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From Humble Beginnings to 50 Years of Community Propane Service

If you look at Kamps Propane today, it’s 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 started his company in Manteca. Kamps Propane bobtail delivery trucks have been a familiar sight around the central valley for generations.

It all started in 1966. John 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. I opened my office in the second bedroom of my two- bedroom apartment and went to work.” In 2014 the company celebrated its 45th anniversary and the John still works at the office in Manteca.

Those humble beginnings didn’t last long. Kamps Propane’s success story now includes retail, BBQ exchange and wholesale operations, with over 2.5 million gallons of in-field propane storage. There are now 13 Kamps Propane offices throughout California, a retail company with 2 locations out of state (High Country Propane), along with the wholesale company (KIVA Energy), and  Pick Up Propane.   John Kamps gives much of the credit to his dedicated employees, but he started out by himself, working hands-on in all aspects of the business.

Knocking on Doors

John Kamps’ first customers were friends, relatives and acquaintances he grew up with in the Central Valley 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. He purchased a piece of land in Manteca and set his first 20,000 gallon storage tank but 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.” John set an example by his initiative and innovation to build and grow the Company.

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 on 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 60 bobtails, along with various cylinder exchange trucks, service pickups and vans.

It hasn’t always been easy. To supplement his income, John 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. You do what needs to be done” said Kamps.

But the good times have outweighed the tough times, as the company has expanded into other areas of business. The company got into the cylinder exchange business about as an original 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 forklifts.

Wholesale – KIVA Energy

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 and expanded it to Western U.S., including Oregon, Washington, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

Kamps Wholesale started with one transport, and the fleet grew through the time when the business changed its name. KIVA Energy now operates over 2o transports along with rail and storage facilities. The company has strategic supply contracts with various gas plants and refineries.

Looking into 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 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 has implemented its Smart System, a bulk propane tank monitoring system that allows Kamps to see the fuel supply level 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.).

In 2014 the company introduced the first cylinder exchange program for 1lb refillable propane tanks. Offered as the Little Kamper, the new service allows people who use small propane tanks for recreation and outdoor activities to purchase the small tanks at Kamps Propane stores and exchange them when empty for refilled cylinders. The Little Kamper exchange program offers recreational propane users an environmentally intelligent alternative to disposable cylinders.

In 2017 Pick Up Propane opened a new production facility in Jurupa Valley (Riverside County). The 6-acre facility features an automated cylinder refilling system that will help the company deliver the highest quality product to the marketplace. The new facility has built from the ground up with 120,000 gallons of storage and a retail office for Kamps Propane.

What’s next is more of the same. Pushing the company forward is how John Kamps stays engaged in his business. He’s a restless individual and his sights are always on the next challenge. Stay tuned to learn what happens next!

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