Belfast Telegraph

How brand ambition was the fuel for success

The history of one of our most successful business families is an inspiring account of how one small company was transformed into an all-Ireland empire

By Margaret Canning

They're one of the most successful yet low-profile families in business in Northern Ireland.

And a new book on the history of bottled gas provider Calor Gas in Ireland highlights the role of the McMullans - now best known for petrol retailer Maxol - in bringing the wonders of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to homes north and south.

Calor Gas, now part of Dutch company SHV Gas Group, was founded in England in the 1930s and became a huge business, even fuelling the Olympic Flame when London last hosted the Olympics in 1948.

Meanwhile, in early 20th century Belfast, the McMullan brothers, William and James, had a business delivering paraffin oil by horse and cart. They began supplying petrol all over Ireland through an agreement with the Anglo-Mexican Oil Company, later taken over by Shell.

Eric, pictured as a child on the front cover of today's Business Telegraph, was the son of William McMullan. Eric's nephews Max, Malcolm and Noel now lead Maxol - and their sons also work in the business, making it a successful fourth-generation enterprise.

Brian Donaldson, chief operationg officer at Maxol, praised the McMullans' business sense. "They have been in business for 92 years with no outside shareholders. They are very down-to-earth people and certainly not arrogant. They watch their pennies. They are conservative and prudent and have very good values. They are a good company to work for."

Maxol employs 55 people and lends its name to 214 filling stations, of which 100 are owned and franchised out.

More than 70 years ago, they had 17 petrol depots across Ireland but in 1937, they captured a new trend in fuel and became the sole Irish agents for Calor Gas.

Hugh Oram, a Dublin-based author who wrote the newly-published 75 Years on the Road: A History of Calor Gas, said the involvement of the McMullans was crucial.

"If it hadn't been for the foresight of the McMullan family, the introduction of Calor Gas to Ireland could have been delayed until well after World War II.

"When the McMullans took on the agency for Calor Gas, the latter company had only just been launched in England, so it was a very innovative and enterprising move.

"Apart from a flair for innovative marketing for the new product, launching it at the RDS Spring Show in Dublin, for instance, McMullans brought technical and engineering excellence and a dedication to customer service that have been hallmarks of Calor Gas in Ireland ever since."

The bottled gas brought to Ireland by the McMullans transformed home life in Ireland and made cooking and heating the home much easier.

"Going back 40 or 50 years to parts of rural Ireland, many housewives were still cooking on turf fires or ranges and the idea of hot water on tap within the home was unheard of.

"These days, most people take all these domestic mod-cons for granted, so the development of the gas company both mirrored and stimulated many improvements for the better in domestic living conditions.

"Going back 60 years, most married women worked at home and families usually had lunch at home. These days, the profile of the domestic market has changed immeasurably."

In 1952, the McMullans terminated their agreement with Calor and formed a joint venture with Kosangas, an LPG company owned by Danish family Tholstrups. They set up companies in Belfast and Dublin - and around 80% of the customer base in the Republic switched to Kosangas and usurped Calor as the market leader.

The McMullans treated their workers "very paternalistically", according to Mr Oram. There was even an annual employee picnic in an orchard owned by William McMullan in Limavady.

Painting Kosangas cylinders yellow made them stand out while Calor cylinders were red and silver. Kosangas set up an industrial division - and domestically they aimed to reach out to housewives through means such as cookery demonstrations in parochial halls. By 1968, plans were growing for Kosangas and it seemed ripe for a takeover.

That chimed with the growing desire of the McMullans to concentrate on petrol retailing with the result that the two Kosangas companies were sold for £3.8m to LPG Limited. A few years later, Calor Gas paid £6m for their rivals, and Calor Kosangas was born.

Northern Ireland workers took to the merged Calor Kosangas more kindly, according to Mr Oram. "People working for the two companies in Belfast just accepted what had happened and got on with the job of merging the two companies, Calor Gas in Dundonald and Kosangas in Fountain Street, Belfast, into one, whereas in the south, worker loyalty to Kosangas lasted much longer and it took a good while longer for the two companies to become fully meshed together."

Mr Oram said the growth of Calor Gas in Ireland reflects the changing landscape for companies. "At the beginning, McMullans was a small family owned company - today, Calor Gas is part of a big Dutch-owned multinational.

"The bulk of Calor Gas sales now are to industrial users throughout Ireland, industries that by and large simply didn't exist 60 years ago.

"Virtually all firms then were small and family owned - the era of the multinational had yet to dawn. When LPG sales were starting, they were entirely to domestic customers, who bought the gas in cylinders."

Marketing was a forte of Kosangas, according to Mr Oram.

"Calor Gas became a household name largely thanks to the efforts of Kosangas, which was very cleverly marketed.

"The yellow Kosangas cylinder became an iconic trademark up and down the land.

"New products also helped, like the Super Ser heater, which brought super sales to Calor Kosangas in the 1970s."

Advertisements like the ones on these pages have lodged Calor Kosangas in the minds of consumers.

Mr Oram said: "Over the past 40 years, other entrants have come and mostly gone in the marketplace - none ever achieved the then marketing pre-eminence of Kosangas, or the present dominance of Calor Gas.

"These days, the natural gas companies, Phoenix in Northern Ireland and An Bord Gais in the Republic, have achieved similar brand recognition, but Kosangas was way ahead of its time."

But for the McMullans, business success lay somewhere else, Mr Oram said.

"While McMullans did very well from Kosangas in the 1950s and 1960s, ultimately it was a desire on their part to concentrate on the petrol retailing core element of their business that prompted them and their partners, the Tholstrups in Denmark, to realise the value of their investment in Kosangas and get out of the LPG market.

"Ironically, after Calor Kosangas had taken over, one new venture didn't work out - developing the market for car LPG never got off the ground here in Ireland. Car LPG has become a big player in other markets around the world, but it never made it in Ireland.

"But such are the skills that McMullans bring to their business that they enjoyed huge success for two decades, the 1950s and 1960s, with Kosangas. And, today, their Maxol brand is still powerful; a local, independent petrol retailing firm in a sea of multinationals."

  • 75 Years on the Road - A History of Calor Gas was written by Hugh Oram and researched, edited and published for the company by the corporate publishing division of Belfast based Appletree Press

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