The effect of the purchases was to make the dealers’ principal suppliers into their landlords, as well. Mamo picked up nearly 200 Shell and Exxon stations and became the king of D.C.’s gas business. “Over the years we were able to grow the business one at a time, and now given the new opportunities we had, we could move really fast in the last couple of years,” Mamo says. “But you don’t have any choice either. You buy now or once it’s sold, it’s sold.”
Mamo’s 45 District Exxon and Shell stations represent about 42 percent of the gas stations in the city. Eastern Petroleum is in second place with 30 BP locations, according to current public records. A hodgepodge of small businesses and big jobbers operate the other three dozen or so stations under the banners of lesser-known brands such as Lowest Price Gas, Hess, and Crown. “We just happened to be the right time and the right place,” says Mamo.
But it’s hardly that easy. Mamo managed to come up with money for his buying spree at a time when many businesses simply wouldn’t be able to tap the kind of 35-percent equity financing the oil refiners require. “For Joe to be able to get financing in the last two years, he had to have his ducks in a row before [the economy] fell apart,” Holtz says.
Those successes set him up as “someone to watch not only regionally but nationally,” says Holtz, who thinks Mamo’s enterprise may someday become a household name—the next Wawa or 7-Eleven.
There have been a bunch of different narratives about Mamo over the years: Ask Jerry Schaeffer, the taxicab mogul who is Mamo’s friend and mentor, and he’ll describe a “rags to riches” immigrant success story. But the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and Mamo’s longtime lobbyist, John L. Ray, have cast him as an African-American civil rights crusader. At still other times, he’s has faced sharp hostility from African-American neighborhood activists who don’t see the Ethiopian-American as one of their own. Mamo has played David to Big Oil’s Goliaths but also plays the heavy in the ongoing drama with small-time gas station operators.
Even the irony of a gas-pump titan living in a humble ranch home isn’t the whole story: As it happens, Mamo also owns a nice spread in Chevy Chase, and harbors hopes of one day tearing down his Annandale place and the adjacent homes of relatives in order to build a whole new townhouse development.
The one thing everyone agrees on is that Mamo has thrived in an industry that’s driven others into bankruptcy and oblivion.
Besides hard work and business sense, his success has relied on a generous portion of another potent ingredient: politics. Learning how to navigate the chutes and ladders of city government is a skill Mamo picked up from Schaeffer, with whom he talks a few times a week. Mamo says the taxi king has been a source of “social capital.” When Schaeffer’s daughter got married, Mamo attended the wedding. And when Mamo got engaged, Schaeffer and his wife went to the party.
Schaeffer also invested in Mamo’s business, making a crucial loan about a decade ago, when his young friend had an opportunity to buy additional Shell stations but lacked the cash. He continues to hold a stake today. While Schaeffer says he doesn’t get involved in Mamo’s day-to-day decision making, their relationship has clearly been much more meaningful than that of a passive investor.
Early on in Mamo’s career, Schaeffer says, he began taking the ambitious young gas station owner with him to political fundraisers, introducing him to local power brokers. “Well, I did introduce him to people—lawyers and lobbyists and people who gave him connections,” says Schaeffer. “He didn’t have political connections. We’ve been in the city a long time. We did know all the mayors and the city council people.” In the last election cycle, both gave to both Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray, as well just about the entire D.C. Council, as well as many unsuccessful candidates.
Schaeffer also introduced Mamo to Ray, who during the last decade or so has made hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees. Mamo has paid Ray’s firm more than $250,000 in the last two years, according to D.C. Office of Campaign Finance records. Ray did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In an industry with lots of government oversight, Mamo is not alone in filling politicians’ coffers. But he has outdone most of his competition. Mamo, his companies, and his close family members have given nearly $60,000 to D.C. mayoral and council candidates and another $42,100 to candidates for state and federal offices in the last decade, records show. In D.C., the bulk of the contributions—$52,750—were made since 2006, when Mamo’s business fortunes began to soar.