Wednesday, April 24, 2024

THE HOYOS FILE: Rubis’ rise in Caribbean remarkable


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THERE WAS A TIME, let’s say five years ago, when it seemed the sun would rise on only one petroleum company in Barbados.

Mega-mergers in the oil business had led to new thinking among the giants, and much of that thinking was along the lines of: “Let’s get the heck out of these small, highly regulated Caribbean markets and go where the big money is!”

Mobil was, I believe, the first to go when it merged with Esso to form ExxonMobil. Some consolidation followed, but Esso remained a strong brand, competing among the oil marketing companies here.

A few years later Shell sold its regional business to Sir Kyffin Simpson, who launched a new brand, Sol Caribbean, and over time changed the branding at the service stations as well.

And then there were two. Sol bought Esso and, under its purchase agreement, must continue to operate some stations under the Esso brand. Five years ago, Texaco said it didn’t want to spoil the party, but it was going to go as well.

I don’t know about you, but I had nightmares about a monopoly on the forecourt emerging. But then, from out of nowhere it seemed, a French company called Rubis arrived on the scene.

Now, as I learned only last week at their fifth anniversary party, at the Cliff Beach Club in St James, it was really a David-versus-Goliath scenario. Sol Caribbean, with Shell and Esso stations under its belt, was without a doubt the powerhouse of the Caribbean. It still may be.

But as I learned, this did not deter Rubis, which, according to a press release, is a French company founded in 1990 that specialises in the “downstream” petroleum and chemicals sector. Through subsidiary companies, it also operates bulk liquid storage facilities for petroleum products and chemicals, and distributes fuels. 

But until 2011, Rubis had no retail service stations in the Caribbean, although it had been growing its presence across Africa, Europe and the Caribbean through direct investments and acquisitions. (I have no idea what those were so don’t ask me.)

The story I am summarising, starts really in 2011, when the company purchased the Texaco assets owned and operated by Chevron in the Eastern Caribbean for US$300 million. 

This acquisition made Rubis, for the first time, a major petroleum products retailer in the Eastern Caribbean, including Barbados. But it didn’t stop there: acquisitions the following year included the Chevron assets in The Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands, and in 2013, Rubis acquired the assets of the Antilles Group fuels distribution business in Jamaica, including a network of 53 service stations operating under the Shell brand. 

Yeah, yeah, you say, hinting that boredom is causing your eyelids to droop. Mergers and acquisitions can be so tiring. Well, did you know that all the rebranding of those acquisitions into one Rubis retail brand was accomplished right here in Barbados, starting from scratch?

I didn’t, as the history of corporate branding in this region is mainly about marketers and consultants abroad imposing their solutions to a company’s local rebranding problems.

For example, one of the worst which (unfortunately) readily comes to mind is, or was, LIME, which was Cable & Wireless’ effort to “go Caribbean” – to shave off its imperial mustache, grow some dreadlocks and swap the Bridgetown Club for the Reggae Club.

(Okay, that last one may have been a bridge too far.) But you remember LIME, right? With its predominant colour for the sunny Caribbean being NOT lime green but black, and its secondary colours being literally the other “secondary” colours used by the printing industry in the four-colour process – magenta, cyan and yellow.

But back to the David in our story. Rubis, working with local ad agency Virgo Communications, came up with what its Caribbean chief executive officer Mauricio Nicholls called “all the key marketing elements of our brand: its personality; (and) its look and feel,” rolling it out with maximum speed through its initial network and then to the other stations as they were acquired.

It was so successful, he told his guests at the company’s recent birthday bash, that Rubis had now become an iconic retail brand, “resonating rationally and emotionally with our consumers to emerge as the preferred fuel brand in all our Caribbean markets”.

Since its launch in 2011, he said, Rubis had invested over US$50 million in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean and continues to look for new opportunities. 

In Barbados, the company has added four new service stations, including the Mapp Hill station, which is undergoing a massive expansion and is scheduled to open under the Rubis brand in a few weeks, bringing the number of stations to 16. 

This steady expansion has led to Rubis adding 71 new permanent employees in the region, including 19 in Barbados.

Nicholls said the company had exceeded its business plan and prior-year results every year since coming to the region in 2011, an achievement which he characterised as “nothing short of remarkable in an economic environment characterised by sluggish growth”.

And the little French company that believed it did not have to remain a David to Sol’s Goliath has now received planning permission to start construction of its regional headquarters building in Barbados, an investment of around $11 million. 

Rubis’ rise in the Caribbean has not only been based on acquisition and marketing.

The company says it has gone the whole hog in creating a company culture that encourages people to give of their best and to feel part of the Rubis family. I wouldn’t know about that, except to say that if it can be measured in terms of how you are treated as a Rubis customer, it may well be true. 

Happy fifth birthday, Rubis, and here’s hoping the sun also rises on many more for you.


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