Delivering fuel to various parts of Central Africa is not for the faint of heart, but a small Fort Myers-based company held a critical part.
Challenging road and weather conditions means fuel shipped into African ports and transported to gas stations inland can degrade and foul up engine injection systems. With 2,000 gas stations spread across Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia, Oilcom needed to make sure its fuel products arrived at their destination without decomposing into sediment, sludge and acid.
Faced with that challenge, executives with Tanzania-based Oilcom visited a small Fort Myers company in February 2012 that made devices under the brand name Algae-X to keep that natural degradation process from occurring.
“It was never our intention to buy the company,” says Wessel Van Tonder, the Oilcom executive who came to Fort Myers in early 2012.
But buy it they did — and now they have big plans for the company they've renamed AXI International. “We're going through a rebranding process,” Van Tonder says.
What Van Tonder and his partners at Oilcom quickly realized is that entrepreneurs were buying AXI's technology and using it to provide services to companies that use large amounts of fuel. Essentially, AXI was putting potential competitors in business.
“Our real future lies in the service industry,” Van Tonder concluded. “AXI will be the largest user of our equipment.”
What Van Tonder plans is a company that will help large users of fuel in mission-critical industries such as hospitals, data centers, mining and defense maintain the millions of gallons of fuel they hold in reserve to power generators and engines. AXI will make sure the fuel doesn't degrade so that it doesn't gum up the injection systems.
“Our crews will clean the tanks, install the equipment and monitor it remotely,” Van Tonder says. “We take full control of the fuel.”
Van Tonder, born and raised in South Africa, declines to share financial results but says the company's growth potential is global in the next decade. “We can drive this to a $1 billion company,” he says.
For starters, the company plans a big push in the U.S. “There's no reason why we can't have an AXI in the major cities of the U.S.,” says Van Tonder, who notes that the company could have as many as 500 people working on the service side of the business in the U.S.
In June, for example, AXI acquired Clean Tank & Fuel, a service company in Fort Myers operated by entrepreneur Randy Mote. Together, Van Tonder and Mote plan to grow that service operation to clean and maintain fuel containers.
The company plans to grow internationally, too. For example, it started a service business in Malaysia and it plans to form a joint venture in Dubai. In countries where safety and corruption are concerns, AXI might sell a franchise.
The service business in turn will boost AXI's manufacturing operation that builds the fuel-restoration systems, which can cost from $8,000 to $35,000 each. Those products are increasingly in demand as alternative fuels such as ethanol make up a larger part of the fuel stocks. Van Tonder hints that the company may build a new facility if it runs out of space in its current location at the Billy Creek Industrial Park in Fort Myers.
Van Tonder plans to keep the company headquartered in Fort Myers, in large part because the current staff wants to remain here. But Van Tonder says finding new employees is the company's biggest hurdle for growth. “It's extremely difficult to find the right staff,” he says. “We started relocating people from other parts of the country.”
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