Six months into the job and Richard Billington, the new retail director of Certas Energy UK, is ready to talk about his ambitious goals for the Gulf brand, and the processes he is putting in place to achieve them.
"I want Gulf to be at least as good as the very best," he stresses. "We already have a strong brand let’s offer the best available package of benefits backed with an agility and flexibility that has no rivals in the industry. For any dealer looking to grow and future-proof a business, we want them to know that no one will present a more compelling case than Gulf."
Billington officially took over the reins in February following the departure of Ramsay MacDonald at the end of 2017. He has been in the oil industry for just over 20 years and says his career so far has equipped him with extensive experience in both the retail and most latterly the commercial sectors of the business. "It’s been 10 years since I was in retail where I started with Fina, primarily in co-owned," says Billington. "The biggest thing to hit me when I took on this role, was how much the market has changed. When I left, the major brands were typically looking for sites that were 4mlpa-plus. So to be greeted within two weeks with a proposal competing with a major on a 1.2mlpa site was a surprise."
Since then he has wasted no time in getting to grips not just with today’s market, but with what’s in the Certas Energy armoury. He has been meeting with as many dealers as possible to get their perspective on the industry and its challenges; and at the same time getting to know the retail team and understanding how he can provide them with the tools and support they need in a very competitive market.
"I’ve also had some very frank discussions on the Gulf proposition, what we do well and where we might be lacking; realigning boundaries to enable people at all levels in our business to do their jobs more effectively and with greater focus on the customer," he adds. "We need to be clear about what the Gulf offer is and how it can be defined; and what we need to do to enable our dealers to improve performance and profitability."
He certainly believes in the quality of his team and in the Gulf brand: "Certas Energy has grown through acquisitions, and through that has acquired great people from great companies. The heritage attached to the Gulf brand is unrivalled," he enthuses. "Certas Energy buys 6bn litres of fuel on the open market in the UK every year. That says a great deal about the size of our business, infrastructure and vehicle fleet. It also means that with our buying power we have some of the most competitive supply arrangements in the industry."
One of Billington’s core objectives is to grow the Gulf brand across the UK, organically and through acquisition, and he is prepared to invest in both company owned sites such as the recent purchase of David Taylor Filling Stations and the dealer business, with the backing of Certas Energy and parent company DCC. In terms of the dealer network, he is looking closely at what would make an independent operator choose Gulf: "Many dealers will talk about growing volume," he says. "What I want to do is talk about how to grow profitability. That’s not a ’thank you very much we’ve signed the contract, see you in five years approach’. It’s about as a business partner, how can we help a dealer grow his business. That doesn’t have to be just fuel related, it could be about what their shop offer is, looking at their overheads, and working with them to say how can we, hand-in-hand, through this contractual term and beyond, genuinely add value to their bottom line. Our offer will have numerous layers, every one designed to impact positively on profitability. We are prepared to invest if that brings something else to life on a dealer forecourt."
For example, this month the company is rolling out a new range of marketing and promotional tools to support dealers who sell Endurance, Gulf’s premium fuel grade: "On some sites we have dealers achieving more than 20% of fuel turnover from this high-margin product, in others throughput levels are less impressive," explains Billington. "We have a responsibility to communicate to their customers the proven benefits in a bright and vibrant way to help drive sales upwards. In addition, our field personnel have started to work with sites that do not currently sell Endurance, to consider its viability."
And while Certas Energy is primarily focused on running a dealer-led business (it has circa 600 dealer sites including the Pace brand) it is also hoping to expand its co-owned network of 33 sites an opportunity for dealers looking to sell up. Billington believes a co-owned network offers a key advantage in enabling the company to use its size and scale to offer options to dealers to help them grow their business through tried and tested initiatives.
There is also an expanding network of Gulf-branded unmanned sites currently 20 which Billington says represents another opportunity to grow the Gulf presence in the UK.
"So many forecourts have disappeared across the UK over the past three decades, it’s time to protect the sites that are left and if that means creating innovative new solutions, at Gulf Retail we are ready to do so," stresses Billington. "We are constantly looking at how we can do things better to support our customers and ensure that they never need to look beyond Gulf."
The investment behind the Gulf brand is beginning to show, according to Richard Billington, with initiatives across the board such as becoming the fuel partner for Silverstone Circuits; plus the activities by Gulf Oil International (Gulf is active in 40 countries) and its global partnership with Manchester United, TAG Heuer and the Milwaukee World Superbikes team adding to the momentum. Other UK initiatives include a new lubricants deal with CDG; and commitment to communicate more effectively, hence a new quarterly dealer newsletter called ’Go with Gulf’. "Regular dealer forums will also ensure that we listen and respond to achieve the best outcomes," says Billington.