The sell-offs of large tranches of their forecourt estates by some of the biggest oil companies has changed the structure of the UK market for most of this century. No one would argue that MRH, MFG, Euro Garages and Rontec would not have been the dominant groups in the Top 50 Indies in 2018, whether or not there had been the sell-offs, but they would be nowhere as big as they are without them.

In the 2013 Top 50 Indies listing MRH was top with 377 sites, Rontec second with 148, followed by Euro Garages on 120, and MFG was shaded into fifth place behind Park Garage Group both had 58 sites but MFG had the lower fuel volume. Fast forward five years and MRH had 491 sites, MFG was on 439 (and about to have a bid for MRH accepted), EG Group had 375 UK sites but about 3,600 sites across Europe, and Rontec was on 240.

Over that period Shell sold nearly 200 sites, Murco sold off its entire company-owned business of about 230 sites, and Esso sold about 275 sites leaving it with only the joint ownership of its alliance sites with Tesco. With the taps turned off on large quantities of company-owned stores, the competition for sites to fuel growth has grown ever more intense with smaller groups in the Top 50 being snapped up by the bigger groups. But now there is another category of competitors back in the market as oil companies return to the fray. This time though, while BP continues to make individual purchases, it is the likes of Certas Energy, Harvest Energy and most recently Phillips 66 which are making the eye-catching purchases from within or just below the Top 50 Indies.

Certas Energy has the most developed estate of the three, with 33 company-owned sites and recently pulled off the acquisition of former Top 50 Indie David Taylor Filling Stations. This was a company with six forecourts in south Wales, with a combined fuel throughput of 14mlpa. The acquisition followed shortly after the purchase of two Petromex sites in Lancashire. Certas Energy retail director, Richard Billington, commented: "David Taylor Filling Stations presents Certas Energy with a well-run business and an experienced team of people with a fantastic community-orientated ethos. It’s a very good fit for our business and we are delighted to have completed the acquisition. A strong company-owned network is an ideal complement for our thriving dealer operation."

Meanwhile, Harvest Energy, part of the Prax Group, has been building its estate and just before last Christmas it pulled off the purchase of Top 50 Indie Retail Fuels, which had nine forecourts and was ranked 35 in the Top 50. The nine sites are principally located in the North West.

"Each site has a ’quality property offering’ which, following redevelopment, will deliver incremental shop and forecourt revenues," said Sanjeev Kumar, co-founder and chief executive of the Prax Group.

The latest oil companies to acquire forecourt sites are Essar and Jet brand owner Phillips 66. While Essar just has the one flagship site opposite its Stanlow refinery at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, due to open before the end of the year, Philips 66 has made a bold statement of intent with the acquisition of award-winning retailer Nick Baker’s business. The acquisition, which took effect on October 1, sees Phillips 66 take ownership of four sites in the north of England which were operated by Baker through his company NJB Services. The acquired sites are Abbeyside Filling Station in Selby, Newton Park Service Station in Newton Aycliffe, Askern Service Station in Doncaster and Balby Road Filling Station, also in Doncaster. The agreement also sees Phillips 66 take over the operation of Refinery Filling Station, a Phillips 66-owned forecourt in Immingham that Nick Baker has operated since 2005.

All five sites are already Jet supplied and branded, and are situated in Jet’s heartland of northern England, within close proximity to Phillips 66’s Humber Refinery. Mary Wolf, managing director UK marketing at Phillips 66, commented: "Nick’s award-winning sites are among the finest in the country and demonstrate elements of best practice which we will aspire to attain across our entire network. We would like to thank Nick and his dedicated staff for the outstanding job they have done, and we are now looking forward to building on this success."

Wolf confirmed that the acquisition was the start of a new development for Phillips 66, saying: "We’ve been reviewing our UK strategy for the past 12 months and this announcement marks the first phase in the rollout of our plans. Over time we will look to purchase additional sites that will complement the existing Jet network and the regions we currently operate in."

In addition, Wolf stressed that Jet remains fully committed to its dealer network.

With oil companies seeing forecourt assets as comple-mentary to their dealer networks, not to mention the benefit of securing supply deals by owning the sites, it looks likely the oil company estates will start to grow again in the years ahead.

nick Baker bows out at the top

The day after the sale of his business to Phillips 66, Nick Baker said: "Yesterday, it was with a heavy heart that I announced my retirement. I’ve spent 15 years building and growing my business with some remarkable people, and will treasure many fantastic memories and achievements."
He has been involved in the sector since 1992, and was an area manager with ConocoPhillips 66 before buying his first site. His sites have always had very high standards, winning multiple categories in the Forecourt Trader Awards over the years. This year he won the Northern England award for sites of more than 4mlpa for Jet Abbeyside Service Station at Selby, North Yorkshire.
Baker added: "I can’t fault the team at Phillips 66 and Jet as a supply and brand partner. They’ve been very supportive and easy to work with as I’ve grown my forecourt business, so I couldn’t think of a better fit to hand over the mantle to. They are professional, friendly and have a real buzz about their business. I am confident and delighted that NJB Services is in safe hands and that they will continue to grow and develop the business."