All in the Family

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Colonial Group celebrates its centennial anniversary as a family-owned business

Photography courtesy of COLONIAL GROUP

Raymond Demere founded what is now Colonial Group in 1921.

WHEN RAYMOND DEMERE returned from World War I, he felt change was afoot, or rather, on a roll. With cars powered by internal combustion engines quickly replacing the horses and buggies strolling down Savannah’s streets, Demere knew he wanted to be a part of the coming automotive revolution. So, on July 21, 1921, he purchased a 55-gallon barrel of oil and founded the American Oil Company.

With great business savvy and eyes firmly trained on the future, Demere opened his first service station just two years later at 342 Drayton St. and then, in 1934, purchased a 21-acre tract of land on the Savannah River, where he built a deep-water terminal for cargo ships to dock, store and transport their petroleum products throughout the country.

Fast-forward to today, 100 years later, and Colonial Group Inc., renamed after a series of acquisitions, is one of the largest privately held companies in the United States, employing more than 2,000 people, with operational bases across the Southeast and 10 companies under its umbrella, specializing in intermodal transport, storage and logistics for petroleum products, wet and bulk goods, over 120 Enmarket gas stations, the Savannah Yacht Center and a new foray into water treatment called Aqua Smart.

Third- and fourth-generation family members unveil the Colonial Group historical marker.

On the centennial anniversary of the company’s grand opening, Mayor Van Johnson honored the family-owned business’ storied success, officially designating July 21 “Colonial Group Day.”

To further commemorate Colonial Group’s historic impact on Savannah, the Georgia Historical Society erected a plaque on the site of the original service station in the Historic District. “Colonial Group’s sustained, century-long growth is testament to what can happen when you have all the right ingredients for success: great products, excellent succession planning, outstanding intergenerational leadership and entrepreneurial vision,” says Georgia Historical Society President Dr. W. Todd Groce.

This entrepreneurial vision has been meticulously executed by four generations of Demeres. After Raymond Demere passed away, his son, Robert H. Demere, Sr., helmed the company, rapidly expanding its holdings and establishing its flourishing gas station company, Enmarket, then Interstate Stations. In 1986, he was succeeded by his son Robert H. Demere Jr., who was responsible for even greater expansion across the United States. And in 2020, his son, Christian B. Demere, was appointed president and CEO of Colonial Group.

“I take great comfort and pride in knowing how many incredible people we have who support the company,” says Christian Demere of the strong leadership and loyal team of skilled workers who ensure operations run seamlessly for Colonial Group’s diverse subsidiaries.

To celebrate the history of these employees, Colonial Group also partnered with the Georgia Historical Society to create a history unit for Georgia middle school students that tells the company history.

The next chapter in Colonial Group’s history will be celebrated publicly by a brand well-known around Savannah: Enmarket. The gas station chain, known for its fuel centers and convenience stores stocked with fresh foods, will have its name in lights on the new Enmarket Arena. The 9,500-seat arena, set to open in 2022, will house Savannah’s ECHL hockey team in addition to world-class concerts, performances and conferences on Stiles Avenue.

Reflecting on the company’s monumental anniversary and the company’s contributions to the Savannah community, Christian and his brother, Houston, who serves as vice president of the Savannah Yacht Center, cannot help but feel gratitude for the many loyal employees and patrons who have built Colonial together.

“We both feel humbled to have the privilege to be a part of such an incredible legacy,” he says. It’s one that started with a single barrel of oil — and excitement for the future.