Maxol sets sights on new heights
Maxol’s chief executive-in-waiting, Brian Donaldson, tells us of his short and long-term plans for the company.
Tom Noonan will be leaving behind some impressive shoes to fill when he departs in May.
Inaugural recipient of the Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer’s lifetime achievement award, and chief executive of Maxol for some 25 of his 36 years with the business, Tom’s leadership maintained Maxol’s lofty trajectory throughout myriad challenges from every quarter.
Now, the company’s chief executive officer-elect, Brian Donaldson, is aiming that trajectory a notch higher.
Brian has been part of the Maxol team since 1986, after joining through a competitive graduate training programme.
His first task, when brought in as a young Bradford University marketing and finance graduate, involved a customer profiling project. With the help of Queen’s University Belfast, Brian conducted research to identify who Maxol’s customers were, and maybe more importantly, finding out what they wanted.
The study would have a profound effect on Brian and the company. The latter research goal in particular would prove to pave the way for many innovative changes for Maxol in the years to follow.
Brian sums up the approach of the study: “We assessed the economic background of customers, and compiled data on what sort of customer was buying what products.
“In the 80s, it was all about fuel. Lubricants were a huge part of your forecourt back then, along with car accessories and the car wash.”
Thirty years on, Brian describes himself as a Maxol “lifer”, and the early lessons he learned have stayed with him – understanding the customer is the bedrock on which his leadership style will be built.
“It’s extremely humbling to take on this role, but while it presents challenges, it also presents many opportunities,” he said. “I’m excited about what we can deliver to today’s customer.”
An ambitious investment scheme and suite of new customer-focussed initiatives will lead Maxol’s modernising vanguard, according to Brian, helping it grow its network, influence, and popularity.
The company has been a major part of Northern Ireland’s and the Republic’s fuel retail network for decades, with almost 250 service stations across the island.
In that time, it has seen off competition from some of the most aggressive multi-national oil companies in the world, as well as the threat from meddling multiples.
It was also one of the pioneers of the forecourt and convenience format, with its Maxol / MACE model marking a line in the sand for the industry.
According to Brian, Maxol’s persistence and adherence to its values as an entirely Irish-owned family company make him most proud and have ensured its position in the top rung of Ireland’s forecourt industry.
“It’s an achievement in itself that I’m still here after all these years,” he said. “I still enjoy the job, especially working on an all-Ireland basis and working in a family-owned firm with that family ethos. I have a great respect for those who own the business. Members of the family’s fourth generation now sit on the board, which is an impressive achievement.”
While the multi-nationals have mostly retreated and the multiples gather their melted wings, Maxol has proven to be a consistent performer, weathering both storms and sunshine.
However, Brian admitted the unexpected arrival of a certain Canadian-based retail giant to the Irish market has been a surprise.
Couche-Tard, owner of 16,000 convenience stores throughout the world, trades under the Circle K brand, and announced it had acquired Ireland’s biggest forecourt brand Topaz in December.
“The timing of it was a surprise,” Brian said. “Things had been looking steady at Topaz, and they had been investing widely in their network, so I didn’t expect it.”
But while the industry had reeled at the announcement, Brian said his competitor’s bold decision would make no difference to his plans for the year.
“It’s important to keep a close eye on your competitors, but ultimately, you are only able to control your own company’s strategy so that’s what will always remain my number one focus,” he said.
Brian’s plans involve a major capital investment project, driving revenue to the company owned network, extending its reach even further across the island, and recruiting more independent dealers to open Maxol sites.
The company’s new Moreish café brand has already been a success, winning Best Oil Company Initiative at the 2015 Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer Awards, and it is being rolled out to more stations throughout the year, including some of the Northern Ireland forecourts. It follows a major growth, refit and rebranding programme of over 200 Maxol stations since 2012 at a cost of €50 million.
Over the next 18 months, Maxol will be investing another €45 million to support its retailers, and will launch some incredibly ambitious new projects.
The pinnacle of that investment will be the new Mulhuddart Motorway Services facility, currently under construction on the N3 near Blanchardstown Shopping Centre in Dublin. The impressive facility will represent the brand’s largest station to date, and Brian revealed deals have been struck with a leading burger franchise company, a fresh food brand and a major coffee brand to provide quality hot food and beverages to customers.
The station will also feature a full convenience offering, and the Moreish deli, along with a fully-equipped truck stop, parking for 80+ vehicles, free Wi-Fi, and more.
Brian revealed that the team looking after the ground-breaking site will be Donal and Liam Fitzpatrick – the owners and brains behind the hugely successful and multi-award-winning Junction 14 Mayfield, Kildare.
“It’s a very exciting time,” Brian said. “2016 will also be a year of learning for Maxol, which is important for any business in order to be able to adjust to a changing world. We will look at the outcome of all our recent initiatives. The results will determine what will be rolled out next or what needs tweaking if needs be.
“We’re very keen that the new investment will grow the business and support our retailers across the network. I believe all the work we’re doing will stand us in good stead.”
Part of that work includes Brian’s new emphasis on the customer experience. With forecourts largely trading the same products and services, Brian believes it’s the customer experience where Maxol will find its “point of difference”.
“Your people are absolutely key to enhancing this experience,” Brian said. “You’re only as good as the team you have working on the ground. Motivating them and getting them to go that extra mile is vital to create a positive experience for your consumers .Maxol has always believed in fostering and promoting local businesses and we’re particularly proud of the fact that all of our stations are independently operated by people who have an intimate knowledge of the communities in which we are represented.”
Brian’s vision is not an empty promise, and the bi-annual Maxol conference taking place in Kildare in April will reveal full details on an innovative system he is introducing, designed to find out exactly how customers are enjoying their stop at a Maxol station in real time.
Initiatives like these are what will guide the company’s thinking into the future.
“It’s about finding out how we stay relevant to the customer; how we become a true destination,” Brian said. And with technology changing as quickly as climate legislation, he also revealed Maxol is using the services of a university professor to assist with predicting when the tipping point for electric vehicles will arrive.
While problems such as limited battery life and long charging times were once a hindrance, they are starting to be resolved, meaning the switch from carbon-based fuels to electric power is expected to accelerate, and Maxol will be well prepared and quick to react.
“Maxol brought E85 Biofuel to Ireland and we’ve always been ready and willing to lead the field with new developments such as this,” added Brian.
With new sites in the pipeline for Mulhuddart, Castlebar, Westport, Donabate and Ballycoolin in North Dublin, along with re-openings and refurbishments at Scarva Road, Banbridge, Bryansburn in Bangor along with ten other locations, 2016 indeed looks set to be transformational for Maxol.
“We’re looking to recruit more independent retailers and support our existing network with this new investment,” Brian said. “We’re also looking for new members for our development team. There’s a lot going on and more in the pipeline. It really is a very exciting time to be part of Maxol.
“I feel very privileged that I will shortly be leading the team.”