Tony McDonough meets STEVE JONES, joint managing director of Fairbanks
WHEN Steve Jones and Bob Conlin first set up their petrol station monitoring business, Fairbanks, back in 1996, they would turn up in their business suits and then change into their overalls in the back.
In the early days, we wanted to give the right impression to our customers, said Jones.
We wanted to get the message across that we were there to do compliance, not maintenance that we were a business-to-business operation.
Both Jones and Conlin, close friends as well as business partners, have long since hung up their overalls.
From Fairbanks Skelmersdale headquarters, they now employ 150 people in a business with an expanding global reach.
In laymans terms, Fairbanks carries out 24/7 monitoring of petrol stations for leaks and fraudulent loss of petrol or diesel.
This is done via a little black box which will pick up any unusual movement and immediately report it to both Fairbanks and the customer.
Jones said: There is no statutory obligation in the UK for petrol station operators to monitor for leaks or other types of losses, but it is now considered best practice to do so.
Losing a few thousand litres of petrol via a leak can cost an operator thousands of pounds, and if that fuel then contaminates the groundwater the cost of cleaning that up could be hundreds of thousands.
So we get across that not paying to monitor can be a false economy.
Jones added that the storage equipment and pumps at petrol stations are now of a better quality than they were back when the company started, so leaks are less common.
But he says that particularly since the economic downturn and the surge in fuel prices, theft of petrol and diesel has now become more commonplace and this is where the black box can also earn its money.
Someone might turn up in the middle of the night when the petrol station is closed and try to steal thousands of litres of diesel, said Jones.
In fact, some are becoming so brazen that they will attempt it while it is still open.
As soon as the fuel starts to go, it is detected by the black box which can immediately alert the customer via SMS text message.
He says Fairbanks has one or two competitors in the UK, but insists they are by far the market leader, servicing about 3,600 of the UKs 8,500 outlets.
Its systems are also used in 34 countries across the world, particularly in Europe, Asia and Australia.
In recent weeks, it has secured a three-year deal with oil giant Shell to deliver its services to more than 3,000 petrol stations in 25 countries.
It has partnered with another firm, Tokheim, to deliver the contract.
Jones said: We are delighted that Shell has chosen Fairbanks as their preferred wetstock management provider.
Shell employs a number of diverse systems across its global networks and Fairbanks is well equipped to provide a service that works to meet Shells current and future business development ambitions. This comes on the back of other contracts secured with a number of major customers within the UK, so we are all looking forward to delivering the solutions that will provide added value and benefit to our customers.
Jones says the monitoring of petrol pumps is actually a mandatory requirement in other parts of the world, but not in the UK.
You might imagine he would like to see this change, but surprisingly Jones believes the system of self-regulation in the UK actually works quite well and he sees little need for government legislation.
I think we do things here in what you might describe as a very British way, he said. Here in the UK, we have taken a very collaborative approach and monitoring has now been widely adopted as best practice.
In this country, the local authorities issue licences for petrol stations and they have worked closely with oil companies, garages, retailers and ourselves.
It is an approach that I think works very well.
As well as working with Shell, Fairbanks can already count other household names among its customers, including BP and large supermarkets like Tesco and Morrisons.
Our customer base includes small independent petrol retailers right up to national operators, he added.
We look after every BP-branded outlet in the UK, although not all of them actually belong to BP.
We provide a little black box that costs just a few hundred pounds and it can save them a lot more than that.
Not having something like this can be a false economy.
BORN and brought up in Liverpool, Jones, who has recently turned 50, attended De La Salle school before going on to study computational and statistical science at the University of Liverpool.
My mum would have liked me to have been a priest and I thought about doing law, but in the end I settled on computers, he said.
These days, computers are ubiquitous and are as an integral part of the workplace as the walls.
But, 30 years ago, it was very different and it was a period when many companies were switching over to IT systems for the first time.
This meant that Joness skills as a computer programmer were in great demand.
He said: My first job was in a cash and carry warehouse located in what is now a car park outside Manchester Uniteds Old Trafford stadium.
I then went to work for another firm back in Liverpool before joining a computer consultancy in Manchester.
We helped a number of businesses who were installing computer systems for the first time.
Some people who worked in these places were aware, as they were unsure of how it would affect their jobs.
Jones then worked for a company in Telford, but around 1994, in what were difficult economic times for the UK, he was made redundant.
It was tough for me at the time, but it was ultimately the right thing for me because it was the catalyst to set up my own business, he said.
It was an idea that had been lurking in the back of my mind for some time.
The difference between what the companies I worked for were charging for my time and what was in my wage packet, hadnt escaped my attention.
Jones did freelance consultancy work for a while and in 1996 got talking to Bob Conlin and another man about setting up a business.
He already knew Conlin, who at that time was employed by BT to clear up leaks at petrol stations.
The third individual did not join but Jones and Conlin, with the backing of their families, set up Fairbanks in a back bedroom.
We did not take salaries for the first couple of years, but luckily both our wives were working so there was money coming in, explained Jones.
THOSE days are now far behind, and Fairbanks is firmly focused on expanding its reach across the globe.
He said: I would certainly not say we are recession-proof no business is, said Jones.
But what we have found is that, when times are hard, companies want us to help them minimise their losses and when times are good, we can help them improve their environmental credentials.
Jones remains happily married to his wife Ruth who supported him in the early days. The couple have three children Bridget, 20, Maria, 18, and Phil, 15.
In his spare time, he is a keen musician. He plays bass guitar in a rock band and trombone in the Maghull Wind Orchestra.
He says his and Conlins different skills in IT and engineering make their partnership the perfect combination and he is very optimistic for the future of Fairbanks.
He said: We set up our first overseas office in Melbourne, Australia. It was very expensive and we learned a lot from that.
Now we operate a network of franchises overseas. There is a lot of potential for growth there are 200,000 petrol stations in the US, 35,000 in Japan and 200,000 in China.
These are big markets.
He and Conlin started off very hands-on, but both have learned to be able to step back over time and give responsibility to others.
He added: We both recognise that we are now employers, role models and mentors. We take on young people and let them learn by making their own mistakes and I think that is the sign of a good business.