Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In Conversation With...Stephen Russell

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

When we think of being called to a particular job, we usually think of ministers or nurses or teachers. We don’t usually think of the guy who drives the oil truck.
But Stephen Russell of Wallace knew as a boy, he was meant to be an oil man. 
“I started going in the oil truck when I was 10 or 11, as soon as Mundles got the business,” he says.  
He is the nephew of Donald Mundle, who passed away in 2001; his mother Pearl and Donald’s wife Myrna (who passed away in 2008) were sisters.   
“They just had small trucks back then, single-axles,” he says, “and I can remember going with Uncle Donald to help him turn the steering wheel. That’s why I went. The old trucks didn’t have power steering like they do now. I think it was probably more of the novelty of getting me to help him.”
Those early rides in the oil truck totally influenced Stephen’s future.
“Even at an early age, I’m not saying 10 or 11 but when I got a little older I somehow knew in my mind that I was going to have to do this. I had an interest in it and every time I went with Donald or Roger [Donald’s son], it was ‘This is where so-and-so lives’. It was almost as if some day they knew I’d be doing it.”
Stephen began delivering oil in 1988 at the age of 22. The price of oil is one of the big changes he’s seen since then. 
“I think it was somewhere around $0.27 cents a litre,” Stephen says, “and you’re looking at around $1.26 today. A lot more people burned oil in those years because it was a cheap source of heat. Now for a lot of people it’s a backup source. Sure, there’s a certain percentage who have to burn oil, whether they both work or they’re an older couple, because wood gets to be too much work.”
With oil companies consolidating, the area he covers has grown as has the distances he drives in a day. When Stephen started driving an oil truck, he loaded up at the bulk plants in Pugwash, bulk plants that are no longer there. 
“Back when I started out, you may drive no more than 20 miles that day and get rid of two truck loads. Now I drive about 35 miles before I even get my load; I load out of Scotsburn now, down towards Pictou.”
With that in mind, he says this has been the hardest winter he’s ever experienced in the oil truck.
“There have been so many snowstorms this year. A lot of bad roads. But it got to the point where you couldn’t stay home because it was storming, you had to go because you were so far behind. There was no option so you had to go out and do that delivery. Anybody in the oil business would say the same thing, I think, if they were being honest. This was the first winter I ever remember that they couldn’t get oil from the storage facility in Dartmouth to the bulk plants in time. We were running out at the bulk plants. It’s been interesting.”
To Stephen, interacting with customers is the essence of his work. The job is more than simply dragging a hose to an oil tank and filling up. He says the actual delivering of the oil is the smallest part of the job. 
“What I enjoy most about the oil business is meeting people every day,” he says. “You meet all types of society from the well-to-do to the very poorest who can’t afford more than the bare minimum.”
Over the years, his customers have become like an extended family to him. 
 “You may walk into someone’s house and it could be a situation where her husband has just passed away or the wife just passed away or something happened and they may need you to just sit and listen to them while they talk about it,” he says. “They need to have a good cry or they need someone to make them laugh. You can almost tell when you come through the door what you have to do.”
Although not as many people are at home these days to answer Stephen’s knock, he insists on hand-delivering the bill as often as he can and he admits he’s “of the old school” when it comes to that part of the business.  
“I like to go to the door and hand the customer their slip and say ‘Thank you very much.’ When you’ve just handed someone a bill for six or seven hundred dollars, the least you can do is say thank you.”
He laughs when I ask him where he leaves the bill when no one is home.
“Over the years, you get to know where to stick the bill at people’s houses. Some want it put in the mailbox, some want it stuck in a light switch outside, some people want it stuck in a certain crack in their door or on the front seat of their car. You just remember. You just know. And quite often, you’ll go to the door, you know that if there is no one home, you open the door and lay it on the kitchen table. You still do that and it’s not a problem because you’ve done it for many years. But I still love to go to the door and somebody is home. I do. I love to sit down – you can’t take as much time anymore – but I love to do it for the older generation.”
He feels that it is important particularly in the rural areas where so many seniors are oil customers. 
“When I started out, when you walked through a door, you might get invited to sit down for dinner. You might not have been supposed to stay but you did because that was protocol back then. If someone invites you for dinner, you stay for dinner. When you go to the door, it’s not always about handing them the slip. It’s about ‘Can you go and get my mail from the mailbox?’ or ‘Can you shovel a little bit around my car?’ or ‘The batteries are dead in my flashlight,’ that kind of thing.”
Stephen credits his Uncle Donald for instilling those principles in him at a young age.
“He taught me values that I never forgot, and how to do business. Always go to the door. Always be ready to go to the mailbox, clean off the car, and if someone is elderly and heading to the car, help her out to the car. When you’re driving down the road, wave to people. My uncle certainly influenced me.”

Stephen with his 11 year old son, Alexander, who sometimes travels with him.

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