Wednesday 19 June 2019

Looking to create a gem of a business on Irish forecourts

Interview Danny Murray Topaz chief executive

Danny Murray acknowledges that it's a
Danny Murray acknowledges that it's a "very tough market" in Ireland, and elsewhere, at the moment and razor-sharp margins mean a tight ship has to be run

John Mulligan

It's about 15 years since Danish actor Carsten Norgaard first fronted adverts for Statoil in Ireland. As 'Erik from Oslo', he encouraged us all to buy into the Norwegian company's message. But as they did almost a millennium ago, the Norse raiders have called it quits and headed home.

And just to make sure they're wiped from the map, Topaz chief executive Danny Murray this week presided over the launch of a €50m rebranding exercise that will see the Shell and Statoil stations the company acquired for a combined €400m in 2005 and 2006, take on a new moniker.

By the end of the year, the Statoil and Shell brands in Ireland will effectively be consigned to history, while the Fareplay outlets that Norgaard also enthused about on-screen, will vanish along with them.

For Murray, this is the beginning of a great crusade. Topaz will, he says, become one of the major Irish brands, with its new logo emblazoned across 350 service stations nationwide, 100 of those owned directly by the firm.

The first station to claim the Topaz name is the massive €7m forecourt beside Dublin's Port Tunnel. Luring 2,000 trucks and selling 500,000 litres of fuel a week, it's undoubtedly the busiest service station in the country, despite having opened for business only a few months ago.

But this is only the beginning. The acquisition of the Statoil and Shell businesses was spearheaded by Dublin-based Ion Equity, and the taskmasters will one day seek a lucrative payback on their investment. That means Murray can't afford to sit on his hands, and he has no intention of doing so.

"The shareholders are being very supportive of management," says Murray, who also has a small stake in Topaz. "We're all very ambitious."

The former boss of DCC-owned Emo Oil, he's got the pedigree needed to propel Topaz forwards.

In common with other private equity-backed deals, Topaz has quickly sought to play down its debt pile, offloading some service stations that were worth more as property plays than long-term ventures, and ploughing some of the proceeds back into the business.

Murray says that there's also no need to refinance any debt at the moment -- just as well in the current climate.

"We have no plans to refinance and we have a fully funded solution," he adds.

But even if no alchemically conceived refinancing packages surface to put cash back in the investors' pockets, Ion Equity will ultimately want a generous return on its outlay. Ion's chief executive, Neil O'Leary, said almost two years ago that he envisaged Topaz making a stock market debut within five years.

Topaz would be a respectable arrival to Dublin's Anglesea Street or London's Paternoster Square. The company has annual sales of roughly €3.5bn, and controls about 35pc of the end-user fuel market in Ireland. It's also the largest supplier of home heating fuel in the country.

But is a flotation on the immediate horizon?

"It's always an option for a company of this scale and size," acknowledges Murray. "But our job as managers is to look at those possibilities and at the same time to make sure the business is performing as well as it can. But it's on the agenda."

For now, top of the agenda remains the rebranding, and it probably couldn't have come soon enough. For years, the Shell and Statoil names in Ireland have been for some a target for abuse as a result of the companies' involvement in the controversial Corrib gas project. Some websites currently call on protesters to spray paint "Rossport" anti-Corrib graffiti on Statoil service station walls and windows.

"I think car paint is hardest to be removed from glass," suggests one online protester in reference to the plan, "but I'm open to advice on that".

Danny Murray is unimpressed, especially since Topaz has no link to either Shell, Statoil or the Corrib project. He remains diplomatic, however, saying that he's not relieved to see the back of Statoil or Shell's very public presence.

"We have customers who've been with Shell and Statoil for years," he says. "I don't think it's fair to say that we're happy to see the back of Shell, for instance. We'll still be distributing Shell lubricants here. We're happy to be going with something that's really new, rather than getting rid of anything."

Topaz will also be doing away with Statoil's Fareplay brand, which was specifically devised for use in the Irish market, although no new brand has yet been finalised. That is also likely to involve a major tie-up with a third-party, although the exact mechanics of that doesn't yet seem to have been fully cemented.

"We will have significant tie-ups, but they could be focused on a range of services such as communications or insurance. We're talking to lots of people, but haven't concluded anything yet."

Still, some linkages won't be broken. Topaz currently supplies fuel to Tesco, for instance, and it's a relationship that will continue for at least another two years.

Consumers should also start getting used to credit card payment systems on pumps, something that's going to be rolled out across the Topaz network, while it's also exploring the possibility of bringing back attendants at certain forecourts.

And before the end of the month, Topaz is also introducing biofuel pumps, the first of which will be located at a Dublin outlet.

"The plan is to have bioethanol and biodiesel available, and by 2020, the aim is that 20pc of all fuel products delivered to Topaz customers will be biofuels," says Murray.

Those fuels will be more expensive than petrol or diesel, but a Government derogation available on duty will allow the cost at the pump to be kept in line with the price of traditional fuels. "I think people want to do their bit and be encouraged to do so," adds Murray.

But to underline just how slow the biofuel industry has been to fully develop in Ireland, the alternative fuel being used by Topaz, at least initially, will be sourced via Amsterdam.

"Most of the bioethanol available comes from outside Europe, while biodiesel is coming from countries such as Germany," he says. "We're looking forward to being able to source it from Ireland and would be willing to talk to anyone who believes they could help us with that."

Murray has his work cut out at Topaz. He acknowledges that it's a "very tough market" and razor-sharp margins mean a tight ship has to be run. He also says he wouldn't be surprised to see another player exit the Irish landscape. Should that happen, no doubt Topaz would eye up any potential synergies.

For now, Murray's got to turn Topaz into a gem.

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