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Evolve to succeed: interview with Mabanaft MD, Martin Cook

We’re pleased to bring you the next instalment of our fuel industry leaders interviews, this time a conversation with Martin Cook, Joint Managing Director at Mabanaft and father of 3, who has some sound advice on what a company should do to evolve and succeed in the fuel market.

Martin, could you tell us about your background and how you came into the fuel industry?


Starting at SCF

I joined the industry almost fourteen years ago, when after completing a Geography degree at Birmingham University I moved to London to work for a distributor called Southern Counties Fuels (SCF). 

Initially I was a Contracts Manager responsible for domestic customers with a contractual commitment in place, from fixed priced deals to automated deliveries. As my career progressed, I took on additional responsibilities including marketing, and managing the domestic sales team. Working across different departments gave me an excellent grounding. I can’t stress enough the value that this exposure to all aspects of the business brought to my career. 

Becoming increasingly fascinated by the downstream supply chain, in particular the importation and bulk sales of petroleum products, I made the decision to move on. Although it was hard to leave a business that had supported me in the early stages of my career. 

Journey at Mabanaft

I took the unconventional approach of contacting potential employers directly. During my time at SCF I’d built a network of industry contacts, one of whom was Mark Rolph the Marketing Director at Mabanaft, and Mark was first on my list. After a successful interview process, I joined Mabanaft’s sales team, looking after distributors in Scotland, and the North East and East of England. 

I immersed myself in the complexities of the business, from hedging physical product and foreign currencies to operating cargoes. Over time the job evolved, and new opportunities arose. I became National Accounts Manager, responsible for national distributors, supermarkets and our aviation business, which at the time was in its infancy. 

In 2013 the role of Marketing Manager became available and it was a natural progression in my career, allowing me to apply sales strategies across the wider business while building on my management skills. 

When, in 2017, MD Raphael Hüttmann moved back to Germany to further his career in the group I was appointed joint MD alongside Financial Director, Eoin Dilworth. We are now jointly responsible for Mabanaft in the UK, supplying in excess of two billion litres of refined petroleum products to independent distributors, retailers, hauliers, commercial airlines, supermarkets and commercial customers.  

What would you class as the biggest factors which have contributed to your own success in the industry so far?

Support & autonomy
Mabanaft is a very supportive employer, always looking to promote internally before going to the open market and maintaining a very flexible attitude. They offer an impressive level of autonomy. Although a job has core responsibilities, individuals are allowed to flourish by developing the role into something that plays to their individual strengths.

Although Mabanaft is a large corporation, it’s still a family-owned business at heart, and I believe this engenders an entrepreneurial culture that supports this level of autonomy. Not everyone likes to work this way, but it’s an approach that I enjoy and thrive under. I like exposure and it has worked incredibly well for me throughout my career. 

Wide-range of experience
Having experience of working for a distributor gave me a degree of credibility when it came to selling to distributors; showing I understood the challenges they faced, which naturally served me well.

Open-minded attitude & adaptability
I’ve been in the oil industry for fourteen years and it has changed beyond recognition – it’s a very dynamic market and I’d say that being open to change has had a significant impact on my success.

In order for a business to prosper the management team will seek continuous improvement which means challenging established processes and exploring new opportunities. As an employee, you have to be open to these changes; know when to lead with a new direction and when to push back. We have an open forum at Mabanaft where people have a voice and the opportunity to challenge direction and strategy. In recent years demand in our conventional markets has contracted, so we’ve found new areas for growth such as the aviation sector. Now 30% of the fuel we supply is jet, compared to around 2% in 2013. Our adaptive approach has led to significant changes in our core business model and improved success. 

Embracing technology
The market has also changed considerably over the years, we now sell fuel online via our Mabalive portal. It used to be a manual process, with phone calls and data entry into multiple systems. Now customers can view prices, place orders and manage deal administration online with real-time reporting. Recent enhancements to our systems have transformed our business, enabling end-to-end automation of critical processes from the point of order through to final invoicing.

This new technology could be seen as a threat but I take the attitude that these tools are there to support, not replace us. In fact they free up valuable time for face to face meetings and other important aspects of proactive account management. It’s about being open-minded, not just in the way you approach the market, but also to new technology and solutions. You must avoid the ‘we’ve always done it that way’ mindset if you want to succeed in such a dynamic industry. 

For those hoping to progress their career in the fuel market, what advice would you give?

It feels like a much more competitive landscape compared to when I started out. In the past having a degree was enough, now it seems many young professionals also have a masters, some are even overqualified for roles.

From my perspective real exposure is what matters, learning from all the different jobs you have had. Working in a pub when I was younger was my first exposure to being ‘customer-facing’, and it has served me well! Now I see highly skilled graduates coming into the industry without the necessary soft skills. Having a range of different employment experiences gives you structure and grounding for when you properly embark on your career.

When you do get into the industry, taking opportunities to work across disciplines is something I can’t recommend enough. Acquiring a more profound understanding of the market and network will be immensely valuable to your future. 

