STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY JIMMY iENNER, JR.
Cota & Cota, a multi-generational family business, brings warmth to the local community through high-quality fuels, considerate customer service, and thoughtful philanthropic initiatives.
At the height of the winter season in Vermont, few things are as satisfying as coming back to a warm home at the end of a long, fulfilling day. Whether you’re reclining in a cozy armchair with a good book or entertaining friends and loved ones, a reliable and well-maintained heating system is absolutely essential. When a home is properly-heated, its residents can safely enjoy the colder months while creating cherished wintertime memories—and it all depends on the hard work of trusted, reliable heating technicians and fuel delivery drivers. Over the past 82 years, scores of Vermont homeowners have turned to the knowledgeable team members at Cota & Cota for their heating, propane, plumbing, and HVAC needs. Under the ownership of three successive generations of the Cota family, the business has continued to grow and thrive, and has become a longstanding pillar of the Southern Vermont community.
Today, the third-generation owner and President of Cota & Cota, Casey Cota, carries on the legacy of the family business with pride and passion. He oversees a closely-knit team of specialists and technicians and has developed stellar in-house training programs to help Cota & Cota’s employees better serve the needs of their customers. Cota & Cota’s dedication to community betterment is not only manifested through their high-quality fuels, installation services, and maintenance services—it is also exemplified through their compassionate philanthropic programs, which bring warmth to the homes and hearts of Vermonters throughout the Central and Southern regions of the state. In the early days of winter, Casey Cota sat down with Stratton Magazine to discuss the history of the family business, his love for teaching and coaching, and the story behind the “Gift of Warmth” charitable initiative. By integrating the time-honored Vermont values of honesty and accountability into all of their services and community programs, Cota & Cota has proven that hard work and integrity is the secret to continued success.
Fuel for Community Growth
From its earliest days, Cota & Cota’s growth trajectory has been closely intertwined with the continual progression of home heating technology. Before establishing the family business, Cota & Cota’s founders, Ken and Helen Cota, originally owned and operated a 24-hour gas station in Bellows Falls. “The station was located at the current site of the Bellows Falls fire station,” says Casey Cota. “It was one of the first 24-hour gas stations in the state.” In April 1941, a local businessman, Bingo Lawlor, came to see Ken and Helen and asked them if they wanted to purchase his fuel business. Although Ken and Helen were not very knowledgeable in regards to the heating fuel industry, they nevertheless recognized its growth potential. They signed off on the purchase a month later, and began selling heating fuel out of their home under the banner of Cota & Cota. In the years immediately following the acquisition, the business migrated from their private residence to the gas station. At the time, many homes were heated by wood stoves, coal burning stoves, or kerosene kitchen stoves, which were equipped with side burners that radiated heat throughout the entire house. Back then, kerosene was delivered into 55- gallon drums, which were much smaller than the industry-standard heating fuel tanks that are used today. As a result of shifting consumer patterns, the delivery trucks continued to evolve as the business grew. After WWII, many homeowners in Vermont converted from coal boilers and furnaces to heating oil furnaces. In order to accommodate this change, heating oil tanks were placed in basements or directly outside of houses, which required trucks with larger tanks that could facilitate bigger oil deliveries. The subsequent increase in demand for heating oil led to a fairly rapid expansion of the business, and prompted Ken and Helen Cota to move the operation into its current location on Green Street in Bellows Falls. “We’ve been here ever since,” says Casey Cota, “and we’ve continued to grow and expand with the same values our grandparents held.” In the 1950s, Cota & Cota’s drivers wrote down all of their delivery orders by hand and made numerous deliveries and refueling trips throughout the day. “The delivery trucks back then were about the equivalent of a one-ton pickup truck with a 750-gallon tank,” notes Casey Cota. Over time, transport and delivery vehicles began to convert from standard gasoline engines to diesel-powered engines. Towards the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, the weight capacity of the vehicles also greatly increased. They could carry up to 3,000 gallons of fuel in the delivery vehicles, which helped to increase the efficiency of oil deliveries. In the wake of those technological advances, Ken and Helen’s son, Hugh Cota, purchased the business from his parents and took over the ownership duties in 1971. After managing Cota & Cota for several years, he constructed an in-house fleet maintenance garage in 1973. The vehicle maintenance garage is still operational to this day, making it possible for Cota & Cota to maintain incredibly high efficiency standards and keep vehicles on the road.
Under Hugh and Carol Cota’s oversight, Cota & Cota expanded its service range to include plumbing when Chris Cota, Hugh’s brother, came into the business. They also deftly navigated the fuel embargo in the late 1970s by making adaptive changes to their business model. “My father decided that it made better sense to diversify our suppliers and establish connections with regional heating oil wholesalers during the embargo. When everyone else had to ration their fuel, he made sure he had enough to cover the whole year. In fact, he helped one of the local companies in Bellows Falls, Gay’s Fuel Service, by bringing them oil and helping with a couple loads. It was a community thing. We wanted to make sure that everybody got their fuel.”
