To hear him tell it, Joe Mamo’s move from Ethiopia to North Dakota in 1981 was accidental.
Mamo’s father, Yenberber Mamo, was a public transit mogul who manufactured buses and ran the first fleet to provide service across Ethiopia. The operation made his father’s Mamo Kacha bus line a household name in the East African country. It provided a nice life for his family. But it rendered him distinctly unpopular with the Marxist junta that ruled Ethiopia between 1974 and 1991. The elder Mamo was jailed two or three times by the regime. Some of his property was confiscated. As his son approached draft age, the patriarch looked for ways to send him overseas.
That’s how Joe, at the age of 13, found himself attending Catholic boarding school in North Dakota.
“He didn’t know the difference between North Dakota and New York City. We didn’t know until we got there,” says Joe Mamo, whose given name is Eyob. But he got used to the cold winters and moved to Chicago after graduation. While he attended community college there, he got a job pumping gas.
By 1987, Mamo had moved to Washington, where an old friend had settled among the region’s large Ethiopian community. This too was “an accidental move,” he says. “I didn’t know Washington that well but I liked it here because it was much more diverse than Chicago. There’s a lot of Ethiopians, a lot of different cultures.” And while Mamo remained far from home, it turned out that his entrepreneurial DNA was still intact in North America. “I always wanted to be a businessman like my father. The only business I knew was a gas station, so I decided to lease a gas station,” Mamo says.
Mamo scraped together his savings and a little money from his father for a down payment. Within months of arriving in Washington, he signed a lease on his first station, an Amoco on South Dakota Avenue. His two brothers were his only employees, Mamo says; they all worked 18-hour days.
Mamo still owns the station, which now operates as a Shell. Over the next quarter century—and in a manner more deliberate than accidental—he has built a network of stations around the region, acquiring them slowly, at first, and then, starting in 2009, at high speed. Riding a wave of industry transition, he went on a buying spree that expanded his empire from 25 to around 240 stations. Nearly half of all stations in the District are controlled by Mamo; he runs a quarter of the region’s stations.
He’s occasionally been painted as a rapacious tycoon, and sometimes been cast as an exemplar of the American Dream. In fact, Mamo may be a bit of both. But what’s striking is how rarely he’s been painted at all. During his rise from gas station attendant to the chief executive and board chairman of the Springfield-based Capitol Petroleum Group, Mamo, 44, has kept a low profile in the industry and shunned interviews with reporters. The little-known tale of how he went from dodging an authoritarian government’s draft to dominating Washington’s fuel business is one of politics, ambition, luck, real estate, hard work, race—and, of course, gas.
Within the industry, there’s “a bit of a mystique” around Mamo, says Steve Holtz, news director at CSP Information Group, a trade publication that has covered Mamo’s business ascent. But as rapid as his rise may have been, “mystique” is hardly the first word that comes to mind for a burly, plainspoken businessman who lives next door to his mother in a modest ranch-style house in Annandale and runs his enterprise from a no-frills office space in a Springfield industrial park.
Despite his reputation as an aggressive businessman, Mamo seems almost humble when he sits down for the first in-depth interview he’s ever given. He credits good luck as much as entrepreneurial savvy for his recent string of successes. He may be a mogul, but he still comes off as what oil folks call a “jobber.”
In the parlance of the oil industry, the companies that do the drilling and processing, like ExxonMobil and Shell, are “refiners.” The local business people who run stations are known as “dealers.” Companies like Mamo’s that get the fuel from the oil companies to the gas stations are called “jobbers,” though Exxon refers to its jobbers as “branded wholesalers.”
For decades, competitive flaps in the business pitted the refiners of Big Oil against the ma-and-pa operations of dealers, who generally rented their land from the companies. But in the last five years or so, the drama has shifted. The big companies have sold their stations and gotten out of the retail side of business. That’s where Mamo found what he considers a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. Washington-area stations were among the first in the country to be spun off. BP sold nearly 200 area stations to Annapolis-based Eastern Petroleum Corp. in 2005. Germantown-based Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Properties, LLC, among other jobbers, saw similar expansion in the suburbs.