Ramsay MacDonald is the new man appointed to take charge of the ever-growing fuel retailing business of GB Oils. He takes over at a critical point following the company’s recent acquisition of the Total and Pace-branded dealer business.
His first duty has been to bring calm and reassurance to everyone involved particularly the Total dealers, who have endured uncertainty and speculation for nearly two years as Total UK went through its drawn-out selling process.
MacDonald is taking a considered approach as he sets about consolidating the Pace and Total operations within GB Oils, and its growing Gulf network.
"We think the Pace brand has definitely got a place to play, and that’s going to be the local brand for a specific type of site.
"We’ve got the Total brand for at least three years, and at the moment our plan would be that we would move those dealers to Gulf in the longer term."
However, stressed MacDonald, the desire isn’t to try and convert everyone to Gulf overnight, but to be pragmatic about it. He is happy to give dealers time to do whatever they feel is right for them in this particular circumstance. If their contract is due for renewal they can re-sign with the Total brand in the short-term.
"We’re not going to try and sell things to people that they don’t want to be sold. My belief is that you’ve got to listen to what people want and try and work with them," says MacDonald.
"The aim is to sell the benefits of what we can offer them rather than be too prescriptive. I don’t think that’s often practised in the industry."
The relationship with dealers has to be a partnership, stresses MacDonald: "We’re not much different to a dealer ourselves. We have the same pressures they have and the same desires they have. So I would say we’re probably more in tune with their mentality than maybe some of the other players in the marketplace."
He understands that Total dealers have felt neglected, that they’ve not had a lot of information, so he has been busy addressing those issues: "People want reassurance that they’re not going to be completely abandoned, and are going to be dealing with reasonable people. It’s that basic reassurance we’ve been trying to get out there. And also that they will be backed up with the resources of an organisation that has got substance, and plans for growth. That has got to be a positive message.
"We want to retain every single one of the Total dealers if we can. We want them to give us a try, and judge us on our service and how we treat people with integrity and trust and an atmosphere of respect. That’s all we ask for to be judged on our merits rather than any preconceptions."
So what can the new dealers coming into the GB Oils organisation expect? "Certainly they’re going to have a rejuvenated field force," insists MacDonald. "I think they’re going to relish working for an organisation that has more flexibility free of the corporate shackles.
"I think the philosophy we’re going to try and adopt is that our customers have a choice, after all, these guys spend upwards of £50,000 a week with us. It’s all about making sure we keep the tanks wet we put a strong focus on fuel deliveries; we’re available at the end of a phone; and will resolve any issues if we can."
GB Oils is part of the Energy division of DCC, a huge Irish-based sales, marketing, distribution and business support services group.
"I’d like GB Oils to be recognised as a quality retail organisation that’s the first choice for customers," says MacDonald. "It is the umbrella company for what could be a range of dealer brands. We are committed to growing the retail business and have the full resources and commitment from our parent company DCC to achieve this goal.
"Our aspiration is to be on equal terms with the industry big three a top four finish is what we’re looking for. We’ll achieve that both by acquisition and organic growth, but we aren’t setting any timescales.
"We think there’s definite leverage in Gulf. It researches well, customers recognise the name, and we’ll certainly try and push that as hard as we can.
"But if we think there’s something else out there that can give us even more position... DCC has made a commitment to invest in this market. It is an area in which they want to grow."
MacDonald says DCC has built up a good track record in the distribution market over the past few years: "That’s a very tough market to crack. Margins are wafer thin there. But success has been a mixture of being very cost-focused, sales driven, and customer-service driven. The belief is that we can apply those same principles to the retail sector.
"We’ve got all the infrastructure and logistics in place. We’ve got arrangements with fuel suppliers across the country. We’re not dependent on one supplier or one supply point. Keeping our trucks moving is a good thing for us, and retail is perfect because you don’t have the winter/summer seasonality which affects the distribution business.
"We’ve not even got into the logistics benefits that some of the oil companies have had historically. If we can get our fleet of around 800 trucks working on a three-shift basis, we think we can do that without having huge incremental cost. So that’s a big prize for us. Plus we don’t have huge head-office infrastructures to worry about.
"We now supply around 1,300 sites and GB Oils is probably the only fuel company genuinely interested in supplying sites, large or small, in any part of the UK. Selling and delivering fuel and lubricants is the main purpose of our business and within our lubricants business we distribute almost every major brand, ensuring that our dealers have the most extensive range of forecourt lubricants available to them.
"It is a good example of the pragmatic style of operation that we strive to offer. One size does not fit all, it never has in petrol retailing. What is good for a dealer in Grampian may not be right for another in North London."
MacDonald say he and his management team recently had a productive and useful meeting with the Total dealer team where they shared their ambitions and business philosophies with them, and listened to their views: "We left with a clear sense of purpose and intention, professionalism and commitment. The future promises much."
Ramsay macdonald - from fishing to fuel
Ramsay MacDonald has long experience in the fuel retailing industry starting out with Mobil in 1986. But it could have been a very different story. "I am a Highlander originally from Gospie in Sutherland," he explains. "If I hadn’t done well at school the plan was probably to have gone into fishing. After some time on a boat I had sufficient motivation to get a history degree, and then a degree in marketing."
MacDonald says Mobil was a very dealer-focused organisation, so much so that quite a few Mobil colleagues jumped the fence and became dealers themselves, such as Colin Fullerton and Graham Kennedy. He ran company sites in Manchester before a spell in HQ on pricing, and area management in the North East. He was then sent to Spain, where he was the sole operations manager on the mainland. He returned to the UK with BP as part of the joint venture which took place between the two companies in 1996. He was based in Milton Keynes, and eventually became BP’s development and acquisitions manager, before moving onto a special projects role. MacDonald joined GB Oils in 2010 which he describes as "a breath of fresh air", and just the impetus he needed professionally.
"The challenges have come thick and fast on the acquisition front (five in the past year) and now with Retail there is a great project which is a very exciting challenge," he says.