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The End of an Era

In 1959 Leonard and Sohio announced plans to merge. Although the threat of a federal anti-trust suit eventually led the companies to abandon the plan, the proposed merger seems to have signaled a change in direction at Leonard.  Leonard’s senior management had apparently concluded that the firm could not survive forever as an independent, Michigan-based company. Rather Leonard needed a strong partner for its continued success.

In 1966 the French firm, Compagnie Francaise des Petroles (CFP), purchased a one-third stake in Leonard. CFP was interested in entering the American market, as had some of its European rivals such as British Petroleum (BP) and Royal Dutch Shell (Shell). In turn, Leonard was looking for new capital to spur additional growth, just as it had sought in the proposed 1959 merger. The initial result of the transaction was a new emphasis within Leonard on sales in the Detroit area.

In the mid-1960s’, approximately 50% of the gasoline sold in Michigan was purchased in metro Detroit. In 1967 in “outstate’ Michigan, Leonard sold gas at about 550 stations and had a 10% share of the market. But the company had only fifty stations, and about a 5% market share, of the metro-Detroit market. To improve its sales in the Detroit area, the company committed itself to developing 100 new stations in the Detroit metropolitan area over a ten year period.

The company also modified its marketing strategy, looking for ways to attract more attention in Detroit. It began to sponsor racing, in particular Michigan’s “Press On Regardless” (POR) road rally. It experimented with “hostesses” in bright red suits who greeted customers at the pumps with various public relations activities. In early 1968 Leonard’s “Travel Card” took on the characteristics of a credit card, with a particular emphasis on allowing holders to charge vacation expenses at hotels, restaurants, and similar venues. In 1968 the company persuaded Mort Neff to change the time of Michigan Outdoors broadcast from its venerable Thursday slot, which gave viewers a “heads up” on the coming weekend’s activities, to Saturday evening, which sacrificed viewers who hoped to plan their weekend activities but which the company hoped would capture a larger share of the Detroit area viewing audience.