. And the personal side, I am the person I am because of my wife and family, and I’ve been very fortunate to have them make me the person I am.”
He calls Debra, his sweetheart since their days at Merrillville High School and wife of 37-years, the “love of my life.”
“Anything good I’ve ever done in my life, she’s been responsible for,” Collins says.
He also takes great pride in his son, Thomas Collins Jr., who is Luke Oil’s senior vice president; his daughter, Kristin Richardson; his son-in-law, Ryan Richardson and his grandchildren.
Tom Collins Jr. says his father “is a very humble man” who has been an excellent role model as a husband and father.
“He’s been best example of someone disciplined and hardworking enough to take the reins from his father-in-law, but at the same time humble enough to transfer those reins to third generation,” Collins Jr. says. “It’s tough to go from one generation to the next. But he’s been a strong teacher to have us take over from him.”
In 2005, the company bought Hobart’s County Line Orchards. Collins Sr. said the acquisition was his son's idea.
“I was nervous about the new venture to say the least, but I had confidence in my son’s vision and also that of my son-in-law,” Collins Sr. says. “They somehow convinced me it would be a worthwhile endeavor. I can say without reservation that they were right. The County Line Orchard has been very successful for our family business.”
During September and October, its main season, the orchard had more than 200,000 guests. At County Line educational tours attract more than 50,000 students from throughout the Northwest Indiana and the Chicago region throughout the year. As a popular venue, the 30,000-square-foot barn is the choice for weddings, events and celebrations throughout the year.
“Since beginning our operation of the Orchard we have been very fortunate to have seen a fourfold increase in the original sales,” Collins Sr. says. The Orchard also responsible for the new Grow NWI initiative that is headed by Richardson.
Through the program, Richardson and his staff are educating local organizations as to the benefits of growing and maintaining community gardens. In 2012, GROW NWI helped to plant and support more than 40 new gardens in the Region, Collins Sr. says. “It’s all worked out great. It’s great to work with family.”
Tom Collins Jr. said beside being humble, his father has an unique sense of humor.“He likes to play practical jokes and do impersonations of people,” Collins Jr. explains. “People are usually nervous around him at first and then they realize he’s a really funny guy.”
Collins Jr. is proud that his dad is so “well-respected.”
“No one ever said anything bad about my dad. And no one ever said anything bad about my grandpa, and I hope no one ever says anything bad about me.”
The Collins family traces its roots in the Region back to the early 1900s when Tom Collins Sr.’s great-grandfather, Theordore Freebury, came to Gary from Colorado help build U.S. Steel's new mill. Freebury was a city founder and served on the first Gary City Council, Collins said.
A long-time Valparaiso resident, Collins believes in giving back to the community, and has done so in his hometown as well as in Hobart, the home of Luke Oil.
“We try to help out local organizations,” he says. “We help the Northwest Indiana Food Bank every year and we do a 'Beatles at the Barn' concert fundraiser at County Line Orchard annually to raise funds for local charities and traditionally for the food bank.” The Beatles in the Barn concert, where local bands playing Beatles music, typically draws a 1,000 attendees.
Last year, the Orchard also held a benefit to raise funds for Veteran organizations that drew 400. Collins expects it to grow. At the Orchard’s “open mike” nights, Collins often plays back-up guitar for performers. “Music is a hobby, a passion of mine. I’ve been involved in music my whole life. I enjoy it and at County Line Orchard we have musical entertainment during the season and it’s given me an opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people.”
He considers himself a lifelong student of music. “It keeps your mind working."
Collins Sr. also has a personal philosophy that helps guides his life: “Each day is a gift, try to live every day to the fullest. Treat people with kindness, respect and dignity no matter who they are.”
Besides music, Collins said he has another hobby that keeps him very busy --- his 10 grandchildren and attending events in which they participate. And Collins currently is in the second year of a two-year term as president of the board of the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. He has been involved in the organization in various capacities for 20 years.
Collins attended Indiana University Northwest and, although he left before receiving a degree, he contends his “educational journey is not over yet,”
“I expect to keep going. I’m a big believer in continuing education. It’s a long road.” Collins, who adds that he has been working at some job since he was 14 years old, claims to be “more industrious” than studious.
“I’ve always been very fortunate and I’ve tried to take advantage of opportunities as they became available. I don’t know if I deserve this (Hall of Fame) recognition, but I’m humbled and appreciate it.”