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10 minutes with ... OTR's Michaela Webster

Business

OTR’s chief operating officer Michaela Webster gives InDaily a rare glimpse behind the scenes of one of SA’s most successful companies.

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Lee Nicholson: The OTR brand is extremely strong – what do you attribute that strength to?

Michaela Webster: OTR, it is a fantastic brand. We’ve recently changed all of our signage and everything. I think we’ve improved it.

The thing that separates the business, that has made it so successful, is the people are fantastic and we recruit those people based on certain values.

One of the values is we’ve got to have like-minded people at stores and at the office who really believe in merit, investing in the business, getting more responsibility and developing with the business.

We’ve trained thousands of South Australians. We employ thousands of South Australians. We have a fantastic relationship with the community and if anyone meets with any of the people in the business they hopefully have a good experience.

LN: What exactly is an OTR store?

MW: We’re there to make life easier for the customer. That is our purpose. We are a food court really or a supermarket, but if you don’t call it a supermarket, call it an emergency shop that happens to sell fuel.

We will continue to expand our [brand] to add whatever is needed to meet South Australians’ needs and demands and pick up trends and things happening around the world.

We’ve got a guy who was our first supplier of coffee about 15 years ago. Yasser [Shahin, executive director of OTR owner Peregrine Corporation] met him when no one was interested in meeting him when he first started the business.

I’ve worked with Yasser for 11 years and those common values are what allow us to work so hard.

LN: What do your customers see is the role of an OTR?

MW: We are perceived at this stage to be the emergency top-up shop in general.

In terms of charity, it’s part of our nature. We’re always helping. We’re part of every community.

The largest role we play in South Australia’s fabric is our community relationships.

When you look at education now, there are a group of people who can’t afford to go to uni. They may not be accepted but they want to work and they want to develop and we fulfil that need in society. We train thousands of people from scratch who might otherwise not receive further development.

There are 300,000 traineeships as we know in Australia. Now we train thousands of people and they’re paid on the job in their workplace while they’re working at a qualification they will have for the rest of their lives.

So that is a major role we play within the community.

If you ask the question what would happen to those people if we didn’t play that role? It’s a frightening answer.

I would like to say we intend to play an even bigger role in the community and have more opportunities for people to raise money for their school or their kindergarten, whatever it might be.

LN: OTR seems to have filled a key niche.

MW: And we can work so quickly here in South Australia. We can see any trend. Whether it’s quinoa or whatever is the best trend, we can say ‘right we’re selling that tomorrow’ whether it’s recycled cups or bike packs … we’re like this [reactive]. We can see anything and say ‘right, let’s go’.

You’ve got to make decisions but there’s no red tape. We can move very quickly to market and you’re meeting the decision makers.

We sit at Norwood [OTR head office] and say ‘what are we going to do to meet that goal?’ We see this trend and we say ‘let’s go ahead’.

LN: How many people does OTR employ?

MW: 2300

LN: Where are all those employees located?

MW: We’re throughout South Australia. I mapped it the other day and something like 50 per cent of metro Adelaide is within one kilometre of an On The Run.

LN: Are there plans to move interstate?

MW: I cannot tell you how much the directors and I love South Australia.

There have been some stories of that. There is no plan on the table to shift interstate.

South Australia is the hardest place to do business in every state in Australia and I’ve worked in the UK and if you can do it here you can do it anywhere.

LN: There’s a loyalty here in South Australia to local businesses.

MW: There’s such a loyalty and there’s so much opportunity in Adelaide.

We have hundreds of thousands of customers coming to us each week and if we can service them just a little bit better every time we should increase that.

If I can engage our teams culturally, with our strategy, they’re enjoying their jobs and they’re interacting with the customer and they’re smiling.

You know when you go somewhere and someone is smiling at you, that will achieve our business goals so we’ve got so much we want to achieve in this market, from what we can do in South Australia, so there’s no desire to do that [expand interstate].

We have recently moved over the border of Victoria to Irymple (near Mildura), because it made sense operationally to have a few sites in that area. It was an opportunity that came up but it’s not about an expansion strategy.

To manage, [it’s good] knowing you can just get in the car and drive 45 minutes and an hour, at worse two hours, and be at the situation.

Supervision we have at our stores is 24 hours: we’ve got night supervisors and we like to deal with things straight away.

It doesn’t make sense to us to manage that remotely. We do a good job and it would stretch us too thin.

LN: How closely does OTR watch the South Australian economy and how does OTR react to economic change?

MW: We understand the position of the economy. We understand how tough it is.

