L ast year was an unsettled one for Hull-based Sewell Retail. When Total announced that it intended to sell its UK retail and marketing operations in September 2010, the Top 50 Indie was thrown into disarray.
The company had been with the same fuel supplier for 18 years initially with Fina in 1994, and then Total through the takeover and merger of Fina, Total and Elf. But when the oil company decided to sell up, that lengthy period of stability was disrupted.
Patrick Sewell, managing director of Sewell Retail, says he felt unsettled as soon as Total announced its intention to sell. "We were concerned by the lack of choice in the market with a dwindling number of oil companies. Competition is healthy and different oil companies offer different things."
Patrick set about speaking to every oil company "literally everyone, including new entrants offering an unbranded alternative". The only company he couldn’t speak to was GB Oils, while the acquisition was going through. "So instead of GB Oils being in the strongest position with us, they were in the weakest position because we could speak to everyone but them," he says.
"BP was very keen for our business and that felt good. We liked the strength of the BP brand as the market leader, but there’s always a micro marketplace and BP was relatively weak in this region, so maybe there was a bit of synergy between us wanting a major oil company brand and them wanting to strengthen their position in this area."
Indeed, with 12 sites in a close-knit environment, Sewell Retail is a dynamic business with great efficiency, and its various accolades are testament to the fact that it has a good reputation. As well as winning several awards in the Forecourt Trader of the Year Awards over the years including the top prize in 2009 Sewell Retail has been named in the top 10 of The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work for Top 100 list for the past two years.
So far, six of the 12 Sewell forecourts have been rebranded BP. As the network operates under three separate contracts, four more sites will move to BP in September, while the remaining two will switch next year. "We tried to discuss with the new guys at GB Oils if we could pick a date that was a happy medium such as moving everything over in September but they are being very contractual with us," says Patrick.
"I was disappointed. Our contract with Total was built on a great working relationship, trust and working together. Moving into a new company there isn’t a relationship there. We’ve not spoken to anyone at GB Oils since December. We’ve been a bit abandoned but the incentive on their behalf had gone. In that time there’s been a lot of industry issues such as panic buying and replenishment issues so it’s been a very difficult time; very strained."
The first tranche of sites rebranding to BP happened during the week after a period of nationwide panic buying, caused by the threat of a tanker driver strike before Easter.
"That was a very difficult trading period. Oil companies were struggling to replenish sites. In a perverse way it helped because we had a lot of disruption in the first week anyway, with changing pole signs and rebranding."
It took Sewell Retail about four weeks from the panic-buying debacle to get replenishment back to normal.
"The month of April really took a hit at our Total and BP sites. But since then trade has been very, very good. BP and our account manager have been fantastic in transferring us across. We have a mixed profile of sites some neighbourhood, some transient but fuel volumes have been up 25-50%, which is a colossal increase and extremely encouraging."
While Sewell Retail waits for the remaining six sites to move to BP, it has embarked on a £1m redevelopment of Ferriby Service Station.
Further expansion of the Sewell network is also on the horizon. Patrick is remaining tight-lipped on the details, but negotiations to acquire "several sites" are expected to be completed by the third quarter of this year. Watch this space.