Certas Energy’s retail director Ramsay MacDonald is in buoyant mood as he reflects on the strength of the company’s Gulf brand as we head into 2017. "Now’s a good time for people to be contacting us, because we’re locked and loaded to go," he gushes.

The overall message is that the company is continuing to invest substantially to improve service levels, reduce costs and strengthen the Gulf brand proposition to drive new business for retailers.

"We’ve grown our retail sales by 20 million litres in the past 12 months and recently passed the landmark of 500 Gulf forecourts," enthuses MacDonald. "Just four years ago there were less than 200 and the average annual volume was around 1.3 million litres. Our investment in the brand is substantial and ongoing. Gulf is now a top-four fuel retailer and we are raising the quality and size of the network. The most recent additions to the Gulf brand are spacious and imposing high-volume outlets that have chosen Gulf over the majors."

He says fuel volumes on recent converts to the Gulf network now average 2.5mlpa and in Scotland, Certas Energy owns 25 sites, 18 of which are Gulf branded and have an average throughput of 3.5mlpa.

"We are continually looking at ways of attracting new business and presenting motorists and shoppers with the best possible forecourt proposition," stresses MacDonald. "In Scotland we have over 100 forecourts and Gulf is a major player. Since October 2015, more than half of the company estate has been refitted, and every site now offers four fuel grades including a premium fuel and well-maintained facilities throughout. Each site has a refurbished shop operating to the latest convenience retailing standards, supported by leading symbol brands, Spar, Londis and Bestway. We have invested heavily in our own network in every area including personnel, training and equipment. Investment has also been made in energy-saving consumption, canopy lighting and tank relining, part of Certas Energy’s environmental strategy. We want to ensure that the brand also becomes synonymous with service excellence. There are four main things we want Gulf sites to be associated with fast, friendly, available and clean. Our challenge is to also create a positive differentiation from the leading competitors."

Like-for-like sales on the co-owned network are up 11%, confirms MacDonald. "We have established that we can run the traditional sites, and step more into grocery. We’re now Subway franchisees planning and development is currently under way for three sites. We’ll get the feel of how they work, and that’s another level of expertise we’ll be able to share with our dealers. There is also 100% Costa coffee, lottery and Paypoint coverage across our network. We’ve also really worked hard at getting alcohol licences in Scotland. We’re now up to 16 when we started out three years ago we had two. We’ve also got myHermes and are trialling CollectPlus. It’s all designed to improve the consumer offering and serve the needs of the local community, creating a one-stop-shop community hub."

MacDonald says the co-owned operation has been really successful, as well as providing a great opportunity for honing the company’s retail expertise and trialling equipment and business ideas to pass onto dealers: "What we’ve done in the Scottish market has been really heartening in terms of establishing the brand and we’re very keen to replicate that south of the border. We are very much in the market to buy sites, or groups of sites, or lease sites, to do a similar exercise down in England. Developments such as the Forfar Service Station help to change people’s minds about the brand. Our ambition is to take the number of co-owned sites in Scotland to 30-plus during the first half of 2017. The latest acquisition, Strathbogie Service Station (number 26), is a former BP dealer site situated in Huntly, Aberdeenshire and there are several others in the pipeline. Our co-owned network demonstrates that we’ve got a stake in the marketplace, that we’re here for the long term; and that we’re actively involved and engaged."

A new car wash brand The Washing Machine with loyalty club and incentives is being tested on the co-owned network: "We believe car washing is a big opportunity," says MacDonald. "The Washing Machine might be something we can roll out to dealers. This year we will also launch a new uniform range for our staff, plus we are testing a new image for our customer toilets."

Also in 2016, the introduction of regular tactical forecourt promotions has helped Gulf sites boost volumes and build loyalty, while offering a perfect opportunity for staff to engage positively with customers, according to MacDonald. The most recent promotion ’Win a Car’, ran until December 31.

He is also keen to reveal that towards the end of last year, the company completed some great new supply deals with better terms than before with a balanced range of suppliers. As a non-refiner in the UK, MacDonald believes the new deals give Certas Energy increased security of supply as well as increased competitiveness all of which is good news for retailers.

However, before we get any further, we must raise the sticky issue of supply problems that have caused some grumbles around the Gulf dealer network.

"It’s true we have had delivery issues," admits MacDonald. "We pride ourselves on the fact that the vast majority of our deliveries are done by our own fleet and our own drivers, which is something I’m really keen on. But unfortunately in some cases we’ve been let down by some third-party organisations.

"But we are making some changes. We now have a new operations director Colin Shearn. He will ensure that our goals of increasing the quality of service we offer our customers by delivering on time and in full are achieved; he will focus on the continuous improvement of operational cost productivity while improving asset simplification and reducing capital employed.

"Service is improving. We’re prioritising the fact that where someone has a contract with us they should be expecting a Certas driver and a Certas truck. If we’re using third-party drivers at all as a company, we’ll try and use those within other parts of the business non-customer facing. I’m confident that normal service will be restored, and where we have had issues we’re working very hard to ensure they don’t happen again."

MacDonald is also keen to point out that Certas Energy has achieved ISO50001 accreditation, which is concerned with Energy Management. The company believes it may be the only UK logistics, transportation and fuel supplier to currently hold this accreditation. He says the company had already spent a great deal of investment to ensure that its management control and energy reduction systems were industry leading, and decided to take this a step further with recognition from an external and globally recognised accreditation body.

In fact, MacDonald has plenty to say about the progress that’s being made right across the business in order to take the Gulf brand to the next level. One of the key aspects of that progress is communicating the Gulf messages to the industry, and most importantly to the motoring public, hence the appointment of a new marketing director Angus Blundell. "He will take the lead in ensuring that we achieve our business objectives of sales and margin growth by differentiating the value propositions that we offer our customers," explains MacDonald. "We want people to see Gulf as a trusted brand, a brand that has confidence and means something. While older people may be more aware of the Gulf heritage, we also want it to have greater affinity with a younger audience. We are delighted with the efforts of Gulf Oil International (GOI) to develop global partnerships with Manchester United and the Milwaukee BMW World Superbike team. Both of these offer us new platforms to promote the Gulf brand as never before."