A legacy of diversity

Photo 1 - Judith plus tanker

Judith Stoddard

Stoddards had a proud history of seizing changes when faced by challenges. Alex Porter spoke to Company Director, Judith Stoddard, about continuing that heritage into a changing landscape, and keeping things simple.

Were it not for a willingness to take a risk, Stoddards might not be in the oil business today. Before beginning life as a Jet distributor in 1966, Judith’s grandfather, Percy Stoddard, had been working with coal for forty years. In 1926 he acquired his first motorised vehicle, replacing a horse and cart for deliveries, and the company got the first glimpse of its future.

Just after the war, when heavy rationing had made coal less stable, Percy expanded to include a coach business. Buying fuel for the vehicles led him into contact with a local Jet representative, who was looking for an authorised distributor in the area. Quick to jump at an opportunity, Percy shook hands on it, and took a chance on selling oil.

Now run by Judith, her brother Pete, and cousin Paul, that philosophy continues to serve the modern Stoddards well.

Judith said: “The industry is changing all the time, and we’re always looking for something new, and ready for more opportunities. I enjoy my job every day, and consider myself very lucky to work with a great bunch of people.”

The company has distinct divisions, as the profitable coach business is run from the same site in Cheadle, Staffordshire as the fuel side. The company’s 11 staff work across both aspects, and the number is boosted by retired staff who continue to help out as needed.  The longest serving member staff started with Stoddards at 14 and still works there part time at 67.

Judith’s father, Brian still pops into the office regularly to catch up on business affairs. She said: “He likes to check everyone has arrived for work, including me!”

Quality assurance

Standard of fuel remains one of the most important factors, which is why Stoddards is still supplied by Phillips 66 today – being one of their oldest distributors,  and draws most of its fuel from Bramhall.   Judith said: “We have an excellent relationship with Phillips 66 and we are proud to be part of the brand.”

During the winter, the large majority of customers are in the domestic sector, apart from a few large commercial orders. The quality of kerosene in particular is therefore vital, as it makes up 80% of the company’s fuel orders, with 15% being gas oil and 5% diesel.

Judith explained: “In this area, which is very rural, there are a high proportion of AGAs and similar equipment, so a quality product is essential.”

The company owns four tankers, composed of three rigids and an artic supplied by RTN, to serve a 30 mile radius across the North Staffordshire area, Peak District and South Manchester. On site, there are four oil tanks which can store 52,000 litres each.

Price the priority

The biggest challenge for the modern business is the increasing issue of customer loyalty. For some, a quality product and excellent service has fallen down the priority list when compared to even a small saving on price.

“It is understandable. It’s the way we live now, encouraged by the internet. Customers are so conscious of price, that 0.02 pence per litre can lose you business. When you spell out to people that the saving is just £2, some realise that our excellent customer service is cheap, but people can be very shortsighted. Unfortunately the internet doesn’t have the personal touch, we are encouraged to communicate more via numerous media but one-to-one conversation seems to becoming more infrequent. But that’s where we are.”

Keen to keep up, the company recently updated the computer system, supplied by IMS, so that drivers can deliver more efficiently and invoices can be sent quickly in a more cost effective manner. “We’re up to date with the back office, but need to embrace the internet and social media a lot more. The coach side caters to more elderly customers but they too love the internet – recently a lady of around 70 asked me to put the coach trips on twitter, whilst another asked if we were on ‘face box’!”

Pub talk?

As the spectre of alternative technologies and the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) begins to grow on the horizon, Judith admitted: “The RHI will affect us. You can see it already – there are now lots of people with solar panels, myself included. It has started with electricity and will filter down, but it will take a while because we have to get it right.

“I can’t see it being too significant in the next five years though, because people replace boilers when they break down. You’ve also got to go to someone you can trust, because potentially you could be ripping out a perfectly good oil system for a ground source heat pump which might not work, or an air source heat pump which simply isn’t up to the job.

“I went to the Oil & Renewable Energy Show in Manchester recently and felt some of the suppliers didn’t have confidence in the new technology. We will do something with renewables but only once there is a definite answer. At the moment, the goalposts keep moving too frequently.

“It’s all just pub talk – there are lots of misconceptions, and customers need a place to go where they can get good impartial advice, along with a complete range of proven products.”

Judith has always been unfazed by operating as a fuel distributor in a world once dominated by men.

“I had an unbiased mentor. When I first started attending West Midlands FPS meetings some thought I was there to make the tea –but after tasting it they never bothered again!”

But Stoddards remains focused and confident about the future. “Really, it’s very simple – give the customers what they want!”

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