The history of The Oil Lady is very much entangled in the history of me
The Oil Lady is a relatively new independent oil distribution business and Claudia asked Sheila what led up to the decision to launch the business back in 2015.
Sheila began: “We’re not a brand-new company. The history of The Oil Lady is very much entangled in the history of me. Before launching a fuel business, I was in the insurance industry working as an adjuster and, later, as a broker at Lloyds. In the early noughties, I went out to America and ran an administration company that grouped claims, and we handled the claims on behalf of one underwriter. Essentially, this was very similar to a syndicate.
“I lived in the USA for 10 years and loved it, I was based mostly in Atlanta but also did a stint in New York and LA. I worked in Hollywood and was handling claims for the rich and famous. One time, I stood on Venice Beach, dealing with a building that had burnt down, when there was a bit of commotion, and I turned round to see Robert Downey Junior coming out of his house!
“In 2007, the time felt right to move back to the UK. I started working for an insurance company, but I wasn’t feeling inspired by the insurance industry anymore. I thought about what I wanted to do next and decided to do a law degree and I ran an oil syndicate at the same time! With my background, I thought working in corporate law would be a good fit. A year into the degree, I fell ill with an autoimmune condition. It wiped me out and I was unable to work.”
Can you order oil? I’m going fishing!
Moving into house in a village in Great Bardfield, Essex, Sheila explained how she became responsible for running an oil syndicate there: “A local chap, who organised the local oil syndicate said, “I’m going fishing. Can you handle the syndicate for me whilst I’m away?”
“I volunteered, and he gave me a box of cards with all the information. He went fishing for two months! I organised the information, collated the data into excel, digitised it, got email chains going and handled all the ordering. When he returned, he said: “I don’t want it back – you keep it going!”
“I then had an idea for an anti-theft device for tanks. I spoke to a couple of local people, and they said: “Why don’t you start a company and then you can make the anti-theft device?” I explained that I had the syndicate and that could be the testing group so they gave me £35,000, I set the business up, and that was the start of The Oil Lady in 2015! All my previous experience gave me the confidence to start the business and that was how The Oil Lady began.”
A challenging market
“The Oil Lady is totally independent and I’m proud of that, but November 2020 was an incredibly challenging time: it was hard to get a deal for oil.”
“At that time, I went and got my drivers CPC and routing manager CPC. We fumbled our way through until I got my operator licence in June 2021. It was impossible for us to make any money from January-June 2021 – just a fiver here and there – and it was purely perseverance that got me through until I got that licence.
“It was really tough, but the fun started when I needed to get a truck, a driver, and everything else! I was so green but so determined. If you put something in front of me then I think ‘I can do that’! Through all of this, my illness has still been there, but it’s manageable. The work is so exhilarating that it gets me through!
“I talked to Just Tankers, who I found through a Google search, and they said they could get me a truck. Eventually, they rented us a truck with a 2016 plate until they could get a new truck for us. I signed the contract, found an agency, found a driver and off we went.”
The importance of team
“The 4th of July 2021, Independence Day, was our first official day of trading and doing deliveries ourselves. At the start we struggled for a multitude of reasons and then, at the end of July, a man that I’d been in touch with took the plunge and joined the business. His name is Nick Porch and he’s been with us since the beginning of October 2021. He’s an integral part of the business.”
Sheila also wanted to acknowledge another gentleman, Paul, who she’d planned to go into business with alongside Nick, but Paul unfortunately passed away before he joined the business. He was a close friend and was a big part of her journey in the oil industry.
“This is hard for me to talk about,” Sheila shared. “I had planned to go into business with another man, Paul. I was going to get the operator’s licence; he was going to drive for the business. He was planning to bring Nick Porch into the business, they would be the drivers and I would run the administration side.
“Paul died in the pandemic due to covid. He was lovely. I’d known him for such a long time. We always talk about him in the office.
“Paul was the link and connection between Nick and I. Nick called me after Paul had passed away. He said “I’m Penfold!” (The joke is that he looks like Penfold from Danger Mouse – and that was Paul’s nickname for him.) He wanted to see if it was still possible to work together. Nick had a secure job in a corporate company but took a leap to join The Oil Lady.
“We’ve never looked back, it’s been brilliant. Tough, but brilliant.”
Are you The Oil Lady?
It’s safe to say that The Oil Lady is famous for its logo – it’s distinct and memorable. Claudia asked Sheila about the design and where it came from.
“When I first moved to Essex, nobody could remember my name. I was in the local Co-op talking to someone I knew, and somebody came up behind me and asked: “Are you the oil lady?”
“After 2 years of running the syndicate, everyone knew me as The Oil Lady so, when we were deciding on a name for the business, it seemed like the obvious choice! Everyone knows me by it and would know who was running the business.
“Initially, I wanted the logo to be an Italian washerwoman. She would have been hanging out the side of a truck with her hose! The Italian washerwoman was my original concept, and I took that idea to a graphic designer. Because of my illness, I went in with my walking stick and my sunglasses on and a big handbag. I had drawn my ideas and left them with him to make the logo – the brief was ‘professional but with a hint of comedy.’
“A month later, they sent me the logo and I could have cried! It wasn’t what I wanted. But gradually it grew on me. I always make the joke that she looks like my mum – she doesn’t really, but it makes me smile. And now I love my logo. I did think about rebranding but couldn’t bring myself to change the logo. It’s so distinctive, it’s my brand.” Fuel Oil News would have to agree!
It’s still a male-dominated business
Discussing the wider industry and how it is still heavily male dominated Claudia asked Sheila how she had found being a female business owner in the sector.
