A year after leaving the retail helm at Certas Energy, Ramsay MacDonald is back in the saddle, refreshed and rejuvenated, and greatly enthused about his new role at Essar Oil (UK) as head of retail.
"What excited me about coming to Essar was the people, the product, and the project here," explains MacDonald. "I love this industry I still think I’ve got a lot to offer. It’s great being involved in the management of a complicated, large energy plant the Stanlow Manufacturing Complex. The brand really appealed to me as well it has a lot of scope.
"The retail team I work with are very engaging, committed people. We can build a great brand and some really good partnerships with suppliers and dealers and being the principal sponsor of the Forecourt Trader Awards for 2019 adds into that."
Essar has been very open about its ambitious plans for the UK, and the oft-quoted goal of getting to 400 sites as quickly as possible. It’s a realistic and necessary target for a UK refiner, according to MacDonald: "If you put it into context, looking at what other refiners have in the UK, it’s about getting that criticality. I don’t see why we shouldn’t be as big as Jet, for example, in five years. If we can get more than that, even better. It’s about facilitating the profile of the brand and a long-term supply position. We export a proportion of our production here. But the economics dictate to us that it’s far better if we can sell it inland. So that’s why the strategic position of us getting into retail makes perfect sense."
Encouraging dealers to change fuel brand is no easy feat, but MacDonald is confident there is plenty in the Essar armoury to persuade them, not least the fact it is a UK-based manufacturer with significant ongoing investment in the market; but also highlights the company’s fuel products, which it will certainly be shouting more about in the future, with the suggestion of a premium fuel product launch later in the year. It produces more than 16% of the UK’s transport fuels, but is also looking to the future in terms of environmental developments. "We’re very proud of our product provenance and product quality," stresses MacDonald. "The fact we are a manufacturer we import, we export, we create products here. As the industry goes into this changing environment, who better to steward customers through that transition than someone who is actively involved in all aspects of the supply chain?"
He believes the company has achieved a lot in the past three years since it embarked on its retail strategy. The fact the network is up to nearly 70 sites all dealer-owned is, he says, an impressive nod to the retail team. Also impressive is the recent deal with Top 50 Indie MPK which is re-branding an initial tranche of 12 stations to Essar. The company was also instrumental in MPK confirming a deal with Morrisons, which led to the opening of a Morrisons Daily at one of its branded retail outlets at Moulsford in Oxfordshire with several more planned to follow.
MacDonald confirms Essar has had strong personal connections with the shareholders who recently acquired MPK for some time, and played a part in the acquisition process, but has no financial interest in the business. "It’s very much a partnership relationship," he says. "It is our first Top 50 Indies group. We’re hoping that if MPK chooses to grow going forward, we’d be able to support them going forward as well."
Essar would obviously like to add more group dealers, but MacDonal stresses that the company is keen to talk to any size of dealer, and is not limited to a particular volume range. "We particularly want to focus on using what we call the Stanlow envelope we’ve now expanded that by our recent investments in the pipeline to Kingsbury and down to Northampton, so anywhere we can offer our products we’ll be looking to give very competitive prices, combined with a sharp image."
However, like certain other oil companies, Essar is also on the lookout for acquisitions. It already has plans underway for a company-owned flagship store at Elton Green, opposite the Stanlow Refinery, on a run-down site on the busy A5117.
"We’re hoping to start construction very soon," says MacDonald."It will be spectacular, featuring a 4,000sq ft store, with a big food/cafe area. We’re currently looking for a partner to operate it. We’ve also got someone in mind for the shop as well."
"We’re very excited about Elton Green, because we think it will give us a good insight into what model would be right for us. We’ve got no desire to operate the sites ourselves. So we would be looking at retailer partnerships to do the final execution it’s such a specialist area in itself.
"But acquisition, and getting into that as an alternate model would make perfect sense for us. So we’re certainly interested in looking at anything on that front as long as the numbers add up. You also have to look at what greenfield opportunities there are as well. But, of course, at the other end of the scale you’ve got the unmanned model. Asda and others have proved that can be viable. We could have a mix of all those formats."
However, the dealer sector is a key focus: "We’ve got fuel quality, we’ve got scale, we’ve got the ambition, the image, the team. It’s not a big leap of faith, it’s just the need to build that credibility and reassurance to the dealer community."