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bp Rethinks the Future of the Oil Company

With its Reimagining Energy initiative and acquisition of Thorntons, an oil giant renews its focus on convenience, energy and mobility
Illustration By Jacey Tec

LA PALMA, Calif. — With its recent acquisition of the Thorntons convenience-store chain and the expansion of the ampm brand it already owns west of the Mississippi, bp plc has shown a reinvigorated interest in embracing the retail sector.

The attention comes at a time when the future of oil companies is in question. Thus, bp is moving to redefine its relevance as a provider and enabler of mobility through a strategic repositioning that has seen the company investing aggressively in convenience, delivery, electric-vehicle (EV) charging, self-checkout and more as it implements the new tagline and strategy: Reimagining Energy.

As the century turned, in 2000, London-based British Petroleum changed its company name to simply bp, adopting its Helios logo and lowercase bp and introducing the tagline “beyond petroleum” in its advertising. All of this came as bp joined other oil companies in de-emphasizing or, in some cases, completely abandoning c-store retailing as a strategy in the United States.

It was all intended to signal a fresh focus on new fuels and energy; however, the company was ahead of its time, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico sidelined the initiative in the wake of the cleanup effort. The company eventually de-emphasized “beyond petroleum” in favor of other, more immediately consumer-friendly campaigns such as promotion of bp’s engine-cleaning and mileage-enhancing Invigorate gasoline, introduced in 2016, and the launch in 2020 of the money-saving BPme Rewards and mobile payment program.

These offerings proved to have more traction and practical application than “beyond petroleum,” and they set the stage for the current Reimagining Energy initiative.

Retail Return

So nearly 15 years after scaling back on retail in the United States, why is bp getting back into company-owned retail and making it a primary strategy?

“I asked the same question when bp recruited me,” Greg Franks, senior vice president of mobility and convenience for the Americas, tells CSP in an exclusive interview.

“ ‘Wait a minute, Big Oil already made this exit. What’s going on?’ Through the conversations, it became very clear to me the conviction with which bp is moving into these transition businesses, of which one is convenience, that they saw the resilience. Strategies have changed; times have changed; the consumer has changed. The world is very different than it was even 10 years ago. So as bp goes forward and makes its transition to an integrated energy company, convenience is one of the critical transition growth businesses. There’s really an absolute commitment to be in convenience.”

On top of that, bp is aiming to achieve net-zero status on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or sooner. It has set targets for reducing emissions, planning by 2030 to bring down operational emissions by 50% from its 2019 baseline.

Industry watchers acknowledge it’s a tall order for the oil company founded in 1909.

“bp has a large franchise and jobber network built on its providing fossil fuel to those locations. In order to meet its net-zero goal, it has to find and support a path forward for these locations,” says Steve Montgomery, president of b2b Solutions LLC, Lake Forest, Ill. For the company, Reimagining Energy means moving to become a more integrated energy company than merely a petroleum-products company dealing in fossil fuels.

EV charging is a part of that effort. The company plans to bring its bp pulse rapid charging hub for fleet vehicles in the United Kingdom to the United States.

And in a move that helps it build its U.S. EV charging business, bp in December acquired Amply Power, an EV-charging and -energy management provider for fleets that operate trucks, transit and school buses, vans and light-duty vehicles. It is part of the company’s aim to, by 2030, nearly double earnings from its global convenience and mobility businesses—increasing from around $5 billion in 2019—while delivering returns in the range of 15% to 20%. During this time, bp plans to grow its global network of EV charging points from about 13,000 today to more than 100,000.

“Expanding into EV fleet charging is the latest in bp’s ongoing commitment to help drive the energy transition in the United States,” David Lawler, chairman and president of bp America, said in announcing the deal in December. “This acquisition builds on significant investments in offshore wind earlier this year in New England, onshore wind across seven states and our rapidly growing presence in solar.”

Retail Ambitions

Although bp has ambitions to grow its retail portfolio globally and in the United States, Franks would not offer a target number of stores. “We have ambitions to grow aggressively, and we’ll be able to even accelerate that beyond what our initial thoughts are as we go forward. We’ve done the work, we have the capability, and now we’re ready to grow,” says Franks, who leads the mobility and convenience team for the Americas for bp.

