Following the recent acquisition of Countrywide’s fuels division, deputy editor Liz Boardman travelled down to Ford Fuel Oils’ Farrington head office to find out more about the family firm
From early roots in milk and coal after the Second World War to scrap metal in the early 1970s, Alan and Jack Ford founded the fuel business in 1972.Following in their footsteps, sons Adrian, Michael and Richard remain in the business whilst the family’s fourth generation – John, Teelah, David and Grayson – has also entered the business in recent years.
John Ford, now a director, joined the business at 15, working part time to gain valuable experience. Having worked in every area of the business, including two years as a full time driver, John can turn his hand to pretty much anything. “You can’t ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself,” he said.
“We have got to where we are now through family,” adds John. “Certainly we have increased in size since the Countrywide acquisition and now employ 120 people including 45 drivers, but we are still very hands on. Customers can still talk directly to a member of the Ford family. We often go to visit farmers and regularly speak to domestic customers over the phone. Equally we know all of our employees well and regularly talk to our drivers. That’s what sets us apart and ultimately accounts for our success. We like to think that we do things differently here – and better!”
A good fit
Although the company has tentatively dabbled in the acquisitions market in the past – mostly buying one man bands for access to their customer bases – the decision to acquire Countrywide’s fuels division in October 2013 was not one that the directors took lightly, as John explained: “We agonised over the decision but ultimately it looked right. It was a good opportunity and one which fits well with our business – not least geographically.
“We have strong family ethics and in many ways still view ourselves as a small, independent distributor. We’ve not lost touch with our roots and don’t want to be seen as a big corporate machine now we have a sizable acquisition under our belt. We don’t want to introduce high margins or have phones ringing off the hook – it would be a bad reflection on both the business and the acquisition itself.”
Now rebranded as Countrywide Oils – part of the family driven solution/part of the Ford Fuels Oils Group (the company’s two strap lines) the new section of the business will eventually come under the Ford banner with a dedicated website in the pipeline.
As far as further acquisitions go, Ford Fuel Oils is not currently in the market, as John pointed out. “We’ve already taken on a big acquisition and that’s enough for the foreseeable future. We don’t want to chase growth and put at risk what has taken years to build. We need a solid period of consolidation and we also need to take the time to build Countrywide Oils back up to where it used to be.” Nor is the company up for sale: “There have been a number of big distributor acquisitions recently but we are most definitely not for sale,” added John.
With existing Ford depots in Farrington Gurney, Westerleigh, Stalbridge, Membury, Theale, Bow and North Petherton and newly added Countrywide Oils depots in Defford, Finmere, Presteigne and Weston Super Mare, the company has a good presence across the south of England with a significant stronghold in the south west.
Supplying in excess of 150 million litres of fuel each year, mostly to agricultural and domestic customers, the company also has a sizeable commercial customer base and services a number of local quarries. “The domestic and agricultural sectors remain by far our biggest markets. We are an old fashioned distributor – it’s what the business was built on,” John told Fuel Oil News. “However we are fortunate that we aren’t reliant on one sector. We haven’t really had a winter so far but have been able to pick up work in other markets.”
The company also supplies four million litres of Total, Petronas and its own brand lubricants – Lubricants Direct – per year. “Lubricants bring opportunities for fuel and vice versa,” said John. “We have our own bottling plant and can label containers with our customers’ logos, which is quite unusual for a distributor. It also gives us a good level of flexibility.”
Fuel cards is another albeit small arm to the business. “We supply approximately 15 million litres of fuel this way each year, explained John.” It’s a relatively small part of our business but one that’s convenient for our customers. If customers want to use fuels cards then we can supply them, although we are very wary credit-wise”
With a fleet of 43 tankers and another three on order from RTN Lakeland, Ford Fuel Oils moved up six places from 16th to 10th on this year’s Fuel Oil News’ Top 20 UK distributors list which was published in the February issue. “We have a long-standing relationship with RTN Lakeland and buy at least three rigid tankers each year. We are a company that likes to build lasting relationships and stick with them. We consistently use Emco Wheaton’s loading solutions and have long been a customer of Fuelsoft.”
In the community
With community buying still a hot topic, FON was interested to find out whether Ford Fuel Oils supplied any oil buying groups in the south west. “We use them when we want to keep the wheels turning,” said John. “We certainly don’t base business on it but if it’s a choice between sending a driver home and supplying a buying group then we will do it but only at the right price. Many customers feel they have been forced down this route after paying such high prices a couple of years ago, but we are determined to always offer a fair price. When it snowed last year we were still the cheapest in our area”
“We’re not in it for a quick buck, we want to offer our customers a good service and gain their loyalty. I suppose it’s different when the business is owned by family rather than shareholders, but as a family firm we look after our customer base and our employees first.”