North Arkansas College, the Harrison Regional Chamber of Commerce, and a host of faculty, staff and community members celebrated the official grand opening and ribbon cutting for the Lair~Turner School of Business located on the second floor of the John Paul Hammerschmidt building Tuesday afternoon.
Last year the businessmen generously donated $1 million to establish the Lair~Turner School of Business at North Arkansas College, the largest donation ever.
Stephen Lair always had a deep sense of purpose in running his family's oil business and knew it was his destiny. Little did he know that his path would intersect with that of a fraternity brother named Steve Turner, who would not only become a lifelong friend but also a trusted business partner.
Together, they embarked on a remarkable journey to establish Petromark, a company that would eventually rise to become the second-largest oil corporation in Arkansas. At its height, the company employed 475 with revenue of $500M dollars, Petromark's success story is a testament to the power of friendship, entrepreneurship, and unwavering loyalty.
According to Turner, the company was built upon the esteemed reputation of Stephen's father, ML Lair. Despite having only completed eighth grade, ML Lair was a prosperous businessman.
ML's entry into the oil industry came about when he became a driver for Colonel T.H. Barton, a renowned oilman, philanthropist, and the owner of Lion Oil Company. Colonel Barton's remarkable ascent in the oil industry has become the stuff of legends. In fact, Barton Coliseum in Little Rock is named after him. As Colonel Barton's driver, ML had the privilege of gaining an insider's perspective on the oil business, which captivated him entirely. This experience marked a turning point in his life.
In 1929, at the age of 24, ML returned home and approached his uncle, Dr. Fowler, a respected doctor in Harrison, for a loan of $500 to establish his own business. Thus, ML Lair Oil Company was born, situated on the railroad tracks where the bypass stands today. The company name changed to Lair Oil in 1971. After the sale of Lair Oil in 1986, Stephen and Steve reentered the jobber business as Petromark, Inc. in 1988.
Over the years, the company experienced significant growth. In its early days, Lair Oil Company became Lion Oil's largest fuel customer. Turner fondly recalled, "It's funny to think that in our first month here, we sold 300,000 gallons of gas. Towards the end of our career, we had days that surpassed that."
Stephen, upon graduation, returned to the company in 1971. Turner arrived in February of 1972 for a visit and never left. This is a story for another time.
Turner and Lair understood the importance of expanding beyond Harrison to ensure the company's survival. Turner explained, "We realized that our growth would come one store or customer at a time, and we needed to venture outside of Harrison." They successfully expanded to Yellville, Marshall, Branson, and Northwest Arkansas, while also securing partnerships with sought-after brands like Texaco, Conoco/Phillips and Shell.
For Lair, whose dream was to become an architect, constructing convenience stores became his personal contribution to the company. "I found it cool because my father had never ventured into that field before. The first store was on Capps Road in 1983, followed by another in Siloam Springs." By 2016, the store count had grown to over 50. White Oak Station’s tagline was “Exceeding your Expectations.”
The wholesale fuel business of Petromark supplied over 240 convenience stores and trucking companies in three states before the sale in 2021. To attract new convenience store customers, Petromark offered store design, equipment bids, policy manuals, employee and backroom training. This all-inclusive package was provided free of charge and ultimately led to fuel contracts. Turner proudly stated, "It was unique; no other jobber offered such a package to their customers."
The duo thrived on innovation visiting other businesses for ideas and drawing inspiration from Harrison’s railroad heritage. “We constantly sought to make things intriguing. Lair leaned in and remarked, "You know, selling gasoline isn't a lot of fun!"
To gather ideas for the station at Pinnacle Mall in Rogers, the pair visited Dean & Deluca in New York. They explored numerous other establishments, amalgamating the best elements into one cohesive package. Their relentless pursuit of excellence did not go unnoticed in the industry. The Pinnacle store was hailed as the "Most Unique Store in the Industry" by Convenience Store Decisions magazine and earned the title of "The Best Store in Arkansas." At the time they had the only convenience store in Arkansas that offered both liquor and gas in one location.
Stephen Lair and Steve Turner believe in the importance of giving back to the community that has supported their business. From 1994 to 2006, Lair and Turner, through funds raised from the White Oak Station Golf Tournament, provided support to Northark. Turner shares, "We were able to raise approximately $700K, which we committed to providing scholarships for Northark students and “extending a helping hand” to Sanctuary, Share and Care, Boone County Special Services and others.”
Despite their significant contributions, Steve Turner and Stephen Lair prefer to remain anonymous and avoid seeking attention. However, Lair explains, "I was willing to put our names on the School of Business because we hope it inspires others to do the same. It is crucial for local individuals to support students. When I graduated college in 1971 and returned here, I noticed that most people who left didn't come back. Of course, Northark didn't exist back then. But things have changed now, and Harrison is a new place."
North Arkansas College appreciates their focus on giving back and helping students realize their potential for success in the business world. While Lair is semi-retired, Turner continues to be actively involved. Interestingly, the two now meet more frequently than they did when they employed 475 people, even though they don't have much business to discuss. When asked about retirement, like a loyal friend, Lair looked at Turner and said, "We're letting it unfold, but when the time comes to do it, we'll do it together."