So the final tranche of Esso’s company- owned network is now the focus of ambitious forecourt entrepreneurs as the official push to sell the southern block of 200 sites gets under way. Whether they’re new to the industry or established fuel retailers hoping to expand their networks, they will all be subject to Esso’s lengthy and rigorous processes, so there won’t be a conclusion to the bidding any time soon.

But there will be months of intrigue as the industry tries to second guess the outcome. Discussions are undoubtedly focusing on the many potential candidates, which range from the well-established and acquisitive Top 50 independent groups; to supermarkets Asda, for example, wants to add to its standalone network; and Tesco already has a long-established relationship with Esso, through the alliance sites, which the oil major is keen to extend.

There is also apparently a significant potential new entrant to the market with the ready cash to buy a national chain if the right deal comes along.

Whatever the outcome, it is all good news for dealers as their control over site numbers begins to rise for the first time since 2000 (see news story, page 5), with 200 new dealer sites. It also means in order to ensure long-term coverage, Esso will have to work hard with its brand and its offer to keep dealers happy so they don’t switch allegiance come contract-renewal time. In fact with so many oil companies targeting dealers Shell is also on the case, inviting dealers to its conference for the first time in 15 years they will hopefully be able to negotiate some favourable contracts.

And talking of Top 50 independents (see latest listing on page 5), a great night was had by all at last month’s dinner, as we published the latest Top 50 listing.

By all accounts the listing shows great stability, with just two new entrants and only one company to have fallen off the list since 2013, but no business casualties. Impressive.