IF&CR talks to Maxol’s chief executive Brian Donaldson about the past, the present and the future. “Maxol has large plans to celebrate our centenary throughout 2020. We’ve a dedicated team to plan and organise our centenary events. A special centenary mark has been designed and will feature on all our point of sale and communications. The focus of our marketing activity will be on celebrating 100 years, with a range of retail offers and promotions,” said Brian.
Maxol has commissioned a written history of the company by award winning historian and writer Turtle-Banbury. A date has already been set for the book launch in May at the Little Museum in Dublin.
“It tells the story of Maxol, its people past and present, and the achievements over those 100 years”. There are many other initiatives planned to mark the centenary. “Our centenary will be a base for all our marketing activity – including our sponsorship of Drivetime on RTE2 FM, alongside a few other big surprises currently under wraps.
“Our retailer conference will take place at the K Club in Kildare in April 2020. That will be a huge celebration. There will be a tented village showcasing key suppliers. It will be a year of great celebration, nostalgic and seminal, as it is still a family owned business, a significant achievement in this sector.”
Three years ago Maxol started to roll out an ambitious three year strategic plan, and 2020 will see the completion of its implementation.
“It’s well advanced now, most objectives delivered and achieved. A lot of heavy work was undertaken this past year in the Republic of Ireland, with the new premium look for the Maxol Shop and food to go.
“We have created a personality and identity for all the southern Ireland stores, and launched our own brand label for sandwiches, milk, ignition products – high moving, high volume products with the new Maxol brands. It’s been extremely well received. The Maxol brand name is one that customers know they can trust, that it’s quality. It’s part of our transition from being a fuel retailer to a convenience retailer for everyday essentials and for food-to-go.
“The ROSA coffee brand has been a tremendous success, significantly increasing footfall and customer loyalty. A lot of what we set out to do in 2017 has been accomplished. We are encouraged by the resulting attention and optimising opportunities in 2020.”
€30m has been earmarked for further investment, developing more sites and updating others. Rathnew and Ardbrae in County Wicklow, two investment projects in Limerick and Newbridge. In Northern Ireland, the Maxol in Portrush will undergo major refurbishment and work will start next year on the massive motorway services project near Newry.
“From construction, to design and layout, the new sites and upgrades will provide the right offer for our target audience,” explained Brian.
While the new Maxol store concept has been rolled out across the south, in Northern Ireland the close relationship with Spar continues.
“We signed a five year agreement with the Henderson group for Northern Ireland, where we have 32 company owned sites. It reaffirms the differences between the two markets. We have the strength and stability of the Spar brand in Northern Ireland. We will continue to build on this important alliance since 2005. Both are strong family owned businesses – the Agnew family and the McMullan family go hand in glove. Maxol is a successful all-island company, and in the south it has 80 company owned sites and around 115 independently owned sites – with 234 sites in total across the island and a network of some 120 dealers.
“Both economies are performing well,” said Brian “But the southern economy is driven by different dynamics and demographics. Inflation in Northern Ireland is around 3.5 per cent. In the Republic it’s around one percent.
“There’s a difference in terms of disposable income. We see ourselves as a convenience and forecourt retailer serving the needs of motorists and solutions for top up shopping.
We need to make sure we win a share of wallet by capturing customers stocking up on fuel and daily needs. We hope to capture them morning, lunchtime and evening, and have heavily invested to do so – from providing car parking to competitively priced product, and a safe and secure space.
“We have invested in training, in customer service, and technology to benefit the customer. “We aim to always see our business through the eyes of our customers, with confidence and interest and making the experience welcoming and exciting.”
Maxol has actively pushed ahead with its ambitious three year strategy amidst the Brexit upheavals and uncertainty since 2016.
“We set up a Brexit watching committee to make assessments of the possible impacts. It looks likely that movement of goods north/south and vice versa will be free but it’s the east-west/west-east direction that will be the challenge. We have separate fuel supply lines for the north and south, so that won’t be an issue from our perspective. We work closely with our distributor in the south BWG, so we’re no unduly concerned about north/south movement.
“Lubricants for the whole island come from Santry, so we’re not sure yet if that will be affected, however we are advanced with our authorised economic operation status for movement of goods north and south.
“Certainly at the time there was great concern, but now since the General Election (UK) we have some clarity. We still don’t know the detail or what the bureaucracy will be, but at least we know what direction it’s moving.”
On Electric Vehicles (EVs) Brian’s view is that there will be a certain move towards EVs in terms of demand for battery plug-in and a move away from the standard internal combustion engine (ICE). However there is not sufficient evidence base yet as to how and when.
“We have carefully studied what’s happening in the Norwegian market. We spent three to four days in Oslo, and have looked at other countries. There is a certain percentage that will move over to EV. As we look at our planning, we will be putting chargers at a select number of sites and locations for trialling,” said Brian. “In a number of locations the problem is getting connected in to the grid. It’s a chicken and egg situation. We have been hiring and driving EVs and making our own notes for research. If we buy technology now, how will it change in the next few years?
