Who knew that UFA had its own local celebrity doubling as a Petroleum Agent for 25 years? Mark Neaves, Petroleum Agent for Athabasca and Wabasca, certainly sets the bar high when it comes to customer service, but he has reached celebrity status amongst a select few who know him as Willie.
These days, Neaves spends a lot of time commuting between his two agencies. “I spend a lot of time on the road, so you have to figure out fun ways to pass the time,” he jokes. Turns out, he has spent many of those miles perfecting his impersonations, which appropriately include, Willie Nelson. He has an uncanny ability to channel the red headed stranger, and if you closed your eyes and listened to his rendition of, “On the Road Again,” you’d be hard-pressed to tell the impersonator from the real deal.
He brings his sense of humour, not only to the customers he serves daily, but to the community at large. Neaves learned early on from his father that it is not only important, but necessary, to give back to the community you serve. Neaves has made it his mission to give back, not only in the form of financial support to local organizations like 4-H and the food bank, but also in the form of time. Along with being a Big Brother, he also served as the Lions Club President for two years among various other roles. He is especially proud of helping to build the Lions Playground, a beautiful playground overlooking the Athabasca River. He was also instrumental in building Lions Centennial Park, a serene park setting for families to enjoy with picturesque views of the mighty Athabasca and historical signage dedicated to the history of the area.
Neaves also embodies what it means to live co-operative values, something he comes by honestly. “My grandfather actually helped to start the Altona, Manitoba Credit Union, so I’ve grown up with the idea that we can accomplish more when we work together.” And Neaves is the first to give credit to all those who work together to help his business thrive. “My team is vital to the success of our business,” he says. “I am so lucky to have such loyal and hard-working people surrounding me. People like Sheena Makin, Mike Radkewich and Ernie Grach, help to keep me in line and I am so grateful.” In fact, Neaves jokes that one employee has really gone above and beyond. “Blair Katona worked for my dad originally, starting in 1989, so he’s been working for our family for 30 years. In fact, he has been so dedicated, that he even married my sister-in-law. Talk about devotion!”
The agencies have definitely been family-driven. Neaves worked for his dad, who owned the original agency from 1986 to 1995, and then the torch was passed and Neaves took over. “Back then, the site was a small site, thankfully we were just down the road from the John Deere dealership, so we picked up a lot of business from there. But let’s just say getting in and out of our site, would probably be a bit of a health and safety hazard today.” Neaves’ brother Mitch, also owned and operated several sites including Mayerthorpe, Whitecourt and Fox Creek and he credits both his dad and brother for contributing to the strong customer base that they have today.
“We have the privilege to serve long-time customers, but at the same time, I am so lucky to meet new people and to make new friends every day,” he says. “Relationships are key, and I enjoy developing new ones.”
And Neaves is always looking for new ways to develop community connections. A great example of his unique, and talented, approach was when he visited the Whispering Hills’ primary school. He spent the day educating young students about farm safety and hazardous materials. But his approach was not typical; instead, Neaves taught as Cookie Monster and Kermit the Frog. “The kids absolutely loved it, and I quickly made 300 new friends!”
He was also a big hit at the Farm Women’s Conference where he entertained the crowd (of 250) as Willie Nelson. And most recently, Neaves has enlisted the help of his boys, to help produce fun videos on social media with a puppet he calls Daisy. “With the pandemic and all the negative news over the past eight months, it’s important to find ways to lighten the mood and to bring laughter.” Daisy’s toilet paper rendition of "Let it Go" from the Disney movie Frozen, does just that.
And although community events may be cancelled right now, Neaves plans to continue perfecting his impersonation of Willie, in anticipation of when people can safely gather once again. After all, with part-time commuting between Athabasca and Wabasca, there’s plenty of time “on the road again.”
In honour of Neaves’ 25th year anniversary, he is donating funds to the Athabasca Food Bank; Whispering Hills Primary School breakfast program; Athabasca Lions Club; and the Wabasca Food Bank. Thank you Mark Neaves and congratulations on 25 years of serving both fuel and laughter!