A prince of propane – and pages

Eight years ago, Joe Armentano hired a ghostwriter to tell the story of his family business, Paraco Gas. Unhappy with the result, he rewrote the book – “A Helluva Ride,” now out in paper – himself.

Writing a book, particularly fiction, can be like a comet streaking across the sky. A team of 53 Romanian authors and academics holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest time to write a novel. On Dec. 15, 2012, it took them just nine hours, five minutes and eight seconds to produce “Santa Claus & Co.” from concept to first printed copy. Georges Simenon apparently spent only nine days on each of his “Maigret” detective novels, which have been endlessly adapted in comics and movies, on radio and TV.

Then again it took J.K. Rowling six years to write her first “Harry Potter” book. With nonfiction, which can require a lot more research, a book can take even longer. So it’s not surprising to hear Joe Armentano, CEO of Paraco Gas in Rye Brook, say that it took years for him to write and polish his new book, “A Helluva Ride: How a Father-Son Family Business Overcame Crisis to Achieve the American Dream” (Legacy of Smiles Publications, $17.99, 277 pages), just out in paperback.

The book tells the story of how his father Pat, beginning in their garage in Mount Vernon, founded a family business specializing in welding supplies. Through a series of acquisitions and expansions, the business grew into the Paraco of today, which has more than 425 employees, 28 locations and $150 million in annual revenue. Over the years, it has acquired 53 companies and services more than 110,000 residential and business customers.

It’s both a business story and a family story, he says:  “I was there as a kid before he started his business, so I’ve kind of seen all of the things that bridge a few generations, because we’re now in our third generation with my daughter Christina.” 

The story of the book began with Armentano arranging for his father to be interviewed in a series of audio recordings to preserve the family and business history as well as capture personal thoughts and advice. When his father passed away in 2010 at age 80, Armentano realized it was time to organize and transfer the material into written form.

“I said I don’t really have the time to get this done, so let me hire a ghostwriter,” Armentano says. “About eight years ago, I gave her about 100 hours of my tapes. I had her come down and interview about 18 people who I thought were important.”

Armentano said that he wasn’t satisfied with what the writer produced, but her efforts did organize the raw material.

“It wasn’t me; it wasn’t my voice; it didn’t capture the emotions,” he adds. “Over the last seven years, I’ve edited this manuscript probably 50 to 100 times. I don’t think one of her words survived. I’m not winning a Pulitzer with this, but I became a pretty good writer.”

In 1968, Armentano’s father established the welding supply company Patsems Inc. The products it carried included items such as welding rods, masks and helmets. To expand the welding supply business, his father had decided to add industrial gases such as oxygen and acetylene. Propane joined the mix since it was used as a source of heat at construction sites and to power forklifts. It became a niche, growing to be about 25% of the business.

“Right around ’79 he goes, ‘Joe, find me a propane company,’” Armentano says. “I knew nothing about propane. I had no idea people used it to heat their homes or for cooking. I thought everybody barbecued with it. At that time, we had no clue about the industry. We knew nothing about it and my father’s thought was, ‘Well, I’ll save some money on product and get into another business.’”

In 1979, Patsems bought Paraco Fuel Corp., a Peekskill distributor of fuel oil and propane. The operation adopted the Paraco name and expanded to other parts of the Hudson Valley as well as Long Island, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. It soon expanded even farther into New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri and Colorado.

Born in Mount Vernon, the oldest of four sons, Armentano graduated from Fordham University in the Bronx in 1976 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. He earned a Master’s in Business Administration from Iona College in New Rochelle I 1988.

Armentano says that a successful family business needs to start with passionate family members.

“I’ve seen many family businesses where there have been family members who never should have entered a business, because they didn’t have that passion,” he says. “Second, there needs to be a commitment to continuing education. Third is a willingness to take risk.

“You have to be able and willing to take risks in business, in a family business in particular, because you have all your wealth normally tied up in that family business and, if you’re going to expand and grow, you need to take risk. “Our risk was really through acquisitions, going out and buying companies and assuming that we could make them pay for themselves and work.”

Armentano adds that Paraco has been through every business cycle imaginable but what’s happening right now is unusual and affects all forms of energy.

“This will be a year when energy prices will be extremely hot,” he says. “I’ve never seen propane prices go up this high this quickly. We’re talking about a 200-plus percent jump in propane prices in a four- or five-month period.”

And they’ll stay high throughout the winter, he predicts.

“I do think you may see supply shortages in certain energy markets,” he says. “For us, we have a very diverse supply strategy to ensure that we have supply for our customers going into this winter.

“We’re 100% confident we will have adequate supply but there will be some of our competitors, potentially, and some people in some other areas of energy that may have supply shortages,” Armentano stresses. “The other issue is not just having the supply but making sure that you have the manpower to deliver. We’re reading about labor shortages right now especially in drivers, truckers. We’re working extremely hard to stay ahead of the curve.”

For more on “A Helluva Ride,” visit joearmentano.com. And for more on Paraco, visit paracogas.com.

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