From Humble Beginnings to 40 Years of
Community Propane Service
If you look at Kamps Propane today, it is hard to imagine that the company first started its operations out of a two-bedroom apartment. But that’s exactly what happened when John Kamps opened for business.
John Kamps was working at a company called Suburban (Doxol) Gas in Pomona, California. About three years later, when he was 25 years old, he asked his bosses if they could help him open his own business.
“They sold me a used truck and I opened my office in the second bedroom of my two- bedroom apartment building and went to work. That was in 1969, and the company has celebrated its 40th anniversary and counting.
Those humble beginnings didn’t last long. Kamps Propane’s 40-year story of rapid growth has included retail and wholesale operations, with about 1.5 million gallons of in-field propane storage. The expansion has led to 10 retail locations throughout California, along with a wholesale company, a tank exchange company, and more innovations scheduled in the near future.
John Kamps gives much of the credit to dedicated employees, but he started out by himself, working hands-on in all aspects of the business.
Knocking on Doors
John Kamps eventually bought a piece of property in Manteca, Calif. and installed a 20,000-gallon propane tank. That Kamps location is still in operation today. John Kamps’ first customers were friends, relatives and acquaintances he grew up with in the surrounding Manteca area.
“It was a farm community,” Kamps explained. From there, he grew the business by himself, “knocking on doors one at a time.”
His do-it-yourself attitude continued from there. When he bought that first propane tank, he still didn’t have an office at the site. So he built one himself.
“I figured out how to be a contractor,” he remarked. “I poured a slab and bought a metal building, took the instructions out, and said ‘what’s first?’ I put down all the framing and the internal construction of the office.”
It didn’t take long before his ambition resulted in more business. He heard about a mobile home park opening in the nearby community of Bethel Island, Calif., and he was able to secure the business, setting up a tank and monitoring system at the site. He then opened Kamps’ second facility in Bethel Island. That facility later moved to Antioch, Calif.
He bought his first bobtail, an International, with a 1,875-gallon propane tank. He later bought his second one. Kamps’ fleet has since grown to where it now includes about 54 bobtails, along with various cylinder exchange trucks and pickups.
It hasn’t always been easy. To supplement his income, Kamps started an air conditioning and electrical company in 1973 and continued his do-it-yourself theme. He got his contractor’s license and did the work himself. His methods of keeping the cash flow going during the slower summertime months got even more interesting as he subcontracted his only propane driver, to a tomato company. “You just work all the tricks to generate cash flow to keep the wheels on the cart,” Kamps commented.
But the good times have outweighed the tough times for Kamps, as the company has expanded into other areas of business. The company got into the cylinder exchange business about twelve years ago as a distributor for Blue Rhino. When that company was sold, Kamps started its own cylinder exchange company, Pick-Up Propane. Several Kamps stores also do cylinder exchanges for lift trucks.
Kamps Wholesale began operations in 1974, selling to marketers and end users such as gold mines and processing plants. The business changed its name to Kiva Energy about three years ago, and expanded it to the Salt Lake City, Washington, and Oregon areas.
Kamps Wholesale started with one transport, and the fleet grew through the time when the business changed its name. Kiva Energy operates about 21 transports now and also operates rail and storage facilities. The company has strategic supply contracts with various gas plants and refineries.
Technology and the Future
Kamps eventually expanded to the San Francisco Bay area, opening sites in Sacramento and Hayward. After operating for years in Hayward, Kamps moved last year to a different 3-acre site in the city, with three underground 30,000-gallon tanks.
Kamps noted that although the company has seen its share of challenging times, it has all been worth it. “You look backward and you think, ‘Would I start again?’ That’s a tough way to go. You’re in debt and probably worth a lot more in debt than you are in value for a couple years. It’s tough on a family.”
But the future looks bright for Kamps as it continues looking at new innovations and upgrading its facilities. Kamps is in the final stages of implementing its Smart System, a monitoring and routing system that allows Kamps to monitor all of its customer tanks and also helps Kamps route its trucks most efficiently. Kamps developed the Web-based program with Blue Star Gas (Santa Rosa, Calif.) and The Fuel Web (North Bend, Wash.).
Kamps is also moving its currently leased facility in Jamestown to Sonora. The company is also upgrading its plant in Antioch, installing new tanks and a new office building.
John Kamps says the company is working to modernize the Sonora and Antioch plants to be as safe and technologically current as possible. The facilities will be outfitted with automatic gates, passive and active propane safety equipment and monitors. These plants should be completed by the end of 2010.