Ron?Freeman (right) is retiring next week as president of Jay Petroleum after 37 years with the company. He has been its president for 23 years after taking over from his father-in-law and its founder Jim Peterson (left). (Photo provided)
Ron?Freeman (right) is retiring next week as president of Jay Petroleum after 37 years with the company. He has been its president for 23 years after taking over from his father-in-law and its founder Jim Peterson (left). (Photo provided)
Ron Freeman held a degree in secondary education and had spent his short career working in college admissions and marketing.

So, when his father-in-law Jim Peterson called to discuss a job in the convenience store business, he wasn’t sure what to think.

“He said, ‘Give me three years and if you don’t like it you can add it to your resume,’” said Freeman.

He decided to give it a shot.

“Thirty-seven years later I’m finally wrapping it up.”

Freeman will retire at the end of the year after nearly four decades at rural Portland-based Jay Petroleum, including the last 23 as its president. He’ll turn the reins over to Kevin Huffman, who has already transitioned into the leadership role after serving as vice president of operations for the bulk of his 19 years with the company.

Though Freeman announced his retirement early in 2020, the end of his career comes just a few weeks after the finalization of the largest acquisition in the company’s history. Earlier this month, Jay Petroleum completed the purchase of Ottawa Oil Company.

“For me, it’s a nice way to exit the business,” he said. “It’s the old idea that you try to leave something better than you found it. And I hesitate to say that because Jim had a wonderful company and it was run very, very well … but it certainly was a wonderful opportunity. … For me, it’s just a nice way to say goodbye.”

The purchase of Ottawa Oil included 22 Party Marts, which added to the company’s existing Pak-a-Saks to give Jay Petroleum 57 stores across northern Indiana and northwest Ohio.

Pak-a-Sak started with three stores — they were in Portland, Redkey and Albany — and was opening its eighth location when Freeman got the call.

A 1979 Huntington College (now Huntington University) graduate, he had spent three years working in admissions at the college before moving to Goshen for a job with a Chicago-based marketing firm that focused on colleges and universities. But he said yes to Peterson’s offer in 1983 and launched the newest Pak-a-Sak location in Ridgeville.

“When that opened I just stayed there for a couple of months and managed that store and had an opportunity to really learn the business ground up,” said Freeman. “I did everything from make donuts at two o’clock in the morning to make fried chicken at night. It was basically training by doing it. I did everything when that store opened and basically got my feet under me.”

That on-the-job training was the start of Freeman managing the eight stores, which were then a separate entity but later brought under the Jay Petroleum umbrella.

He went on to earn his master’s of business administration from Indiana Wesleyan University in 1989 and became president of Jay Petroleum upon Peterson’s retirement. Over his years in the business the company has continued to grow, with the 1998 purchase of C&C Oil Company’s 13 locations, the largest expansion prior to this year.

While the concept of convenience shopping — “the old joke was if you can’t eat it, drink it or smoke it in 30 minutes or less, don’t stock it” — hasn’t changed, Freeman said, other aspects of the business have. Key among those are the emphasis on food service — Jay Petroleum now has relationships with Subway, Taco Bell, Papa John’s and Hunt Brothers Pizza — and technology that has changed everything from ordering to stocking to payment.

As he leaves the business, Freeman is excited about having more leisure time. He and his wife, Loni, purchased an RV early this year and hope to do some long-distance traveling. He also wants to spend more time playing golf, a game he learned as a caddy in his hometown of Bryan, Ohio, and later competed in for Huntington College.

He’s also considering a return to the classroom for a master’s degree in theological studies. And, already a member of the parish council, he wants to be come more involved in his church — St. George Orthodox Christian Church in Fishers.

Freeman said he’s not sure if Peterson ever would have expected the company to grow to nearly 60 locations but that helping shepherd Jay Petroleum to where it is today is a point of pride.

“I’m just glad that we’ve been able to take a name — basically three guys sat around a table and came up with the name Pak-a-Sak — and we’ve been able to build that brand to something now that is recognizable in a fairly large region,” he said.

“I’m just really thrilled about (the Ottawa Oil) acquisition and the growth that we’ve had,” he added. “It’s been wonderful to watch that over the years.”