“Without a doubt it’s still a male-dominated industry but it’s not as extreme as the insurance sector! I believe that women are thought more highly of in the oil business but it’s still a man’s world. I like to be in the industry as me, I’m not going to put on airs and graces!
“I know there are other women in the industry who also run distribution business but not many. I also don’t know many women that have set one up from scratch. It’s a daunting thing to do and not something that most people would do. I feel that women are always underestimated.”
We broke the mould
Sheila reminisced about her first time attending and exhibiting at the UKIFDA Show and Conference. “We exhibited at the Conference in 2016. It was a huge deal and an eye opener for me. We had our bold logo featuring an old lady and it was pink! People crowded round the stand; we were packed! We broke the mould of the conventional oil company – we were something different and stood out. It helped us to become known in the sector.”
Considering the future for fuel distribution Sheila mused: “The government don’t fully know what is going to replace oil. HVO, and all the other biofuels, none of them have yet solidified what is going to be the future of oil.
“Eventually, I believe that you’re going to be left with three big companies. The smaller companies will be swallowed by the three big ones, or they will have to diversify and change what they do. Personally, I’m in the process of setting up The Green Lady!
“Nick and I have a couple of different ideas around renewable fuel. We’ve got a lot of work to do!”
The answer must be to diversify
Sheila explained their plans for diversification: “We hope to take on another driver, and expect our second truck by the end of the year. That’s coming from SOS Sales. What I’m realising very quickly is that the summers hurt. The answer must be to diversify. Other companies in this sector have another company that supplements their business. For example, a waste business or farm services. The Oil Lady hurts during June, July, and August. You cannot sell fuel at a loss.
“I had a chat with Nick and suggested that we diversify with a lawn business called The Green Lady to tie in with The Oil Lady. We’ll do everything naturally, we’ll aerate, we won’t use chemical fertilisers. We want to make a natural gardening business. I truly believe in the natural way of doing things.
“Anyone can mow a lawn but trying to find a good gardener is Essex is like gold dust. We are close to an agricultural college which opens the opportunity for interns and apprentices. There isn’t a lot of money in gardening, but it does mean that we will be productive and generating income in the summer months. We’ll also be looking at providing solar and wind energy.
“I want to take The Green Lady in that direction and have lots of ideas to partner up with different companies to try and make that business carbon neutral, and offsets everything I’m doing as The Oil Lady.”
If you can only afford 500 litres, why should you be penalised for that?
“Renewable fuels are currently so expensive for the average consumer meaning many cannot afford it. Any fuel is an expensive purchase for most people. You don’t get a bonus from me even if you buy more fuel. If you order 500 litres or 1,500 litres from The Oil Lady, you’re going to get the same price.
“I’ve always believed the marketplace is skewed for the wealthy and not the poor. I’ve been on benefits and not been able to afford food or fuel. If you can only afford 500 litres, why should you be penalised for that? My biggest customers see that, they understand. Industry, generally, is about making the most money but I am different. I want to make a living, but I want repeat custom. I want people to able to trust what I’m saying and for people to feel good about what they’re purchasing.”
Business is not a chore
It’s clear that Sheila is a successful businesswoman but also one that cares deeply about her employees and customers.
“We want to stand for fairness and honesty and to be trustworthy,” Sheila continued. “One of the best compliments I’ve received was from a customer. He spent over £1000 on oil and at the end of the conversation he said: “I have never ever enjoyed spending this amount of money as much as I’ve enjoyed this conversation with you.”
“That’s what I’m aiming for. Business is not a chore.
“There are three different types of customers: the ones who order online and never speak directly to us, the ones who speak when they have time and then there is a third group – they have nobody else to talk to and we are their friends. We take the time to speak to them. Maybe their spouse has died, or their children aren’t nearby. Small interactions in their day make such a difference.”
“If something isn’t right with a customer then we get in touch with their family, or friends – we are there to support. It’s more than just selling oil. You can’t teach this, and it doesn’t happen in a big company. I wouldn’t want to lose that if we got bigger. We always say that you don’t rush anyone off the phone. Give them time because communication matters. I want customers to come back to me because of the product and the high level of service.”
The best advice
Asked for the best advice she’s received in the industry, Sheila replied: “The best piece of advice I’ve received, and it goes across the board, is not to be complacent. It’s very easy to forget things because you’re not being looked at under a microscope but the details matter. That advice came from Graham Binstead at Just Tankers who reminded me to never be complacent and not to rest on my laurels.
“I’d also like to mention Francesca Jowsey who was my biggest inspiration and such a fantastic businesswoman. I credit her with teaching me what I needed to know to start The Oil Lady. Her drive and determination to succeed reminded me of when I used to work in insurance. She was the one who said you need to make this a company, you need to make this work.”
I’m a very chatty person!
With Sheila’s clear enthusiasm for all she does, Claudia asked what she enjoys most about life at work and at home. “In fuel, I enjoy the relationships and connections with people I meet,” Sheila replied. “I’m a very chatty person!
“I love making a difference. If I can make a difference in one person’s life every day, even a small thing like being on the phone, or getting them a number for a boiler engineer, or just a kind word, that’s what I enjoy about working. I want to pay forward the kindness people showed to me when I was struggling.
“In my free time, I love painting, quilting, all arts and crafts! I even did the signs for my own truck. I also love my dogs. In lockdown, I bought a chocolate labradoodle who is a very mischievous little pup. She’s our credit control and social secretary! I’m also an avid caravanner, if I have a few days off I take my mobile office with the dogs and I can sit at the seaside answering calls and taking orders. I just love to do things that I haven’t done before.” Fuel Oil News wishes Sheila and the team at The Oil Lady all the best with the growing business and very much look forward to hearing more about The Green Lady!