Celebrating a decade of branded success in the Northern Irish market

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Andrew Hutchinson of Solo Petroleum, tells Neighbourhood Retailer how finding a niche in the market has helped his independent fuel company grow exponentially over the last 10 years.

2019 has been a standout year for Solo Petroleum’s owner, who has not only celebrated a milestone birthday this summer, but is also reflecting on the decade since he launched one of Northern Ireland’s only home-grown fuel retail brands.

The company has developed considerably in the last 10 years, growing from five to 25 fuel tankers, with £150m of sales predicted for this year alone. Now with over 80 Solo branded sites in Northern Ireland and a further two in Scotland, Solo Petroleum is one of the most recognised fuel suppliers in the country.

While Solo Petroleum officially entered the marketplace as a branded fuel in 2009, Solo’s journey began some 35 years ago, right after Andrew left school. Armed with a small deposit  and a desire to set up his own company, Andrew purchased his first fuel tanker.

“From the age of 12 I always wanted to work – from farming to delivering firewood at the weekends, I always had something to keep me busy,”  Andrew tells Neighbourhood Retailer. “When I started AH Fuel Oils in 1987, Burmah Oil was one of the most established fuel companies in Northern Ireland and probably the UK at the time. After they collapsed, there was a market for someone to look after the rural petrol stations in NI. None of the other oil companies – which were mostly all majors – wanted to take them on because it didn’t suit their business model.”

Seeing a gap in the market, Andrew began delivering  home heating solutions and petroleum products to independent retailers across the province but it wasn’t until 2009 that the Solo brand was born.Solo Petroleum 3

“After 10 years it was clear we needed to establish a brand,” Andrew explains. “At the time there was a large presence of unbranded forecourts in NI as well as a prominent cross-border smuggling influence. The public were very aware about what was going on in the fuel trade and everyone was very brand orientated; they knew that if they were pulling into a branded site that they were getting quality fuel.”

“So, we approached retailers and told them that we were launching  a fresh new forecourt brand and that we wanted to tailor packages to suit every individual business needs; even the smallest ones.”

Giving smaller dealers the opportunity to partner with a respected brand name, was one of the main motives behind launching the Solo name a decade ago; something which is still prominent in the business today. Andrew reports that research conducted by the company has shown that fuel volumes will increase by at least 20 percent when branding an unbranded canopy with the iconic Solo logo.

“Supermarkets play a huge role in dictating the price of fuel in NI and occasionally they can be hard to compete with,” he says. “We try to hold our own with the multiples but not everybody is supermarket driven and providing a personal service is often more important. A lot of our dealers are in areas where their forecourt is a big part of the local community.”

Andrew is joined in the business by his sister Helen, a 10-strong team of head office staff and a team of highly trained and competent drivers.  Solo’s business development manager Malcolm Hill is a familiar friendly face among the company’s dealer partners having helped the company grow from grassroots level.

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Describing the office atmosphere as very relaxed, Andrew tells NR that it is the people behind the business that have enabled Solo go from strength-to-strength over the last 10 years.

“People like dealing with people. Many of our customers are running family-owned businesses and they like it that we are also a family-run business as we can relate to each other.

“Some of the bigger companies have an automated service for ordering fuel and a window for when you can get it. With us, we’re very flexible and have a great team of office staff who have been with us for years and who work very well together. If you have that culture in-house it goes out to the customer.”

Part of giving the customer what they want is also recognising challenges and working to provide solutions. In response to the UK government planning to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, Andrew and the team have developed a renewable energy division called Solo Renewables. This company aims to develop renewable energy solutions which in turn will help to provide a greener future.

“Now, there are going to be challenges around fuel in the future but battery-powered cars have a lot of obstacles to overcome before they become an immediate threat; including battery life, infrastructure, and extra costs. There are always challenges but you overcome them and move onto the next one.”

“With regards to our forecourt offerings  we have great partnerships with Henderson and Musgrave. They are comfortable with our brand and we are comfortable with them because they are both major companies who are investing heavily in NI at the moment. They see a bright future for the shop and forecourt retailing going forward.

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Alongside its dealer partnerships and company-owned sites, Solo has four unmanned locations – two of which are only recently opened – one in Comber and the other on the A26 Frosses Road, Ballymoney.

Describing the new sites as a “different dynamic”, Andrew believes it is important to make available a range of models to suit the needs of NI’s motorists.

“They are all new fit-outs with state-of-the-art Tokheim fuel dispensers and fuel card facilities,” he says. “You would be surprised at the amount of fuel that is sold out of hours!”

The company’s fuel card – which began seven years ago – is another success story for Solo having grown in popularity across the island of Ireland. Accepted at over 300 sites, the card is used by both individuals and companies alike drawing additional sales both on the forecourt and off.

Continuing to develop the brand’s presence remains top of mind for Solo’s managing director. To celebrate 10 years in business, the fuel company has recently updated its branding which is currently being rolled out across the company’s new site portfolio. The branding refresh reflects the journey Solo has followed over the last decade ending 2019 as one of NI’s most esteemed fuel networks with a view to growing its presence in the province.

“Opportunity wise, we are looking to grow the brand and we have a number of new sites in planning and others in construction. There’s plenty of competition out there but we offer a more adaptable package for the customer and we will continue to promote this. At the end of the day it is all about staff, drivers and communicating with your customers.

“Our customers are great and over the years they have become friends. If a customer wants to deal directly with me directly I am always on call. I’m privileged to have customers that have remained loyal to us for 30 years,” concludes Andrew.

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