Rudolph B. C. Gustus, 68, owned heating oil company

November 21, 2001|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Rudolph B. C. Gustus, a big-hearted entrepreneur whose heating oil company was once the largest black-owned business in the state, died of a heart attack Nov. 12 at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. The Northeast Baltimore resident was 68.

A 1983 survey in Black Enterprise magazine named his G&M Oil Co., which then had 40 vehicles and sales of more than $62 million annually, as Maryland's largest company with African-American ownership.

Mr. Gustus subsequently suffered a major business upheaval and struggled to rebuild his operation. At his death, he had two trucks delivering oil.

"He grew his company with good service and by putting a lot back into the community," said Joe Louis Gladney, a friend who also owns a fuel oil company. "He helped the less fortunate along the way. He was a caring, professional person who had a heart as big an elephant."

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Gustus lived with his maternal grandparents and attended public schools in Lively, Va., until he was 16 and moved to Baltimore. He drove oil delivery trucks to learn the business, finding potential residential customers who would ask if he had oil to sell.

In 1963, he and his father, James Gustus, bought a beat-up truck for $500 from parking lot magnate Allen Quille. Their sales strategy was to supply oil to city churches, regardless of whether the pastor had the money to pay the day of delivery.

"My father believed that no church in Baltimore should ever have a Sunday service without heat," said Rudolph Gustus' daughter Angela I. Gustus of Baltimore.

He distributed advertising leaflets to churches. Customers paid cash on delivery at first, and later would apply for credit accounts and automatic delivery. He also catered to people who needed deliveries on nights or weekends. City buses carried his advertising posters: "G&M Oil won't keep you waiting."

By the 1980s, he had as customers thousands of individual buyers, 60 churches and the Federal Defense Fuel Supply Center -- which spent $50 million a year on his fuel. Black Enterprise magazine named G&M seventh on its list of the top 100 black-owned businesses nationwide.

At its peak, his G&M employed 55 people, working from the company headquarters at Warwick Avenue and Baker Street. The Baltimore Marketing Association named him its outstanding businessman for 1983.

A year later, Mr. Gustus bought a former Texaco petroleum distribution facility in Southwest Baltimore for $5.75 million. The purchase ultimately overtaxed the company financially, and Mr. Gustus declared bankruptcy for G&M Oil.

Family members said Mr. Gustus reorganized the business, changed its name to G&M Fuels and continued delivering oil to old customers.

"He was a simple man, with little formal education," said his daughter. "He lived by his faith. He went back to driving a truck and doing service calls."

Services were held Saturday at Greater Remnant Church of God in Christ, where he was a member.

He also is survived by his wife of 30 years, the former Harvadene Williams; another daughter, Camille Gustus Quijano of Baltimore; a brother, Albert Gustus; and three grandsons.

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