Circling the stations
As the roll-out of the Circle K brand continues across Ireland, Gillian Hamill catches up with senior director of retail operations, Joanne D’Arcy, to learn more about the company’s progress to date
25 October 2018 | 0
In early 2016, when Circle K acquired the Topaz chain from businessman Denis O’Brien in a deal reportedly valued at €258 million, our attention zoomed into this major industry development. What’s more, we certainly haven’t lost interest since then! Given that a significant sum had just been invested in the roll-out of the Re.Store brand in Topaz forecourt stores at the time, all eyes were glued to Alimentation Couche-Tard, the Canadian owner of the Circle K brand, to see what would happen next.
Fast-forward to the present day, and the nationwide Circle K rebrand which started in May 2018, is showing no signs of slowing down. Currently, 137 sites have already been rebranded and Circle K plans to have all 420 branches completed within 18 – 24 months, so April 2020 at the latest. “We’re making good headway,” is the confident appraisal of senior director of retail operations, Joanne D’Arcy. “We don’t know what the winter has in store for us but we definitely plan on being finished by then.”
Impressively, there is a turnaround of just five days required for each site rebrand. As our readers will be all too aware, a slick operation based on detailed planning is required to reach this level of efficiency. “We worked very closely with our contract partners in relation to the rebrand,” D’Arcy says. “We had a lot of learnings from our European colleagues because they have gone through this process, but in addition to that, we had two pilot sites in Dublin where we set up the canopies.” In short, Circle K used this opportunity to ensure the process was as streamlined as humanly possible, setting out the “whole rebrand from start to finish. We made sure that we nailed down the process, so there was limited disruption for customers and also for the team in-store,” D’Arcy says. “So far, it has been pretty seamless and we hope for it to continue that way now into the next six to 12 months.”
Of course, such an efficient process, staggered across the country, requires a heavyweight injection of funds. D’Arcy explains Circle K has planned an investment of €55 million for Ireland. This includes €20 million on the rebrand which encompasses marketing activity, the physical rebrand of Circle K sites and fuel vehicles, as well as in-store renovations. Approximately €35 million will be spent on the development of new sites over a period of 18-24 months, alongside the development of new in-store concepts and food offerings. To date, Circle K has invested over €70m in the Irish business in addition to relocating a number of global functions to Ireland. These include global fuels, global procurement and global brand, creating significant value-added employment in Dublin.
New store openings
ShelfLife was keen to hear about Circle K’s new sites, including more on the progress of four new motorway service stations in Wexford, Westmeath and two in Kildare, reported in the national media. However, due to a contractual agreement with Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), the brand is “unable to comment on these particular sites at this stage”. However, D’Arcy does fill us in on two sites that opened this year. The first of these was Dublin’s City North site which is located on Junction 7 on the M1. This “completely new concept store” opened in March, making it one of the first Circle K sites to open in Ireland. It makes something of a bold statement about where the brand sees itself within the industry. “We have our new food offer, we have Cantina in there as well; it’s just a new look and feel to the store and it’s a real environment where people can come in and relax,” D’Arcy says.
Following City North, Circle K opened its new motorway site in Fermoy, Co. Cork, which also features a standalone barista concept with the Simply Great Coffee offering. Another project which D’Arcy is excited about is the redevelopment of the Circle K at Goff’s on the M7, northbound. “We’re hoping to have that open towards the end of the year,” D’Arcy tells ShelfLife, “and that will be a much bigger store, with our new food range, and it will be open 24 hours a day. We are looking forward to reopening because it’s such a busy road, particularly in the mornings with a high volume of people commuting to work.”
Speaking of mornings, D’Arcy believes this is a segment of the market where there is room for diversification and growth. “The breakfast offer was an area where we knew we had more potential,” she says, “so we have developed our breakfast menu to include something for everybody.” Alongside that well-known favourite, the humble breakfast roll, the group has expanded its offering with omelettes and protein breakfast pots for health-conscious consumers. “We have something sweet as well,” D’Arcy adds. “People are looking for a treat and something different, so we offer Belgian waffles for breakfast, which are available in all our stores before 11am. We have also developed our bakery range to include a lot more lines, so it’s something that we really want to push. We launched a ‘Serious about Breakfast’ campaign at the beginning of September to support this time of day in terms of our food offer.”
