While independent dealers suddenly seem the height of fashion with many major oil companies, they have long been a focus of the Gulf brand, which returned to the UK three years ago.

Since then Gulf Retail Ltd has slowly been rebuilding a network that disappeared from the UK in the mid-90s, but whose signage still retains a favourable link with its former motor sporting heritage and roadside reputation.

That steady progress was given something of a fillip last April with the arrival of Keith Jewers as retail director. Since then dealer numbers have increased by 40 “and that is just the tip of the iceberg,” according to Jewers.

“We are really on the cusp of something big as far as network growth is concerned,” he stresses. “With the locations and groups we have in the pipeline, I can see 2006 being quite an interesting year. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get towards 300 dealer sites next year – we’ve currently got about 180. The value of our gains means our network has risen from averaging a million litres a year, and is now heading towards three million litres a year.

“We’re not neglecting where Gulf has come from in the past three years – we are still interested in signing the small, rural locations. But we now have a cross-section of forecourts, from small ones right up to sites doing over 10 million litres a year. We cover the whole spectrum, to the extent that we are now competing alongside the major oil companies for dealers.”

Jewers says the company’s progress so far shows that the Gulf package does work: “There is still a need for honest representation and a level of service and interest in our customers that they don’t get anywhere else. The dealers that are left in the market are the stronger ones who remembered what it was like to be looked after, and have an organisation that genuinely supports them rather than pays lip service to them.”

There are two key ingredients that Jewers believes have turned people onto Gulf: “One is our support in the shop. It really helps because we are adding bottom-line value straight to the retailer,” he says. “Our shop support is not some cosy arrangement with a supplier, it’s the taking of a retailer’s existing business and ensuring he’s doing everything right.

“As you’d expect there is room for improvement across most locations, but in many there is significant room for growth ­ in particular with the mid-range solus or small group, where on the face of it the shop looks good, but is not maximising its performance or doing as well as it could. We make sure, for example, that the retailer is using his equipment correctly to assess margins; that he is allocating the right amount of space for each category; that he is buying and selling right. It’s simply taking it back to basics.

“We’ve been very successful – even in some of the biggest and best locations, we’ve managed to give retailers significant growth in their shop just by providing a few disciplines and a bit of help.”

Jewers says the other key ingredient is the company’s free, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a week, employment helpline.

“We can help our dealers with every aspect of their personnel, whether it’s contracts of employment or more serious disciplinary matters. If you have a problem and you can just pick up the phone for free advice, it means you don’t try and muddle through and end up in court paying a fortune for a silly mistake. The service is provided by Croner Consulting, one of the leading employment specialists, and one of several links we have with specialists, whether it’s for insurance, leasing arrangements or wet stock control matters.”

The Gulf brand still carries enormous weight, stresses Jewers. “It’s still fresh and recognisable. Where we have had particular success is where we were strong previously, and the consumer probably hasn’t realised that Gulf has been away. The former Gulf network was a very strong, well-run network. So we have a bit of heritage and history we can fall back on. The brand, first and foremost for the dealer, is very acceptable. The rest is down to our own behaviour.

“I think it’s the consistency of offering we provide that will ensure our success. With that consistency you get a good package and good people to support you. There’s a value to that.

“Dealers are now conditioned to the inconsistency of the majors – one minute the dealers are being told they don’t want them, the next they’re their best friend again.

“We’ve seen it before. The majors come and go – but our support is here to stay.”