We’ve never seen it this tough and we’re concerned. As far as my role goes, we try to create a new way to shop. I’m trying and ensure our team is not limited by the perception of the economy.

If we do things better or broaden our market appeal to people, we can arrange new products as new trends happen which will make sure we still meet all of our budget goals.

We can improve so people come more often and spend more money. We can make sure we’re more relevant to customers.

Yes, it’s [SA economy] there in the background. Yes it’s incredibly tough. We work very, very hard but never would I use the excuse of the economy in not delivering our results.

LN: What role does social media play at OTR?

MW: I really had to adjust my thinking. We launched with social media and then I thought we don’t have the 24-hour monitor on it. We’re not ready, so I put it on hold.

We now have two full-time staff [on social media].

I’m a marketer by trade and life has changed in the marketing world.

We have readjusted big time in this business. Traditional marketing, I think that time is over to some degree.

Unless you become more relevant to your customers by knowing who they are and what they are interested in, we’re wasting our time to some degree.

We’ve restructured the way we’re doing marketing and we will be very involved, not only with the communities and the communities we operate in, but also with building data and understanding more about those customers who do shop with us so we can be more relevant to them.

We have embraced it and we’ve got a whole new set of people with new skills and the vision of marketing. Marketing really is a science these days.

We’re approaching it in that way and it will be in everything we do and it’s exciting. I’m excited. The business is excited about the changes in technology and communication and what our market’s doing.

LN: You have some iconic products, how do you select a product that should be sold in an OTR and be connected to your brand?

MW: We would like as much as possible to work with South Australian people and South Australian products.

We’re working on our distribution chain at the moment.

The supply needs to be able to go to all the stores which is very challenging with businesses that aren’t set up to do that.

We work with South Australian businesses first and foremost. We have a look at the size and opportunity. How big is demand? You can often quantify the things that are obvious in demand and then what proportion of that market do we think we can have and then we go for it.

We’re pretty good at spotting trends, innovation and what’s coming up. Coffee’s a fantastic example.

Years ago people were still drinking Nescafe and drinking at home and buying coffee the way that we do now was unheard of.

We run a very successful coffee business and now we have a number of our customers ordering double decaf lattes no matter where they live in South Australia.

Bulky food that satisfies hunger immediately, there’ll always be a place for that, but the trend now is around origin. Where is it coming from? Is it feel good? Is it going to make me feel good eating it etcetera.

Those things you invest in. We sell freshly squeezed orange juice at many of our stores and the mass market isn’t yet demanding it but we will persevere because in time I’m sure it’s going to be part of people’s daily habits.

It depends on the produce. Sometimes you have to invest ahead of the game and sometimes you can get the numbers quite easily in that market.

LN: You are known for coming up with new ideas, such as the drive-thru businesses.

MW: That is a new trend, never been done before. We have drive-thrus that don’t sell fuel that are very successful.

Recently we’ve built a number of drive-thrus which you can buy your main grocery needs without even getting out of the car.

LN: Where did the idea come from?

MW: It was the team here at Norwood saying ‘what is the next thing? How can we make it easier? What are we going to do?’

We say that about our staff and we say that about our customers. It becomes a ‘what if they didn’t even have to get out of their car’ and ‘how can we keep changing the business?’

It’s very challenging as you can see there are so many parts to it.

OTR started in 1984 with one service station when [father Fred Shahin] came here from the Middle East and thought he was too old to get a job so he bought a service station and his children worked in that and Yasser kept developing.

He was one of the first people to bring Subway to Australia then he started operating 24 hours then they had two and then they had three and then they had 20 [now 132 stores] and it’s kept going from there.

We can move so fast [reacting to trends]. The planning of the business is a long time ahead. You might be redeveloping a store but to adjust that store to incorporate trends, we’re very nimble.

We don’t want to compromise. It’s easier to say let’s do it next time but we really like to make sure we’ve done our best and are interested to see what we’re capable of.

We’re always trying to improve. We’re always trying to put ourselves on the line to do the best that we can.

LN: Are there any future plans you can share with us? What’s in store for OTR by 2020?

MW: We’re watching trends. We know that technology-wise there’ll be changes.

We’re seeing trends in electric cars and driverless cars in all sorts of things so we’re absolutely thinking ahead.

We’re planning to make sure we’re more and more relevant to the customer and we’re completely open minded as to what that might look like.

You have to look at the number of people using their mobile phones so many times a day to manage their life, we’ll absolutely need to be in that space.

Anything can happen with the changing technology that’s moving forward, including, who knows, home delivery.

Read all of our “10 minutes with…” series of interviews with SA business leaders here.

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