“We believe the world is going to go through an energy transition, and it’s happening at a very fast pace, and we want to be there to help take guests, consumers, customers through that as their needs change,” Franks says. The company will use the same capabilities that enable it to move traditional hydrocarbons around to generate power with offshore wind and solar and then move that energy through a network and get it to the proper destination.

“It’s the same skill,” he says. “We have a lot of capabilities from our hydrocarbons that allow us to make that transition.” The effort includes EV charging and possibly hydrogen and other power generation for over-the-road consumers, he says.

“We were probably one of the first to start talking about the life ‘beyond petroleum’ and what that means,” says Debi Boffa, vice president of convenience, Americas, for bp and president of Thorntons Inc. “That was 15 or 20 years ago, and I see Reimagining Energy and the journey that we’re on now is a step change in evolution beyond that, both in the way in which we’re thinking, the way in which we’re talking about it, the aspirations and the aims that we have around it, and it’s the pace that’s attached to it. It’s just so much more than what it was. The world needs something quite different now.”

Retail ambitions

Debi Boffa, vice president of convenience, Americas, at BP, has been with the company for more than 20 years and is excited about BP’s move into more convenience.

Retail Resilience

“It comes back to strengthening the network,” Franks says. “While many of our bp-branded sites have very good convenience offers today, some really don’t have a convenience offer. So our ability to develop this capability and offer it strengthens the network and makes it a little bit more resilient and able to take advantage of the energy transition vs. being victimized by it,” he says. “And it keeps that relationship with consumers as we move forward. That enables the future. Whether it’s EV charging or hydrogen, we’re trying to get ahead of consumer demand.”

Reimagining Energy is about making bp “a viable, sustainable company for future generations and future customers,” says Franks. “It’s a recognition by our board and by our leadership that the energy transition is happening, and we want to responsibly work through that. There are three key pillars to our strategy: hydrocarbons, convenience and mobility and low-carbon energy. We want to bring hydrocarbons out of the ground in an ever-cleaner way, but then we want to grow EVs and be able to grow our low-carbon initiative.”

Across those three areas, Franks says, there are five growth businesses: biofuels, hydrogen, renewable energy, EV charging and convenience.

“Convenience is at the heart of it,” he says.

“Convenience is certainly something that’s shown itself to be resilient. In the recession of 2007–2009, it was resilient, and then more recently in the pandemic, it was resilient. So even in locations where operators were struggling with gallons because there just weren’t as many people on the road, transaction and basket counts remained. Basket counts actually grew substantially across the industry.”

“We have ambitions to grow aggressively, and we’ll be able to even accelerate that … as we go forward.”

And bp’s retail ambitions are not limited to just company-owned growth.

“There are multiple channels of trade that we can participate in convenience, and we can leverage capabilities that we now have done the work to integrate with both ampm and Thorntons that we can continue to grow,” he says. “We’re the No. 7 convenience chain [on CSP’s annual Top 202 ranking of U.S. c-store chains by company-owned store count], and we have ambition to grow. …

“We’re looking to grow organically. We’re going to continue growing Thorntons and its footprint. We’re going to continue growing ampm and its footprint on the West Coast. We’re going to look inorganically with mergers and acquisitions. …We’re going to move into that market strategically where it makes sense so that we can pursue profitable growth.”

Franks says he is “very bullish on the convenience industry more broadly,” and he thinks other major oil companies are as well. “You see that in the valuations that are playing out, the multiples that companies are selling for. It’s a fantastic space. You look across the industry, and there’s well in excess of 100,000 stores. There’s a lot of consolidation left to be done—60% of those are still single- or small-site owners. So there’s still a lot of action and excitement, and it’s one of the reasons that we’ve done what we’ve done to … get the infrastructure in place so that we can begin to participate in that.”

Franks says that bp is also accelerating its franchising effort. “We will certainly have far more company-owned, company-operated (COCO) locations, but we will also be participating in convenience and other channels of trade.”

bp wants to bring some of that COCO capability into its branded bp and Amoco jobber network, “which is such a strong network for us and has great people behind it who have supported it for decades. We want to strengthen that network by bringing some of that in as well. We’re all in on moving forward as a brand and growing in the convenience space, and bp is very supportive of that. There’s great conviction.”