“What will the behaviour of a person with an EV be, what differences will there be between a person who drives an EV compared to one who drives an ICE?
“We will provide whatever form of energy people want, but what if the EV driver chooses to charge up at home or at work? These are all the sort of questions that make us uncertain.
AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
“Throughout our centenary we will continue to showcase our own network. On the island of Ireland forecourt retailing is viewed as at the pinnacle. There is always hunger for more awards and international awards. There will be some major developments with a very different offer coming forward, which will be very nice to showcase those and show the best of what we have on a global stage.”
“Recognition for our innovation is the best recognition. We want to continue to support customers coming in to our stores and investing widely in a sustainable and viable business, and so see our sites perform at optimal level.”
“Food-to-go is absolutely critical. Maxol Deli is performing well – from 6.30 to 3.30 each day. We’ll see more new products and trying out seasonal options – more salads in summer and warm winter meals with protein and meat to create variety.
“From the quality and standards of the deli to developing delivery, we will be working on new concepts, making sure we use the space wisely. The Holy Grail will be getting the deli to extend in to evenings. Our food concepts manager Aoife Kearney has brought in offers that are first class in 2019 and in 2020 we’ll see that taken to another level.
“For food-to-go we’ll also be creating better seating areas, places where customers can sit and relax with a coffee or hot beverage.
“We’ve a real coffee culture now. There are critical differences between the north and south and preference for different tastes and beans. In the north the Barista Bar has a different taste. It’s interesting that on a small island there are different tastes and preferences, and other differences in how money is spent on food and drink. We will see this continue to evolve and bring in seasonality. Standards never go out of fashion and hygiene is second to none – right through to the wash rooms, the whole experience is connected.”
It is clear that the younger generation coming through are concerned more about ‘green’ credentials and sustainability. Brian said his own 21 year old daughter is very clear on what she looks for and what is important to her.
“This up and coming generation is very aware. It’s a challenge for us – we are a fossil fuel front of house business. A new range of premium fuels are being trialled across 45 sites with more additives and more biofuel content.
“In-store, we are environmentally aware in all aspects of the business – from design, the materials we use in construction, LED lighting, solar heat, recycling water in the wash rooms, using green sources of energy across all our sites. “We have to live the values we want to talk about and to lead on the green agenda. All our coffee cups and lids are biodegradable, but we also need to see consumer behaviour change so that they segregate their own waste. We have looked at everything. At our head office we make sure we recycle and minimise paper use, even our board meetings are all mainly electronic. How we live and our values set our policy and charter – that’s a work in progress.
“We are not just doing ‘our bit’ for the environment – we are doing even more.”
Observing and researching consumer behaviour, often qualitatively by region and town, provides insight in to what is important to customers. “It might be the space they want for parking, whether they prefer a basket or trolley, right down to how we present product.
“We employ the services of a market research company called Behaviour and Attitudes to provide consumer insight and track everything. We stay close to the customer and see things through their eyes – that’s crucial, it’s more likely to resonate and build loyalty with customers and communities – quite often it’s subtle, little things that make the difference.”
LEGISLATION AND POLICY CHANGE
In the south Minister Bruton has his climate change action plan. Then there’s the ‘latte levy’ or the coffee cup tax.
“Maxol has a detailed response submitted to the proposed regulation on disposable coffee cups. It will start to change behaviour in the same way that the plastic bag tax did.*
“We need to support and influence government, but it needs to be a fair and level playing field. Legislation change will continue the amount of biofuel; we will keep a watching brief on all policy and legislation north and south.
“The economy in Ireland is performing well, but it’s uncertain how Brexit will affect that – it could slow down a bit but let’s hope not.”
TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION
Brian Donaldson and team went to Hong Kong and Shanghai this year to look at technological innovations.
“We were looking at what is termed ‘new retail’ which is basically how do you get offline and online to connect? New retail means working together to support bricks and mortar business with clicks. We learned a lot and will be introducing that new learning in to the marketplace. Big data is invaluable. There are considerable cultural differences between Shanghai with its high density population and Ireland, but sometimes we need to go outside our comfort zones, to look and learn and bring that learning back.
“We will be investing front and back in new technology, looking at how we reward and recognise our customers. Our incubation teams are working on various new ideas.
“At the end of the next decade there will still be a place for the forecourt, but a high proportion will be buying non-fuel. Every forecourt will see a number of changes and space will be even more important. Home delivery will be critical with Uber, Just Eat, and Deliveroo.
“Forecourts will develop as ‘Collection Hubs’ for goods – we could see the additional of other services such as pharmacy, or dry cleaning, or what’s termed the ‘dark kitchen’ with the deli providing delivery in the evening.
THE LAST WORD
2019 was a good year for Maxol said Brian. Ninety nine years successfully completed as an entirely family owned business, Maxol is in prime position to enter a new decade celebrating its centenary and taking the business in to the brightest future possible.