D’Arcy reckons Circle K has also upped the game with regards to the lunch offer. “Our lunchtime offer was always very strong traditionally, so we have just enhanced that range with various salads, such as a beetroot and goat’s cheese salad and various chicken salads. They’re all made up fresh in the store and they’re really, really good. They have been developed specially for Circle K.” All-in-all, she is confident the brand has the right range to fulfil consumers’ needs around the clock. “Circle K will offer customers food and beverage options for each moment of the day,” she says. “From omelettes and breakfast burritos to premium wraps and hot pots, we have extended our range to respond to our customers’ preferences.” In addition, the brand provides a range of dishes such as lasagna and chicken korma which are prepared on-site and these can be purchased hot or cold, giving customers more options yet again.
In fact, while the former Topaz chain has benefited from Alimentation Couche Tard’s global expertise, D’Arcy says Ireland has also proved fertile ground for providing foodservice know-how for other European countries. “We are the innovation hub for food in Ireland,” she says, “and I think we are leading the way for Europe and globally as well, in terms of forecourt retailing and how we provide food.” Circle K’s European head office in Oslo was so impressed by the authentic Mexican offering, Cantina. That it is now being rolled out as part of a new store concept. “A lot of how we run our delis and some of our menu ideas,” D’Arcy adds, “are also being looked to by other countries, in terms of how they can develop their own food offer and forecourt retailing offer in general.”
Certainly, there are mutual benefits at play, with Circle K Ireland benefitting from the might of an established international player in the forecourt retail space. “Circle K has a clear vision to become the ‘World’s preferred destination for convenience and fuel’,” D’Arcy says. The brand’s mission is to ‘Make it easy’ for customers, which involves making each customer visit to its sites “as enjoyable as possible”. This strategy appears to be working so far. D’Arcy cites the group’s recent brand awareness survey, which showed Circle K Ireland achieved the highest positive attitude towards rebranding (after exposure to the brand’s marketing campaign) compared with seven other markets. It also scored 50% aided brand awareness at the end of July of this year.
Viewers were also impressed by the enthusiasm displayed by team members in Circle K’s advertisements – so much so that many thought the ‘staff’ appearing on their screens were actually actors. “A lot of people were questioning whether they were actors but the guys in all the ads, whether it’s television or radio, are all our own staff,” D’Arcy says, clearly happy to clear up such a complimentary misunderstanding! “Staff across all Circle K sites and at the Dublin HQ have bought into and embraced the brand,” she says. “This is strengthened by the presence of Irish Circle K internal ambassadors across the business who featured in our TV advertisements.”
Being part of a global forecourt operator also gives staff members excellent opportunities to progress their careers in different countries. “There are plenty of examples of people in the last two years who have moved onto European roles that are based in Ireland,” D’Arcy says, “where they travel back and forth on certain days to Oslo or other countries and work from home as well.” The fact that several global departments are now based in Ireland also gives individuals the chance to fulfil a global role while still being based at home. A number of colleagues and their families have also moved over to the States to work directly with Circle K US.
“We are part of the wider family now, so we can avail of a lot of the tools that are available from Circle K,” D’Arcy adds. “We have full transparency and we can benchmark ourselves against other countries.” A further advantage in joining Circle K was the addition of new hardware and software systems, both at point of sale and in the back office. Naturally, however, this is a significant change to which it takes time to adjust. “We’re still working through it,” Darcy says. “It’s not perfect; we’re still putting new processes in place, but I do feel that we have worked through most of the changes at this stage and every day we are seeing more and more benefits to the systems that we’ve implemented. From a retail perspective, there are a lot of [materials] that we can take from Europe that we don’t have to develop ourselves. That obviously saves us a lot of time here in the support office.”
