Final days of family ownership for Brunswick-based Downeast Energy

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BRUNSWICK — With the announcement that Downeast Energy is being sold to a large, Oklahoma-based company, owner Betsy Morrell said she has been fielding calls from concerned customers, and emotional reactions from the staff.

“Change is difficult for folks,” Morrell said Tuesday, “especially here in the Brunswick office, where we’ve been the longest.”

When it comes to the Morrell family and the employees,  she said, “there were tears on both sides, for sure. And there will be more.”

On Monday, Downeast Energy and NGL Energy Partners of Tulsa announced that Downeast would be purchased from the Morrell family for an undisclosed amount of cash and NGL common stock shares. The sale is expected to close on April 30.

John Peters has been with the company for 31 years and will remain as president of Downeast. The agreement stipulates that the 300 employees of Downeast would be kept, and Morrell said that there will be no major changes for customers.

On paper, the transaction is in line with the shifting marketplace, as one more small, family-owned company goes along with a global trend of consolidation.

But the partnership makes sense for both companies, Morrell said.

NGL wanted to expand into the Northeast, but it deals almost exclusively in propane. Downeast, started as Brunswick Coal 100 years ago, has an energy portfolio including propane, heating oil, and a smattering of solar; it has a loyal customer base, that was attractive to NGL.

“This way, we got to choose, rather than waiting until we had to, and then we couldn’t have gotten as good a deal for our employees,” Morrell said.

But Morrell said employees were still stunned when they first heard the news.

“I think it was mostly shock, and it’s very emotional,” she said. “They’ve had 24 hours now. They’ve met with the folks from NGL today and those are going on over the next two days. It’s sort of the normal reactions that anybody has to some kind of change.”

Most employees have been with the company for at least five years, Morrell said, and many of them have been there for decades.

She said employees are also taking calls from apprehensive customers, who have grown attached to the company’s logo and local workforce.

“Customers are calling with questions, but we’ve been able to make people feel comfortable,” Morrell said. “It’s still the same company, less four people.”

Morrell said that customers and the company’s employees should rest easy.

“This new company, they like what we are and they want to learn from us, rather than coming in and imprinting us,” she said. “They recognize that we have the best possible workforce. They’re not looking to change things.”

Morrell said that Downeast began entertaining the idea of selling only a few months ago.

“Up until relatively recently, we didn’t even consider offers,” she said. “… This year, we decided to look at some.”

Morrell said that selling to a Maine company would have resulted in a worse deal for the employees, who would then be laid off as redundancies were eliminated.

“(NGL) has no presence here,” she said, “so they need every one of our employees.”

Downeast Energy serves 50,000 customers from 14 offices in Maine and New Hampshire.

NGL serves 124,000 customers in 11 states, according to its website.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or matthh@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hh_matt.

Downeast Energy was begun as Brunswick Coal in 1908. It was purchased by Allen Morrell in 1931, and has been operated by three generations of the Morrell family. It will be sold to a larger, Oklahoma-based company on April 30.

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