In a serendipitous twist of fate, Casey Cota ended up acquiring Gay’s Fuel Service with his brother, Sean Cota, nearly twenty years later. The acquisition occurred less than six months after they purchased Cota & Cota from their father, Hugh Cota, in 1995. “We had officially run the business for a week when the Gays reached out to us and said that they wanted to retire,” says Casey Cota. “We ended up buying their business in January 1996. As a result, we got into propane distribution, and we went on to further diversify the services that we offer our customers.”
Today, Cota & Cota owns and operates seven office locations in Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Ludlow, Manchester, Jamaica, Springfield, and White River Junction. The area that they serve includes dozens of towns, which are spread out over five counties in Vermont (Bennington, Windham, Rutland, Windsor, and Orange) and Western New Hampshire. They also own and operate three gasoline and diesel stations, which are offered as a special “key club service” to their current heating fuel customers. Qualifying customers can sign up for a computerized key code, which provides 24-hour access to the refueling stations in Bellows Falls, North Windsor, and Jamaica. In addition, they offer a vast assortment of high-grade fuels and world-class products for their customers, including boilers, in-home fuel tanks, heating systems, generators, and cooling systems from name brands such as Rinnai, Roth, ThermoPride, Kohler Samsung, iWave, Bradford White, Honeywell, Empire Direct, Energy Kinetics, Lochinvar, and Guardian Alarm Systems.
Casey Cota finds immense fulfillment in providing Cota & Cota’s customers with well-made products and thoughtful service. He runs the business in a manner that he describes as “The Old Yankee Way.” To that end, when a customer calls Cota & Cota, they will never be redirected to an automated extension. He adds: “You’re not going to get a voicemail machine. You’re going to talk to a real person, and they’re going to handle your problem. We train everyone to be able to fully address any question or concern that you may have. I think that it’s important to do that. We really pride ourselves on knowing our customers.”
Casey Cota makes sure to tell every technician and driver who comes to work at Cota & Cota that he wants them to treat every customer like they’re taking care of their own grandmother. “We want to do things the right way and save people money. I once heard it said that, ‘If you tell the truth, it’s part of your past, but if you tell a lie, it’s part of your future.’ We always apply that principle of honesty to all of our interactions with our customers. At the end of the day, we want to look ourselves in the mirror and know that we did all of the things that we needed to do to make a positive difference in that customer’s experience.”
Memories From The Garage
Long before Casey Cota took charge of Cota & Cota, he strengthened his work ethic and core values by working in the family business as a young boy. He recalls: “From a very young age, I loved to go down and see the tractor trailers. One of the tractors had a picture of Donald Duck on it, and it always made me smile to see that. My mother would sometimes pack me lunch, and I would go down to the garage and eat with the mechanics and the transport drivers. Looking back, I was incredibly blessed, because I had a lot of extra uncles and grandfathers. It was almost like a Norman Rockwell experience.”
Casey Cota began working at Cota & Cota during the summertime when he was ten years old. “I was cleaning furnaces, and I was also working at a paving business that my father bought because he wanted to keep our drivers busy during the summer. I learned how to shovel hot mix all summer long for eight hours a day.” Over the course of his early adolescence, Casey Cota worked a variety of additional positions at Cota & Cota, including as a backhoe operator. He dug waterline ditches for the Bellows Falls plumbing department, ran sewer lines, and dug up oil tanks. He described himself as “A Jack of all Trades,” and says that his father, Hugh Cota, used to say, “We can do anything here except fix teeth.” On the day that Hugh Cota retired, Casey Cota’s uncle, Chris Cota, gave Hugh some dental picks as a lighthearted joke.
After graduating from Vermont Academy, Casey Cota enrolled at Ithaca College to pursue a degree in Hospitality Management. “When I got through college, I initially thought that I was going to move to the city,” he says. “I took a good look at all of the things that I knew how to do, and I realized that I had more opportunity to use those skills if I came back to the family business.”
Though Casey Cota never felt overwhelming pressure to step up as the third-generation owner of Cota & Cota, he nevertheless knew that making the decision to take on an ownership role would come with a great deal of responsibility. “I knew that there was no leaving. I had to make it work. After I graduated, my father told me, ‘In two years, I’m selling the business to you and your brother.’ I was very young at the time, and I marveled at his belief that we could do it.” When Hugh Cota passed the torch to Casey and Sean, he was very hands-off in his transitional approach. “After we bought the business, he just up and left. He said, ‘Call me if you have any questions.’ We would chat with him periodically, but we had to figure it out ourselves.” Casey Cota says that he learned a lot from the early trials he faced while adjusting to the challenges of business ownership. He also believes that the long days that he spent working at Cota & Cota during his childhood years played an essential part in the development of his leadership skills. As a result, he decided to use his influential community standing as the owner of Cota & Cota to make a significant difference in his community through coaching and vocational training.