D’Arcy is certainly no stranger to working with European colleagues or indeed, in another country. This is an experience which in the past, she accredits with helping her to grow and develop as an individual and strengthen her resilience. When ShelfLife asks which achievement she is most proud of, she explains more about the challenges involved during a spell of 18 months working abroad in Germany with her previous employer, Lidl. “I was 25 years old and alone in a foreign country, working in a language that I had learned in three months,” D’Arcy says. “I was sent on the development programme as I was a high performer and all of a sudden, I was stripped of my strengths: my personality and communication skills. It was like starting again,” she admits honestly. “It was a tough time personally as I was away from my family and friends. Why I am most proud of this achievement is because I stuck with it,” she adds. “I pushed myself to do my fluency test in German, had a positive mindset and looked for ways to continuously develop myself. I built resilience, strength, grew hugely as a person and this changed the way I viewed things and empathised with people.”
It is clear from this memory and our interview in general, that D’Arcy is certainly not someone to shy away from a challenge and her rapid career progression illustrates this. After completing a BSc in Retail and Service Management Degree in DIT in 2005, she wasted absolutely no time in making tracks within the retail sector. “I handed in my dissertation on the Friday and started in Lidl on Monday as a store manager,” she says. After completing her degree, D’Arcy was qualified to start her career as an area manager but believes beginning as a store manager proved a wise move. “It was a really good decision,” she says. “The fact that I started as a store manager at such a young age, I was only 21, meant that I was able to really learn the business from the ground up and I was running my own store then at 22.”
From there, D’Arcy worked in various roles in Lidl and developed up through the ranks. She was a regional training and development manager for 18 months, before her sojourn in Germany. Next, she was a sales operations executive for two and half years, based in Mullingar, where the region’s area managers reported into her, before progressing to the role of head of sales organisation. Finally, D’Arcy moved to the US for around eight months to support preparations for the opening of Lidl US in 2016. She also completed a MSc in Personal and Management Coaching in UCC between 2014-2016, with the result that she is a fully-qualified executive coach.
With such a wealth of experience under her belt, we were keen to hear more about D’Arcy’s leadership style. The first point she makes is that she doesn’t believe in micro-management; it’s better to manage people through objectives. “In today’s world, you can work from wherever you like, whenever you like as long as you achieve your objectives,” she says. “I don’t believe in a culture of presence, whereby people work long hours and wear it as a badge of honour. I believe in efficiency and working smarter.”
She also believes encouragement is vital. “Give people a chance,” she advises. “Support them both professionally and personally and give them room to grow.” A democratic approach is also a must. “In terms of problem solving and decision making,” she continues, “I am at my best surrounded by my team at a whiteboard brainstorming a solution and way forward, ensuring that everyone is involved and bought into the decision.”
Finger on the pulse
There’s no such thing as a typical day for D’Arcy moreover. “Last week I was in Denmark sharing best practice with our European colleagues, this week in Sweden,” she says. While a portion of every week is office-based, focused on operational support for the retail stores, she adds that “a high proportion of the week is on the road, visiting sites and keeping our finger on the pulse in the market.”
She is confident Circle K is offering the right proposition to survive within the competitive forecourt sector. “Overall, we are in a very positive place and are performing well with good year-on-year growth,” she says. “We are leading the way in innovation and development. We have put a lot of investment into our forecourts, and our car washes in particular. I truly believe our car washes are the best in the market in terms of what we offer, both in value-for-money and quality. We also have our Simply Great Coffee range and I think that’s a brand that people identify with when they come into Circle K; they know to expect a quality coffee. What’s more, our food offer delivers something for everyone and is competitively priced.”
Each month, ShelfLife asks our cover interviewee, ‘Who inspires you in business?’
“The person that comes to mind is Sheryl Sandberg. Women have more opportunities today than ever before. I read her book, ‘Lean In’, in 2016 when I was away in the US on business. From my perspective it was a groundbreaking read and it really made me reflect on my own career and the careers of those around me. In the book she described how women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers. She encourages women to pursue their professional goals and gives practical steps on what this looks like. The ‘modern woman’ wants it all, but it comes at a cost and I don’t think women themselves even realise it. I am not a fan of the ‘women quota’ as I feel that it undermines both men and women’s ability. I believe that the most capable person should get a job and that we must strive to make it easier for all men and women to have harmony between their life and career.”