From Blue Book to MacBook: 26 Years of Bunkering

7th November 2017

Barry Newton, Managing Director of the Geos Group (Sea Bunkering), reflects on over a quarter of a century in the marine bunkering business.

In the twenty six years that I have been trading marine gas oil, nothing and everything has changed. The Geos Group (Sea Bunkering) still buys the same fuel and delivers it to the same ships from the same tanks, using roughly the same methods as we did back in the early nineties – but the way we go about our business has changed beyond all recognition.

When we started trading at the end of 1991, the UK’s small number of marine fuel traders worked almost exclusively in one geographical area. Sea Bunkering was based in Hull, and – as an agent for ConocoPhillips (P66) – mostly sold fuel to vessels in the Humber. The other ConocoPhillips agents operated in a similar manner and fuel traders rarely did much business outside their own territory. Over a quarter of a century later, technological advances have transformed the industry, globalisation has literally opened up a world of opportunities and now fuel traders can easily arrange the bunkering of vessels on every continent.

Before globalisation, I used to drive around the ports on the Humber every day to find out which ships were docked. Nowadays a trader can sit at a desk, go online and track the movements of any vessel in the world with a few clicks of the mouse – but in those days, you just went outside and had a look. After scribbling down the ships’ names on a piece of paper, I would go back to the office and get out the Blue Book (all traders had a copy of the Blue Book – a directory of all the ships in the UK and who owned them), phone the ship-owners and offer them fuel. I used to spend all day on the phone, before people started using email, which meant that deals took longer to do but relationships between suppliers and customers were closer and more personal. Trades were confirmed by telex (a network of tele-printers similar to a phone network, through which you could send text-only messages).

Technology has also made commodity markets much more volatile – news is reported every second of every day, information travels fast and news breaks instantly, so it’s no wonder that markets jump up and down all the time as traders attempt to understand, analyse and react to global events. Twenty six years ago, markets were much more sluggish – we received a fuel price from the refinery on Monday and it didn’t usually move before Thursday! We found out what was going on by talking to suppliers and other traders, and by reading the newspapers and the shipping journal Lloyds List.

Technology has transformed nearly every other aspect of our business too, from setting up credit to data storage, from banking to marketing, logistics to HR. Buying mechanisms are sophisticated, reports are automated, market analysis is intelligent and there is an app for just about anything and everything (apart from making the tea). We have gone from a team of three people with pens, calculators and landlines to a team of sixteen people with computers, MacBooks and mobiles (and we still use pens, calculators and landlines). One of the original team, June Heron, is still an important part of the Finance department: June’s immense knowledge, experience and wisdom, and her knack of keeping everybody on the right track, constantly remind­s me that no matter how much other things change, the people in your business will always be your most valuable asset.

Some of the suppliers and customers that I knew in 1991 are also still around today; we have all progressed and adapted our business models to embrace new ways of doing things. We are like siblings that grew up side-by-side and can still look back on the old days with shared memories, a knowing chuckle and the occasional moment of nostalgia. But the Geos Group (Sea Bunkering) and I have moved with the times with tremendous enthusiasm. Although the barriers to entry to our industry have crumbled – opening the door to many more players and putting pressure on margins – we have stayed competitive as traders and safeguarded our future by becoming the biggest independent physical marine gas oil supplier in the UK. I wonder what the next twenty six years will bring?

Interview by Alison Stodolnic