Maxol: 'We're moving away from fuel'
The family-owned forecourt business Maxol, which started out in Belfast 100 years ago, still has right ingredients for future success, its chief executive officer Brian Donaldson tells Ellie Donnelly
The Co Down man at the head of forecourt business Maxol, which has 100 petrol stations in Northern Ireland, has said the company has had a team working on Brexit for nearly two years.
Brian Donaldson said the main worry for the business is potential delays in the delivery of fresh produce on to shelves.
However, he thinks there will be a soft Brexit.
"It's been one of those frustrating items on the agenda since the whole thing kicked off in June 2016," he said.
With the company operating on both sides of the border, and Mr Donaldson himself spending several days a week commuting across it, it's a topic that is close to his and Maxol's heart.
And the group is also to start to piloting electric vehicle charging facilities in up to six of its forecourts this year.
These forecourts will be located in cities "where electrification is likely to adopt much more quickly".
"From our perspective, we will give our customers what they need, if there is a growing demand for electrification on our sites then we will make those facilities."
Today there are 231 Maxol service stations on the island of Ireland, with 115 of those owned by the company.
And electrification is going to have a role to play in future. "From our perspective, it's knowing when to make a heavy investment, and who to invest with," says Mr Donaldson said.
"People are writing the obituary of diesel. Yes, it has come through a very tough time, but I still believe it has a role to play."
He points to the fact that there are huge numbers of imported cars coming into the Republic from the UK at the moment, which are largely diesel.
And he said that "for now" he can't envision electric vehicles being used for long-distance haulage.
The Co Down native, who comes from "agricultural country" maintains that for many people in farming areas, diesel will remain the number one choice for some time.
"There is a long way to go in the electric vehicle space yet," he said, adding that it is an area that Maxol are monitoring.
It aims to have more than 120 company-owned sites by 2020.
The group, which was founded by the McMullan family, is now moving more focus on its non-fuel offering. William and James McMullan started their business at Middlepath Street in Belfast almost a century ago, where they delivered paraffin oil by horse and cart.
In the last 32 years, Mr Donaldson said the biggest change has been how the forecourt was once all about fuel, "now it's all about the services and convenience that you offer, and this very much in terms of our own strategic plan".
Mr Donaldson added food shopping has become about "local convenience".
"Shopping is about little, often and local, and those are the three things which are the biggest changes in consumer behaviour."
In comparison, people buy fuel "once or twice" a week.
At the moment fuel accounts for around 55% of the revenue, while non-fuel items such as milk, bread and coffee, accounts for 45%.
"We have to continue to invest in the non-fuel offer," he said/
For a man whose career has revolved around oil, he talks passionately about the fair-trade coffee brand Rosa, which Maxol developed with Bewleys. "What we are seeing is if you get your coffee offering right you start to build up quite a large following for your brand. We are seeing double-digit growth in terms of our coffee following."
Across the Maxol chain the group will, in the coming months, be rolling out changes to the stores in terms of product offering, lighting, and even aisle space in order to improve shopper experience.
The company wants its forecourts to be a place where people go to pick up food, whether it is a ready-made meal or ingredients to cook with.
"Programmes like MasterChef or the Great British Bake Off mean there is a massive resurgence in terms of how people feed themselves, massive pride in terms of doing that. My two girls, my wife and daughter, are big fans of home cooking," he said.
"We want people to be able to get the ingredients in our shop."
As part of its development in the convenience foods space, the group is currently in the process of launching own-branded products such as milk, pre-pack salads, solid fuel and other items.
This ability to adjust when faced with changing consumer preferences and behaviours has helped ensure the family business has remained successful, while competitors down through the years have either exited the market or been taken over.
With the business now in the fourth generation of the family, and I asked if he thinks the McMullans would consider selling any time soon?
Smiling, he said he has been asked this question since he joined the group as a graduate in 1986.
"The family are very involved," he explained, adding that the current generation view themselves as custodians of the business for the next generation.
"We have seen so many competitors in this space come and go, so at this point we are the longest Irish brand in the space, and we are very proud of being an Irish brand."
Looking backwards before looking forwards, Mr Donaldson said that a few years ago he stood up in Croke Park in Dublin - just a stone's throw from the head office - and presented a strategy to employees that laid out the company's plans to 2020.
He said he is now working on a plan for the next three years.
The 53-year-old has been with the Maxol group since he graduated. Does he view his lack of outside experience as any disadvantage?
On this, Mr Donaldson firmly disagrees. "I've been quite fortunate in that I have always changed roles within the group every three to four years," he said.
"If anything you start to understand the culture and the values of the business."