Just what type of partner is Gulf looking to add as it expands its customer base? While some aspects are consistent, the specifics will vary regionally between branded and unbranded opportunities.
“From what we’re seeing each geographic market is different,” said Ashcroft. “In the Northeast, brand is important. People like to move toward a brand when they’re filling up their tank. What we’ve seen in the Southeast is that an oil brand is less important, and it’s more the RaceTrak and the larger unbranded dealers on I-95 and I-85 that are doing a lot of traffic.
“We want to have the ability—because we’ve got this great platform behind us with both the back office and the marketing and trading—to basically give to those regions or those customers what they need. If they need the brand and the branded gallon to drive business, we want to provide that. If it’s more of a region where unbranded is the focus, we want to provide that wet barrel because we’re a logistics platform. We’re going to be very good at supplying barrels, supplying renewables and having big terminals to drive those barrels through. Our intent is to provide the customer service that people need, based on regional tastes.”
By and large, the branded partners being sought are quality marketers with some scale.
“We are looking for strong business partners, good business people,” said Sabia. “And as they say, you have a good franchise business if you have good franchisees. So, obviously, strong businesspeople in the local markets who know the market and have the ability to grow the brand at a sustained and fast pace—those are the guys we’d be glad to do business with.”
Scale is also a major consideration on the unbranded side.
“Our customer base is the major, national big boxes, the huge unbranded regional folks and to a lesser extent truck stops,” said Brickowski. “We sell to the three largest heating oil companies in the United States. We sell to the biggest supermarket in the United States plus some smaller regional supermarkets. That’s kind of our growth model. We’ll be, as we expand, looking to add more volume with that sort of account. That’s not to say we don’t go down to solid, long-standing firms who might own 50 or 100 gas stations, but going down to somebody who has one or two stations—we just don’t have the manpower for that.”
Gulf’s Value Proposition
Gulf finds itself going up against a variety of competitors with varying scale and operational structures. These range from the integrated oil companies, to refiner-marketers, to similar large wholesalers down to smaller, local distributors. What sets Gulf apart, and what does the company feel are its major competitive advantages? The first cited was the enhanced logistical infrastructure.
“I think our advantage is the hard assets themselves,” said Ashcroft. “We’re going to now have 17 active refined product terminals that go from Pittsburgh to Maine, and they’re great assets. We’re going to invest in those assets and improve those assets, and then we’ve got a unique situation where we have both branded and unbranded marketing to drive barrels and gallons through those assets. From our standpoint, we’re a logistics provider to our customers versus a competitor to our customers.”
On the branded side, price and service were cited. “First, given the rack to retail spread, we generally provide a good value for folks who buy wholesale from us,” said Sabia. “We’ve seen actual jumps in volume of near double digits in many sites merely from the switch to Gulf. Second, it’s service. We tend to focus on this on both the branded and unbranded sides. We are always available, and you have access to top management with minimal delay, which you can’t say with every major brand out there.”
More globally, Sabia believes that the lower bureaucratic overhead helps the entire company at all levels as it meets the opportunities and challenges in the marketplace. “I think it allows us the ability to be nimble, and move quickly to take advantage of opportunities in the supply space that groups that are tied to a refinery or their company source may not be able to avail themselves of, so it does give us some opportunity to take advantage of some costs and savings,” he said.
Brickowski expanded on the service aspect with unbranded sales, noting that a number of the larger, less-traditional operations such as the big-box operators or supermarkets do not have significant staffing for the amount of fuel purchased. The Gulf approach is to minimize their headaches while having fair, competitive pricing and supply.
“It’s very old fashioned probably by today’s standards, but we try to give service,” said Brickowski. “What I mean by giving service, we don’t let the phone ring more than a few times. We always have someone there to answer a question, a live person. We do use instant message and we do use texts and emails like the rest of the world. But if there’s a problem in the evening or on the weekends, you can’t get your truck loaded for whatever the reason, we always have somebody available to take the burden off the buyer or the dispatcher.” (Cont. Click next page below)