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Pilot Flying J: Starting Out With Gas Pumps

August 27, 2012

Pilot Flying J is huge; it is the largest provider of over- the-road diesel fuel in the U.S. The company is the largest travel center chain in America; it has two brands Pilot and Flying J which combined have over 550 locations to serve customers. The company is the largest franchisee of Subway in the whole world with more than 200 locations. It is also the third largest franchisor of quick service restaurants in the country.

Before it was able to reach this status the company began with gasoline stations only.  It was started by Korean War veteran James Haslam II. With $6,000 in savings he purchased his first gas station in 1958 in Gate City, Virginia and named it Pilot.

James had a partner in Marathon Oil which bought half of Pilot in 1965 and gave it a loan of $ 4 million to build more stations.  By 1973 during the Arab Oil crisis Pilot had over 50 stations with annual sales of around $30 million. Pilot then began diversifying in 1976 by opening its first convenience store along Alcoa Highway in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Then in 1981 the company branched out into another line of business. Having around 100 convenience stores it opened the first of many travel centers in Corbin, Kentucky.   Pilot bought out its partner Marathon Oil in 1988 for cash and stores. In 2001 it went into partnership with Marathon again to form Pilot Travel Centers.  The company bought out Marathon again in 2008 and brought in a financial partner, CVC Capital Partners.

Pilot was not the only company that started out with gasoline stations then moved into other businesses like travel centers.   Jay Call started Flying J in 1968 with four gas stations. The company likewise grew. Jay Call (who loved flying) died in a plane crash in 2003. In 2010 Pilot bought Flying J’s travel centers which help Flying J out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  Thus the name Pilot Flying J came into being.

With sales of $17.7 billion in 2010 Pilot Flying J is still a privately held company.  James is Chairman and Jimmy the oldest son aged 57 is the company CEO.  It’s based in Knoxville, Tennessee.


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