Branching out: Applegreen Ireland managing director Fiona Matthews

Branching out: Applegreen Ireland managing director Fiona Matthews

Applegreen is in “high growth mode” globally and is investing in customer experience and drive-thru back home, according to Applegreen Ireland Managing Director Fiona Matthews.

The Irish-born company has expanded rapidly in the UK and US in the last couple of years and is still on the move, she tells IFCR.

Between Ireland, UK and USA the Applegreen group has expanded significantly over the last couple of years and now have in total 620 sites across the business.

“We have 14,000 employees globally and the business is investing in growth opportunities, in the US in particular,” Fiona says.

“In Ireland, we continue to look at development opportunities. For example, we have just launched our new coffee brand, braeburn.

This launch signals our continued focus on delivering the best quality experience and choice for our customers in transit.  In addition we’re very proud of our fantastic brand partnerships and continue to develop those as a very important part of our business.

“Drive thru opportunities will continue to be an area of growth and focus for us.”

Retail in the blood

Born and bred in Mullingar, mother-of-three Fiona (40) has worked everywhere from Dublin to mainland Europe to the USA before finally settling back in Mullingar again. Retail has always been in her blood, as she explains.

“My dad and his brothers have a successful retail business in office supplies and toys in Mullingar for over 40 years now – I’m not new to retail although I didn’t realise I would end up with a career in retail when I was drafted onto the shop floor to help out when I was younger,” Fiona says.

After leaving college Fiona started out on the inaugural graduate programme with Glanbia, before joining Kepak Convenience Foods and then the Walt Disney company.

“I managed the retail business for Disney in Ireland – it was quite a diverse role which involved managing their retail accounts in Ireland, across all sectors from grocery to home and from fashion to toys.

Irish business

Fiona says that what really attracted her to Applegreen was that fact that they’re a successful Irish business, built from one forecourt back in 1992 to a global business today.

“I felt that Applegreen would be quite entrepreneurial and a good fit for me, and that’s transpired,” she says.

“The teams across the business are very entrepreneurial and are offered a lot of scope and responsibility to grow. We know that the forecourt industry is going through a lot of change and will see a lot more change over the next number of years – that change excites me.”

As a hybrid between hospitality and retail, Applegreen is witnessing a lot of innovation and opportunity coming down the tracks, she says.

“There’s a shift from traditional fuels to electric charging, and  that’s something that we absolutely will maximise the opportunities in over the coming years. We’ve seen great investment in new product development and high-quality offerings across food and coffee which we’ve fully embraced as a company.”

Sustainability focus

Sustainability is a key focus – for example, Applegreen have signed up to report on CDP, the Carbon Disclosure Project.

“We’ve made a commitment to be Net Zero in our own operations by 2030 and we’re taking a number of moves to make sure we deliver on that,” Fiona says.

“We offer EV charging and will expand that offer for customers over time. We also offer carbon neutral driving to our customers, whereby we offset the carbon emissions from our customers’ fuel when they purchase our Power Plus fuel.

“We’ve recently launched our BioDive campaign with primary schools across the country, this is a great initiative both to engage our sites with their local schools whilst also educating and creating awareness of biodiversity in Ireland.”

Six month milestone

Fiona started with Applegreen in October 2019, six months before the Covid-19 outbreak – not quite a baptism of fire, but close.

“I say to people, it was that six-month milestone where you’re just finding your feet and then bang, the world literally turned on its head – I think that has rocked us all over the last couple of years,” she says.

“But what did stand out was how the teams really rallied. It was a very difficult time – we had to tighten our belts across the board. Our retail teams were on the front line and it was very challenging, however it was great to see how the team came together. When your back is against the wall you have to reassess and this created opportunities and new ways of working.

“Our local colleagues immersed themselves in their communities during that time, for example  delivering products to elderly people – so you saw the good in people shine through during the pandemic and it was encouraging to see that.

“Obviously we were significantly hit from a volume perspective, in particular in our service areas as the roads were extremely quiet during that period, but on the flip side our local stores certainly picked up a lot for us and we adapted to what our customers needed and that helped us through.

Shocks to the system

“While we started our business as a fuel retailer we now see ourselves as a food and coffee destination and we will continue to invest in these areas as we grow. The most recent shocks to the system have been the labour shortages, inflation and supply chain issues, not to mention the horrific war in Ukraine and its repercussions around the world.

“What’s happened in Ukraine has been shocking and has shaken everybody to their core,” Fiona says.

“Our initial reaction was to reach out to our own colleagues from Ukraine and we worked with them to make sure we could support them in any way we can.

“Like everybody, we are supporting Ukraine. We made a considerable donation to Unicef and we held a fundraising initiative in addition to our successful Charitable fund to support them as well, raising €200,000 for Ukraine.

Major donations

€100,000 was donated directly from the business in addition to over €100,000 raised through in store collections.  “The labour challenges that we saw through Covid have continued – Covid is not gone and it still creates challenges in terms of rostering and getting the sufficient number of people we need to run our business,” Fiona says.

“The other major headwind coming at us is cost inflation, there are some serious pricing pressures coming through across all areas of the business. I think that will be one of the biggest challenges we need to address and mitigate throughout the course of the year.

“Fuel has been challenging. We work closely with Fuels for Ireland on how we best navigate. Ensuring supply is the key priority for us, and will continue to be so.

Local sourcing

Fiona says sourcing local has always been important to Applegreen.

“Provenance is really important to us, so over 85% of our deli products come from Irish suppliers,” she says.

“Cost pressures will be a key challenge in how we continue, we are navigating price increases daily.

“We’re an Irish Company and proud partners of Guaranteed Irish.

Technology will be crucial to growth in retail, with Applegreen already launching initiatives such as digital kiosks in its Burger King locations as well as home delivery initiatives.

“Technology has to be relevant for our customers and either improve their experience or improve the speed of service,” Fiona says.

Coffee offer

Another important focus that that arrived during the pandemic was the launch of Applegreen’s own braeburn coffee offer.

“We created the brand in the midst of Covid and that was exciting – one of the babies that was born out of Covid, the addition to the Applegreen family,” Fiona says.

“braeburn is a type of apple so the whole idea is the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with Applegreen.

“We’re delighted to see that rolling out – it’s in over 20 sites and will continue to roll out over the course of this year.

“braeburn is, at the touch of a button offering something for everyone, from iced coffee to nondairy coffees to luxurious hot chocolate.

“It’s the first of its kind, certainly in the market here, and we’ve had some great feedback from customers.

“We’ve brought in a great expert in coffee, Maria Cassidy who has got more than 20 years’ experience in coffee and she’s brought with her a great energy and passion for coffee.”

Future of energy

There has been a lot of modelling on what the future will look like when it comes to fuel and energy, she says.

“96% of cars in Ireland are still fossil fuel, so electric vehicles are still a small part but we do see that evolving. The rate of adoption of electric vehicles continues to grow and we’re looking at how we invest in the infrastructure to support that and adapting to the needs of Irish consumers.

“We want to offer choice for our customers – that goes from fuel options, be they electric, charging for traditional fuels, right across the board to our food offering, where we’ve invested a lot in developing vegan and plant-based products to make sure we’re adapting to the needs of those customers. ’Your journey, your way.’

“It’s about delivering a high quality experience for our customer on the road.

“We’re a people business focussed on great customer service and we thank our hard working colleagues for continuing to go the extra mile to deliver the very best for our customers.

“I certainly have been blown away by the culture and the people in Applegreen. The team have been unrelenting through a very challenging time, so this year it will be important to support those teams and continue to invest in them.”

To read the full feature in IFCR magazine, click HERE.