Innovation and foresight are hallmarks of successful businesses. Back in the early 1930s, Russell C. Trexler saw a new energy source – propane – as a good alternative to the fuels then used for cooking and heating. Today, the company he founded to sell that new energy product still bears his name and is headed by his daughter, Betty Trexler Smith. Seventy-eighty years after its beginning, Trexler-Haines continues its focus on innovation and foresight under her guidance.
Russell Trexler was born and raised in Topton, Pa. He graduated from Kutztown Normal School (Kutztown University) during the Great Depression, having studied math and history. Jobs were scarce, so he returned to Topton to work at Caloric Gas Stove Works. In 1933, he left to open a hardware store in East Greenville, Pa., with the help of his father, Fred A. Trexler. In 1935, Russell created a propane company he named the Trexler Gas Service Company. Propane had only been available for residential use since about 1916, so Trexler was a pioneer, seeing propane as a sensible alternative to kerosene, wood and coal – dirty fuels that were hard to control and made kitchens hot.
Propane is produced from a combination of crude oil and natural gas refining. According to The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), nearly 97 percent of propane used in the U. S. is produced in North America, and it is one of the cleanest burning of all fossil fuels.
As the use of this fuel grew, so did Trexler Gas Service Company, which operated out of a property north of East Greenville – still part of the company. In 1960, the company merged with Haines Gas, Allentown, to form Trexler-Haines, Inc. Russell Trexler retired at that time, while Paul Haines served as president until his own retirement in 1991.
In 1991, Betty Trexler Smith, became president and CEO of Trexler-Haines. Betty is the youngest of Russell’s four daughters. She is an Ithaca College graduate, holds an MBA and is also a Certified Management Accountant. After a successful career that included positions with BorgWarner and New York State Electric & Gas, she returned to the Lehigh Valley to run the
A visit to the company showroom on Tilghman Street in Allentown shows that Smith’s vision to make Trexler-Haines the region’s best source of fine kitchen appliances and gas hearth/log products – in addition to its prominence in the propane market – has been realized. The building was expanded in 2008 to make room for 10 working kitchens; numerous displays of fireplaces, inserts and log sets; outdoor kitchens and equipment, as well as many brands and models of home appliances. The extensive showroom allows clients to “test drive” their appliances before they buy.
Brands represented include Big Chill, Blue Star, Bosch, Dacor, Miele, Viking, Thermador, LG and more. One of the most interesting is the AGA line of ranges. Made of cast iron in England, the AGA is continuously heated at low intensity so it is ready for immediate use. The stove has several ovens at differing temperatures for roasting, baking, slow-cooking and warming, while the top has hotplates for boiling and simmering. There are several working AGAs on display, giving out constant warmth and allowing staff to demonstrate to customers what it’s like to cook on them.
On the propane side, Trexler-Haines’ 342,000-gallon tank storage farm at the East Greenville location allows the company to ride out shortages and changes in the supply network and avoid some of the market’s price volatility. “Although customers may leave for price,” Smith says, “they come back for our service.” In that area, all of the company’s 27 employees have completed the PERC’s Certified Employee Training Program, and several have been with Trexler-Haines for 30-plus years.
There have been many challenges for Smith, especially as a woman in what she terms a “stodgy industry that doesn’t easily accept female leadership.” Although her husband Terry handles the IT functions, he works for Smith and lets employees know that she is in charge. Other challenges involve the laws and regulations that apply to the propane business and to Human Resources. For instance, since 9/11, anyone applying for a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) has to be cleared through Homeland Security. “The requirements and costs can be onerous,” Smith adds.
To reduce costs, Trexler-Haines has instituted a program called THInk Tank. This system monitors propane levels in customers’ tanks and projects need 90 days out. In its first year, THInk Tank reduced mileage costs by 25 percent through more efficient deliveries. These savings are passed on to customers.
“Looking forward, we face challenges in finding new uses for propane,” Smith says. One area of expansion is propane-powered vehicles. According to PERC, there are more than 270,000 propane vehicles in the U. S. Many are in fleets of taxis, busses, shuttles and police cars.
As for the future, Smith says she is happy to be the steward caring for the business built by her father and grandfather. “We make a difference by offering goods and services that make people feel good, and by providing a living for our employees.” Since the Smiths have two sons, does she see a chance to continue the legacy of family ownership? “If they request the opportunity, there needs to be a good hand-off. They first need some real-world experience. Then it’s important to train, trust and let go,” she says.
Trexler Haines, Inc.
6635 West Tilghman Street
Allentown, PA 18106
640 Gravel Pike
East Greenville, PA 18041