Thorntons’ Legacy

Meanwhile, bp doesn’t want to change Thorntons—unless it can make it better.

Tonya Robinson has been with the chain for more than 24 years, starting as a third-shift cashier in Chicago and working her way up to director of operations for the southern division, based out of Cincinnati. She’s stuck around for more than two decades because of Thorntons’ family feel.

“You are not just a team member or worker, you’re a person,” she says, standing with CSP on a Thursday afternoon in July at a busy Thorntons c-store on Shelbyville Road in Louisville, Ky. “We care about our people. We truly do. We care about what’s important to them, and we make it important to us. And I think that was the sweet spot to making me stay.”

employees

Tonya Robinson, director of operations, Southern Division, Jena Quesada, general manager, and Greg Ekman, director of fresh food acceleration, talk about what Thorntons means to them and their customers.

When bp took full ownership of the 208-store Louisville-based chain in August 2021, Robinson says she didn’t feel a gap with the new owners. “It just continued on … and nothing has changed,” she says.

In November, Robinson put that “family feel” to the test when she suffered a stroke. Thorntons and bp supported her so she was able to come back fully functional to her position and know that she has the support to carry on, she says. “That’s what you need to know about Thorntons,” says Jena Quesada, general manager of the Shelbyville Road store. “That’s what matters.”

“Reimagining Energy is … a recognition by our board and by our leadership that the energy transition is happening.”

Of course, there are some changes and capabilities an international energy company can bring to a midwestern c-store chain.

“We’re global. We’ve got the ability to access capital in a different way,” says Boffa.

The company can offer digital capabilities and experience from other retail markets, too, she says. Boffa herself has worked in a range of markets for bp over the past 25 years, starting with bp New Zealand and making stops in Chicago and Australia before landing in Louisville.

While bp is traditionally an oil company, Boffa says she knew leadership was serious about convenience when CEO Bernard Looney unveiled the new leadership team to the company in February 2020, including Emma Delaney, executive vice president of customers and products. It was the first time “customer” appeared in an executive team member’s title, says Boffa.

“It signaled such a change in the company and where we were heading,” she says. “It was huge, which made it even more exciting when I heard about what bp’s vision was for convenience and the role that I could play and my teams could play in that.”

bp even adopted the use of the term “guests” to refer to its customers from Thorntons.

The legacy the Thornton family established was one of the reasons why the chain was attractive to bp, and the minimal number of changes made to the stores in the last few years was by design, Franks says.

Franks says the company has been going through an incorporation process to tweak and integrate ampm and Thorntons, along with bp’s legacy bp and Amoco dealer business, to make the businesses scalable.

“There are a lot of things that we can benefit from by bringing in global resources, but also we want to make sure we come in curious and inquisitive,” Franks says. “Thorntons knows how to run a convenience store and do it well. Ampm knows how to run a convenience store and run it well. So what I don’t want is any kind of attitude to come in that says, ‘We know better.’ ”

Tech Talk

One area bp is advancing in its stores is technology. While some Thorntons stores had self-checkout kiosks in place at the time of the acquisition, Franks says he wants to put them everywhere it makes sense.

bp is piloting Mashgin’s AI self-checkout technology at four ampm c-stores as it explores options for a wider rollout. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Mashgin’s system is touchless and uses computer vision to scan items for purchase instantly.

“bp remains focused on introducing new, tech-driven options for our customers to provide an innovative and seamless shopping experience,” says Humberto

Marroquin, vice president of mobility and convenience, Americas, West Coast, for bp. “By working with Mashgin, we can evolve our stores for a better customer experience.”

In late 2021, bp also began working with Grabango to retrofit 10 convenience stores—seven ampm stations in northern California and three Amoco locations in western Pennsylvania—the Berkely, Calif.-based checkout-free technology provider’s largest multi-store rollout.

The technology allows shoppers to skip the line altogether to save time. To use it, shoppers download the Grabango app and shop as they normally would. The system keeps a running tally of items picked up so there’s no need to scan each one on the way out. Payment is automatic and contactless.

