With gas prices falling during December, more people have ventured out for the holidays. As families come and go from the Bitterroot Valley, I hope they make a conscious choice about where they fill up their vehicles. While all gas stations are affiliated with franchised brands, some are locally owned – like Lone Pine Conoco.

Lone Pine is located on the southern end of Hamilton on U.S. 93 heading south to Darby. It is owned by me and my husband Brian and so every tank filled at our store means another boost for the local economy.

Brian and I got married in college and together wrote a business plan hoping to start our own business after we graduated. We knew we wanted to leave Utah and do something different. So after graduation, we took that leap of faith and came to Montana. We had a capital investor and then went through the process of applying for a small business loan and local bank loan. We really had to sell our market plan and crunch all the numbers to make it work and have the support of all three. We acquired the property and began construction and were able to open the doors to Lone Pine in August 1998. For those early years, we definitely had no money and were living on bread and milk while I also attended law school at the University of Montana. We were young and inexperienced but always willing to work hard to find solutions. For instance, we thought we could do the books by hand but after the first week, it was evident that wasn’t going to work and had to invest in a computer system. We were hiring people and doing things we had never done before, so every day was a learning experience. Those first five years were very difficult, but we still have some of the same employees who started with us and we are really connected with our regular customers.

Five years after we opened Lone Pine, we negotiated with the bank when another convenience store and gas station was in trouble at the north end of Hamilton. My brother-in-law and his family moved from California to assist in operating that business called Riverside Conoco. So now, whether driving north or south out of Hamilton, the Hawkes are ready to serve. When we first opened Lone Pine, there were 10 other gas stations in town, 16 years later, Lone Pine and Riverside are the only locally-owned stations with stores in town.

The interesting challenge about owning a gas station and convenience store is that typically there’s very little margin on the gasoline. So we’re dependant on inside sales to keep the business going. The additional challenge is that we’re selling the same product as everyone else – a candy bar is a candy bar no matter where you buy it. The only way to differentiate is through customer service and cleanliness – so those are our biggest priorities.

Being small business owners in the Bitterroot Valley has taught us many life lessons and connected us with so many people who we treasure. Our dream guided us to Montana and now we couldn’t think of a better place to raise our family.