Teaching The Value Of Hard Work
Several years after taking over the company, Casey and Sean Cota built a training school for Cota & Cota’s technicians, which opened its doors in 2000.
The school is outfitted with a hands-on classroom and a regular classroom. It hosts intensive classes taught by experienced Cota & Cota staff members, who are also nationally-certified instructors. “We train anywhere from five to ten drivers and techs at our school per year,” says Casey Cota. “We certify and train people in oil heat and propane. We also do air conditioning classes, plumbing classes, and re-certification classes.” Casey Cota says that he was partially motivated to open the school due to the fact that he wanted to help improve vocational education opportunities for the greater community. “We felt that there was a lack of investment in the trade schools around the area. We wanted to be part of the solution. Over the years, we’ve continued to evolve our education program. When we take out old heating systems, we add those to the classrooms to aid in troubleshooting workshops. It really makes an incredible difference in helping to train people to properly fix the equipment.”
Casey Cota has also made a notable difference in his local community through his work as a youth athletic coach and philanthropist. In addition to starting a flag football program in Bellows Falls, coaching middle-school football, and coaching youth basketball, he has also served as an assistant coach at Vermont Academy. “I got to coach players that have gone on to the NBA,” says Casey Cota. “It was amazing to witness the whole process and see the kids’ athletic skills improve from elementary school all the way to the professional leagues.” The Jim Tully youth football camp in Bellows Falls, which Casey runs in memory of his brother-in-law, provides unique mentorship and confidence-building opportunities for area high school students. “The high school kids come to help coach kids from third to eighth grade. It teaches them responsibility, and it also teaches them how to overcome their fear of public speaking. I make them explain how they got into football and why they love it. Some people just love it for the fun of the game, but other people love it for the brotherhood, which I believe is the most important aspect. Whether you’re on a sports team or working in the garage, hard work and team effort always pays off when you’re out in the field.” In addition to his extensive coaching resumé, Casey Cota has also helped to fund the reconstruction of an elementary school playground in Bellows Falls twice and Little League fields in Bellows Falls and Ludlow. “We also sponsor many youth sports. Athletes learn important time management skills, which helps them become stronger students. When you’re busy and working hard, you learn to be a better citizen.”
The Gift Of Warmth
Beyond the workforce training school and the playing field, Cota & Cota gives back to the community by providing fuel for economically-disadvantaged residents. They also empower local businesses to pay their kindness forward through the “Gift of Warmth” initiative. The “Gift of Warmth” program was created as a tribute to a benevolent action taken by Cota & Cota’s founder, Ken Cota. While enjoying a meal at a local diner in the early 1950s, Ken Cota ran into a local man who was experiencing financial difficulties. Ken generously gave the man $100 to help him get back on his feet. A year later, the man came back with the money to repay him. Ken graciously refused, insisting that the man use the money to help another family in need. In line with that philosophy, the legacy of Ken Cota’s charitable deed is beautifully manifested today through a series of annual prize drawings. The drawings are held at key community events, such as the Great Falls Annual Chamber Mixer, the Manchester Area Mixer, and the Brattleboro Chamber Mixer and Rotary events. At each drawing, 100 gallons of heating fuel is awarded to a local business member, who is then instructed to donate the fuel to a charity of their choice or a local resident. In addition to the in-person drawings, an additional prize drawing is held live over the radio on the Brattleboro-based station, WTSA 96.7.
“I do one of the prize drawings on the radio because I want to bring more awareness to the issue of heating insecurity,” says Casey Cota. “It’s a beautiful feeling to be able to help. The winners of the drawings don’t just get to feel good that they won the prize. They also get to truly impact someone’s life. It could be donated to a charity, but it could also be donated to someone who is truly struggling. They could be diagnosed with an illness or going through something difficult, and they just need a lift up to get them back on their feet.”
Cota & Cota also makes direct, individual donations to local residents that are entirely separate from the “Gift of Warmth” drawings. Over the course of any given year, Cota & Cota gives away anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 of oil. “It’s our way of giving back to the community and carrying forward the values that my parents and grandparents instilled in us. I see those values reflected in our community, and I also see them in the people that I work with every day here at Cota & Cota. We share our profit with our employees through our profit-sharing plan because it takes everybody to be successful. We’ve only been able to grow because of the good people that we have in place and the community that supports us, and we’re grateful to be able to continue to work with them and serve them.”
ALL THE DETAILS