Ron Haacke was last seen as director and general manager of the Petrol Express chain, which had 64 sites and was number six in last year’s Top 50 Indies listing.
That was before its parent company GNE Group plc sold it off to Murco following an "offer they couldn’t refuse". The deal was completed in October, but Haacke had had plenty of time to plot his next move. One day he was at Petrol Express. The next day he was in the offices of TLM Retail Services Ltd, a forecourt equipment and maintenance company he has formed with well-known characters in the industry, Tom Ellicock and his son-in-law Lee Papper.
"When I came across from Petrol Express, I thought the contrast would be enormous, but the same problems exisit in both businesses - it’s just got a different number of noughts at the end of it. In Petrol Express, if you had a problem it had to be solved very quickly, because the garages and shops were open. It’s the same in TLM. If there’s a problem it has to be resolved quickly, otherwise the retailers won’t be happy and they will go somewhere else. So the pressures are the same.
"This year is going to be so difficult and different because every pound counts, not just for us but for the people paying our bills. There are going to be casualties. I suspect some bigger companies will go, but certainly some smaller companies. Petrol margins are miserable and fuel sales are down. I’d be surprised if - unless they’re cutting prices - the average independent didn’t see a 15% drop. And that puts pressure on us because when times are hard you can’t afford for your forecourt to be out of operation, pumps to malfunction, not to have diesel on every island - you’ve just got to be the best in the area. Which is why you’ve got to have a decent service operator!
"The problem the independents have is that the supermarkets are so good. They analyse all of their business - and are constantly improving. For example, they work out which is their busiest island. They even get to the stage where they know how much it costs them if a pump is broken down, for every hour it was out of action. It is so impressive - so professional, it’s scary. Therefore the independent has to be just as good."
Because of Haacke’s long experience as a petrol retailer - he was the first employee of Thames Rico in 1975 - he is well-placed to understand their needs. He describes TLM as being at the forefront of supplying professional forecourt services to the petroleum industry. "We pride ourselves on customer service and our ability to maintain both new and obsolete equipment. While forecourt service is our forte we are also able to supply and install new and refurbished petrol pumps. We also have extensive experience in forecourt building and alteration work. We want to be a one-stop-shop, servicing everything on the forecourt - we will even do things like dishwashers. We have a team of fully qualified engineers, so why not keep a check on other things while on site?"
TLM is also looking to supply key forecourt equipment and to this end has gained the UK distribution rights for the VR Refiner, a system to recover re-saleable fuel from vapours currently lost to the atmosphere or the delivery tanker. "The VR Refiner is a must for high-volume sites" says Haacke.
"It has a proven track record of delivering profit back to the bottom line. For every 35,000 litres delivered it returns around 50 litres for resale. It’s a no-brainer."