The popularity of independent dealers with fuel suppliers has fluctuated over the years - depending on the market and the activities of the major oil companies - but currently they are certainly of great interest to Esso, following the arrival of Karen Dickens last September as executive director, fuels marketing UK & Ireland.

She sees her task very clearly as confirming the commitment of Esso to the UK market and continuing to develop its retail presence.

"As far as Esso is concerned, the UK and Ireland have both been through an enormous amount of transition over the past three to four years," she explains. "My key target has been to build on the momentum of that transition, and move us from a project organisation where we were very much focused on transition, to an operating organisation. We need to focus on making sure that the customer offers on all of our sites - independent of whether they are our co-owned retail stations (Cors/Roc), Tesco alliance or dealer sites - are leveraging the best practice across all our three core areas of retail operation, and that is embedded in the way we work."

For dealers who have felt ignored she admitted that the company’s priority through that transition had been more on the setting up of the new company-owned operation and the Tesco alliance sites. However, while those obviously remain key elements of the business, it is now the dealers’ turn to get more attention.

"The dealer business is a critical third element of our business in the UK which hadn’t had quite the degree of attention it had had in the past," confirms Dickens. "So one of my key targets is to bring that to the forefront, to leverage all the experience that we have from our own direct operations and look at how we can build that into our dealer offer. "Commensurate with myself coming in, Mark Mason has been appointed as the UK dealer operations manager, so that represents a refresh focus on the dealer business - and we’re really looking at how we focus on that business and how we share with our dealers all that we can offer. So far, it’s been very successful - we’ve still got a way to go - but we’re getting a lot of interest and we’re starting to sign up new dealers, which is great news.

"Each of the three core areas has its own challenge. But the Cors and the Tesco alliance sites are now in a more stable environment - we’re continuing to grow and have focused on those, but the growth area is really around the dealer side. We want to grow our company owned and alliance chain by optimising the existing chains, and we want to grow our own market share by attracting in new dealers to the network."

To this end Dickens is very keen to push the credentials of this major oil company - the world’s largest publicly-traded international oil and gas company, whose roots go back 120 years : "It is an industry leader in almost every aspect of the energy and petrochemical business," she stresses. "Esso operates facilities or markets products in nearly 200 countries and territories; and explores for natural gas on six continents. It has the full spectrum of the ExxonMobil portfolio, from exploration to fuels marketing. Esso has disciplined investment, operational excellence, industry-leading returns, and superior cashflow."

In terms of the retail vision Esso’s goal is "to become the pacesetter in markets that we do business in". This translates to having ’energised employees’, ’delighted customers’ and ’sustainable business performance’.

The strategy is to have a high-quality, strategically-located, professionally-operated dealer network, which complements the company-owned network and represents the company’s commitment to being a national player in all sectors of the petroleum retail business.

There has been significant investment over the past five years in the company-owned chain which consists of 120 On the Run stores; 173 Tesco Alliance sites; and 323 Snack & Shops/Roc service stations (including motorways) which employ more than 4,500 people. The dealer network currently stands at 280.

The investment in the company-owned network includes a great deal of focus on new technology such as automatic stock replenishment; driver-controlled deliveries; wetstock management systems; online card checking; pay@pump; SAP Retail - a universal retail system; and the Emerson store monitoring system - which keeps track of energy output in a store, which helps keep control of costs. All the ’tried and tested’ learnings from these developments can be passed onto the dealer network.

Dickens believes another attraction for dealers coming to the Esso brand and helping to raise the profile of their business is the Mobil 1 lubricants connection to the racing world, in particular to the Formula 1 McLaren racing team whose star driver is none other than Lewis Hamilton.

However, a key part of engaging dealers is obviously to communicate the great package that Esso believes it has to offer, and Dickens is generating as many opportunities as possible to get the message through, which includes appointing an appropriate team and structure around her - including experienced field staff and territory managers who should see their ’customers’ around three to four times a year. Other communications exercises include her own retailer visits and the launch of a new publication just for the dealer community.

"And on the 5th and 6th of June, we will be holding a dealer forum in Birmingham. Our aim there is to share with our dealers the latest of all of our thoughts on technology; and things like our coffee offer. Also on the refining and supply side, we’ll look at the latest advances in biofuels, and how operationally we meet those challenges.

"There will also be other exciting things launched around promotions and loyalty - so there’s a lot to look forward to."


=== Karen Dickens - 20 years at Esso ===

Karen Dickens is a chemist (with a PhD in physical organic chemistry) who joined Esso’s research centre at Abingdon 20 years ago, where she worked on the development of new premium lubricants.

She later moved to lubricants marketing where she put together the global deal between Ford and Exxon, which involved supplying oil for Ford’s products.

She then took over the industrial wholesale business in the UK and moved to the retail side of the business in the UK for the first time 10 years ago.

Following Esso’s merger with Mobil, Karen moved to the global organisation as global retail operations manager, responsible for consolidating both the Esso and Mobil best practices for service station operation.

A return to Brussells as Europe brand manager - responsible for positioning the brand - was followed by a post as retail support manager, looking at how Esso optimised its business across Europe and Africa.

She came back to the UK in September 2007 as executive director, fuels marketing UK & Ireland.