Family’s oil success spans 50 years

Herald Staff Writer

JASPER — All Rafe Ackerman wanted to do was farm. That was his whole life’s ambition.

But when his father-in-law died in 1963, he was asked to give up his dream and mortgage his family’s future on a business he knew nothing about.

Fifty years later, Ackerman Oil has grown into a regional enterprise, distributing petroleum products to more than 1,000 farmers and manufacturers across southern Indiana.

Tony Raap/The Herald
Rafe and Phyllis Ackerman are celebrating Ackerman Oil's 50th anniversary.

The Ackerman family, aligned with Sunoco, owns nine gas stations within an hour’s drive of Jasper and has more than 100 employees.

In a few months, Rafe will be 79, but he can’t bring himself to retire.

He tries to stay in the background, letting his son, Mike Ackerman, and the older of his two daughters, Laura Grammer, call the shots.

“This is a family business,” Rafe said. “I didn’t build it all by myself, I’ll tell you that.”

The Ackerman Oil empire began with Edwin Knies, a small-time petroleum distributor who also served as Jasper’s mayor.

When Knies died of kidney failure, he didn’t leave behind any sons. A group of petroleum suppliers from Tulsa, Okla., came to pay their respects.

They wondered who would take control of the business and said they needed to know by the next morning, before they left.

Knies’ widow, Lenore, told her son-in-law she wanted him to inherit the company, even though he had no experience selling petroleum.

He troubled himself with the decision the rest of the night, sitting at the kitchen table and running through the numbers over and over.

“That was one time I kept my mouth shut,” said his wife, Phyllis. “I told him he had to decide for himself.”

The next morning, the petroleum suppliers had their answer: Rafe would assume control.

Tony Raap/The Herald
The Ackerman family, aligned with Sunoco, owns nine gas stations within an hour’s drive of Jasper and has more than 100 employees.

When her father was alive, Phyllis had helped him with the company’s paperwork. She knew more about the business than her husband.

“I didn’t know anything,” Rafe said.

“You knew oil came in a can, right?” Phyllis replied.

“I wouldn’t even be sure of that,” Rafe said with a smile.

The Ackermans left their family farm west of Jasper and rented a house in town.

From a young age, their children washed the company trucks. Phyllis handled the bookkeeping. It truly was a family business.

And yet, like most fledgling companies, they struggled. At one point, Rafe’s accountant told him, “You should have stayed on the farm.”

But by 1972, the company had swung to a profit and Rafe began buying other petroleum distributorships.

Hard work has been a large part of the family’s success, and they pointed out that no business survives without good help. The company has about 65 full-time employees.

But the Ackermans also have embraced innovation. In 1973, Rafe was among the first in Jasper to offer a self-service gas station.

Mike and Laura inherited the innovation gene, being the first in the local market to offer E-85 in 2006 and biodiesel fuels in 2000.

Rafe and Phyllis’ younger daughter, Jill Jones, is not involved with the family business. She is vice president of a whiskey company in Louisville.

“She was the smart one. She got out,” Laura joked.

The Ackerman grandchildren all have spent time on the shop floor, learning the nuances of the family business. Mike said he hopes the company will stay family-owned for a few more generations.

As for Rafe, he doesn’t regret his decision to quit farming.

The petroleum trade can be a tough racket, he said, but he has been amazed by how much the company has grown over the years.

“We started with almost nothing,” he said. “You don’t grow fast from nothing.”

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