I’d also recommend that you do your homework on alternative fuels, as we know this is where the market is heading. Whilst we can’t turn our back on conventional fossil fuels (which are likely to be around for the next 10-15 years) having a solid understanding of the different advanced fuels and government mandates will surely be beneficial for the future. 

How have you seen mentorship practised effectively during your career?

One individual I used to report into was a fantastic delegator. He knew how to strike a balance between giving you guidance and giving you autonomy. That autonomy allowed you to make decisions (not always the right ones) which I believe is necessary to learning. If things didn’t quite go to plan, he would provide support. That’s what’s crucial from a mentor, to allow you to learn and to offer the support you when you need it.

At Mabanaft, we have an open plan office which helps from a mentorship perspective. We try to prevent our employees from being keyboard warriors! Instead, we want people to go to each other’s desks and speak to each other – you can get things done far more quickly and effectively this way. I think that’s where we differ from the oil majors; we’re a lot more agile because we’re a smaller team.

The open culture we have also brings about exposure and support, and ultimately mentorship opportunities. Working closely with people outside of your area of expertise helps you see the requirements of each different department, resulting in a far greater mutual understanding.

What qualities have some of the best people you’ve worked with had? And the worst?

In terms of good qualities, consistency is key for me. What you want in a manager is a consistency in their approach, not someone constantly changing their thought processes and opinions. You need to know where you stand and be able to trust in their abilities.

Another top quality is the ability to listen. There’s a saying that ‘Every idea is a good idea for at least a minute’. It’s important to listen to peoples’ opinions and give them due consideration. Then, if you don’t think something’s a good idea, have the humility to give feedback constructively.

Measured optimism is also an excellent trait. If you have people who are generally optimistic, there’s a will to do things differently; to change the way you operate. Constantly evolving with the market has been key to the success of Mabanaft. Asking, how do we stay ahead of the curve? The only way you can do that is through change and change needs to be brought about by a collective of people all pulling in the same direction. Measured optimism helps you believe you can make it happen.

Finally, being accessible is essential. Working with employees who have the ability to talk when things have not gone according to plan is hugely beneficial for a company. You need to be able to talk through challenges, there’s no point burying issues as they’ll come back to haunt you or the business at a later date, which isn’t good for anyone. 

In terms of qualities you don’t want brought into the office, people who are disengaged, pessimistic, or inconsistent. I always find it a struggle working with people who protect their own interests over the wellbeing of the company and working with people who are not open to change or who aren’t able to see the bigger picture, is also a frustration.

How has the industry changed since you first started your career?

There’s been huge consolidation in the distributor market. Established national distributors have acquired a lot of family owned regional businesses which means that the relationship with our customers has changed. It’s become a lot more formal. In the past things were done with a handshake, now supply decisions are made via formal tender processes and underpinned with contracts. Consolidation has really changed the dynamic between the supplier and customer, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The move online has inevitably made the industry more transactional. Online account management means you lose some customer contact points with a reduction in phone conversations. But there are also major advantages such as improving transparency, making the process of buying fuel easier and helping people make more informed decisions.

That’s something that’s changed considerably over the course of my career. We launched Mabalive in 2011 and now 75% of all our spot sales are managed through the portal.

We’ve also seen a changing supplier landscape, 3 refineries have closed whilst I’ve been at Mabanaft creating a greater reliance on imports. It’s become more competitive too, as there’s been oversupply, and now we’re starting to see a fall in demand. I’d say there’s now a greater complexity in the market which we have to all work with.

For those who strive for a successful career in the fuel industry, how would you advise they should prepare for the future changes and challenges the market faces?

In general, there’s a rush to adopt things like automation and data analytics, which needs to happen. This creates a need for professionals with different skill sets, such as big data. 

For us, what’s crucial with the upcoming uncertainties and upheaval, is the ability for people to apply themselves and learn. It’s not just about having an understanding of the market but also being able to apply that knowledge on the job.

How do you see the fuel market and jobs changing further in the next 5-10 years? 

I think we’ll see big changes in the fuel portfolio, with alternative fuels gaining a greater stake. There’ll be a growing shift to EV’s, CNG, LNG and potentially hydrogen. I think there’ll be further consolidation for the downstream market, which will entail new challenges for established distributors. 

Technology will continue to move further downstream, bringing new cost efficiencies, which will further change the dynamics in which people interact. 

The job market will see further consolidation, but tech expertise will be in greater demand. Flexible thinkers, and those who can adopt new innovations, will be successful. We’re going to face many new challenges over the next decade so these types of individuals will really fare well in the industry.

If you’re an open-minded kind of person, then it’s an exciting time to be in the industry, if not it could be deemed that great threats are on the horizon! Now’s the time to think about where you position the business and your skill set.

 

Thank you to Martin for giving his time to interview with us and for providing this insightful piece. If you’d like to read more in the series then see our interview with OnlineFuels CEO, James Stairmand, or get alerted to more articles like this by signing up to our fuel industry newsletter below.

Looking to work with a specialist fuel recruitment agency? Find out about our award-winning technique.

Want to connect for future job opportunities? Get in touch via enquiries@abnresource.com or view our fuel jobs page.

 

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