He is pleased to announce that the Gulf brand has reached a significant UK network milestone with more than 500 sites to its name (Ravensthorpe Service Station in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, has been hailed as the 500th); while year-on-year Gulf throughput is up 20 million litres. The average Gulf dealer volume is now 1.6m litres up from 1.3m, with average new conversions coming in at 2.5mlpa.
The company also rebranded 18 Total sites and achieved 23 new dealer gains. A few sites were lost to the competition or closed and around 13 have rebranded to Pace. There has also been a continuing programme to raise the Gulf brand's profile, site operating standards and enhance retailer services.
"This year's been all about promoting the Gulf brand," says MacDonald. "We've done the 'VIP trip to Le Mans' and 'Win a Mini Cooper' fuel promotions which we've been really pleased with. A total of 260 Gulf dealers participated which when you're asking dealers to pay to be involved is a big step forward. We emailed about half a million of our domestic customers; and had about 10,000 entrants on the website.
"At the end of last year we launched our latest promotion 'Fuel your way to the USA'. It's being advertised in the traditional way, but we're also doing a lot of internal promotions to domestic and commercial customers using the leverage of the group to impact on the B2C and B2B markets. If we can continue to get the dealers to support these types of promotions, it gives us the ability to go further.
"After all, we don't have the kind of money the major oil companies have to advertise on TV and raise the profile overnight, but we're trying to develop that Gulf loyalty with drivers and end-users to make it a more compelling brand for dealers to swap to, including group dealers who are now joining us in greater numbers."
MacDonald sees the promotions as a critical touchpoint for Gulf service station staff to be able to engage with their customers, something Certas Energy has learned from operating its company-owned sites in Scotland: "Having a frequent programme of 'what's new at the Gulf site?' is absolutely critical," he stresses.
"The role of sales assistants is vital in this I feel passionate about them, it's such a difficult job. But these people can make or reinforce a business, or potentially break it if they're not onside. Promotions can help drive volumes, and by being able to say 'this is something new', that's a hugely positive move, compared with being just locked into the traditional loyalty card programmes."
MacDonald says it's no surprise that the sites that have done best in the promotions are the ones where the management and the staff have really got behind it. The company offers local awards for the site that has liveried the best for the promotion, and so on, to try and inject a bit more fun into it, and get dealers to engage more with the staff at the sharp end.
During 2015 Certas Energy added to its 16-site company-owned Gulf network with two Co-op sites (it bought four and sold off two). It also converted seven sites from Shell to the Gulf brand. Average company-owned volumes (including those formerly Shell branded) have risen from 3mlpa to 3.4mlpa. Having a cluster of company owned sites is really helping the business in terms of learnings, according to MacDonald. It is gaining expertise in the shop, via its links with Londis; replacing the Co-op sites with Spar; and it will soon have a couple of Bestway stores.
"We also understand how the credit card system works, the machinery that's involved; we know about deliveries; how important it is to keep your site constantly stocked. We know about the things that can provide tangible benefits for dealers when they move to Gulf compared with their previous supplier, and we work damn hard to make sure that's the case.
"Our credit card package, for example, is great. Other people say theirs is great, but we know ours is better, and our dealers agree. And in terms of fuel cards, I don't think anyone knows more about the fuel cards market better than us."
MacDonald believes the Gulf brand is now able to compete directly with the 'big three' for quality sites, large groups, market share and so on. Through its company owned network it has worked with all the major brands BP, Esso, Shell, Texaco which has provided an interesting insight.
He is pleased to mention, for example, that year-on- year, the company's seven Shell sites that have moved to Gulf have shown a 17% uplift, with the average volume rising from 3.6 to 3.9mlpa. He also believes the company's Endurance premium fuel grades make Gulf a credible fuel brand, which can provide a huge boost to retailer coffers that other fuel suppliers can't.
"That supergrade, although it may be only four, five or six per cent of your fuel sales, in terms of your cash margin because of the pricing differential it can account for 20% of your fuels gross profit," explains MacDonald. "In the two Co-op sites that we took over in October, the supergrades have been doing 10,000 litres a week. That will get them an extra £30k a year."
Learnings are also gained from Certas Energy's connections to other organisations across Europe, via its parent company DCC. MacDonald is very excited by Cardivation, a payment card technology developed by the company's Swedish organisation, which will enable retailers to understand the buying patterns of debit and credit card users: "This is one of the most exciting developments I've seen in fuel retail," he stresses. "It's vital for retailers to know as much about their customers as possible, and we hope to bring it to our dealers.
"Having a low-cost offer is the area we want to get into," says MacDonald. "We may be in the good times, but you've got to be fit for the bad times as well.
"With our ethos of an open, honest and transparent approach that goes right across every aspect of customer service; and a committed sales force, our over-riding message to retailers is: talk to us in 2016."