The company is embracing the delivery game, too. bp joined Uber Technologies Inc. in March for a global convenience delivery partnership, which will extend existing local arrangements in Australia, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa and the U.S. West Coast, adding areas in the eastern United States and the United Kingdom to the app-based service for the first time this year.

bp is the first convenience retailer to team up with Uber Eats on a global level and aims to have more than 3,000 retail locations available on the delivery platform over the next three years, it says. In the U.S., bp will make the offer available to bp’s network of independently owned retail locations. Uber Eats and bp will work to introduce delivery options on the BPme app powered by Uber Direct. Since 2019, bp has seen a threefold increase in users of the BPme app, it said, with 16 million active loyalty users worldwide.

bp and Uber already work together in mobility, with bp providing EV charging for Uber’s ride-hail drivers. The companies say they will explore other areas for cooperation in convenience, including opportunities to use low-carbon delivery methods to fulfill orders from bp sites.

The company plans to grow on three fronts: acquisition, organically by building new stores, and additional ampm franchises.

Foodservice is another area of focus, building on Thorntons’ already great food offering, Franks says.

“If we are having this conversation in two years, you’ll find that it’s going to be even better because we have the capability to listen to our consumer,” he says.

Thorntons’ grab-and-go foodservice menu has been updated over the past two years, Greg Ekman, director of fresh food acceleration, says.

“Everything has a more premium feel to it. We’ve made it simpler for operations,” he says. “We’ve extended hold times because of how we’ve made food so we can actually be in stock more frequently.”

It’s a win-win for Thorntons employees and the guests, Ekman says.

In the Shelbyville Road store in Louisville, guests can choose from traditional roller-grill items and prewrapped grab-and-go products such as steak breakfast burritos and cheeseburgers. The hot items sit next to the doughnuts made in Thorntons’ own bakery in town.

A test kitchen at Thorntons headquarters in Louisville allows the foodservice team to not only test the taste of its innovations but also allows the staff to evaluate how easy it is to make a new item and how long it holds up under the warmers.

Even the advertisements for a new product can be made in a studio in the basement, Franks says. This allows products to be brought to market fast. It only took 30 days for the chain to launch a new burrito flavor and marketing campaign, Ekman says.

“We can be very nimble,” Franks says.

Another food addition he hopes to add to Thorntons and ampm down the line: private-label packaged snacks and beverages.

Now that bp has done the work to integrate its systems, “we’re really looking forward to growing,” Franks says.

The company plans to grow on three fronts: acquisition, organically by building new stores, and additional ampm franchises. Franks calls its global growth goals ambitious.

The company aims to expand its network of c-store sites to 3,500 globally by 2030, up from 2,150 today, according to its website. And adding to its retail growth of the past two years.

bp earned more than $1.5 billion in convenience retail in 2021, an increase of more than 20% compared to 2019.

Acquisitions in the Thorntons Midwest footprint would likely be rebranded Thorntons, Franks says. If a brand has strong equity, however, the company might maintain it.

Emphasizing ampm

And ampm will continue to grow in the West Coast, where most stores are located, even as it pilots locations on a new coast.

In August, bp opened its first ampm site on the East Coast, in the Bronx in New York, with four more company-owned and -operated locations scheduled.

“The East Coast expansion really showcases the best that bp has to offer from a convenience standpoint, featuring bp branding on the forecourt, an ampm offer in the store and Thorntons COCO knowl edge and operating processes, focused on a guest-centric experience,” Franks says.

The two retail brands—Thorntons and ampm—can learn from each other, he says.

The ampm brand has a fun, edgy and unconventional voice that resonates well with younger audiences. The foundation of ampm is what the company calls “too much good stuff,” represented by the “Toomgis”character—satisfying consumers with what they crave, he says. Thorntons, on the other hand, is known for being focused on the guest experience and excellence in store operations.

Both brands offer high-quality food and beverage options and necessities for the on-the-go consumer, he says.

“Thorntons is well-known for their guest-centric approach, which is something we can share with our ampm operations teams and franchisees, while Thorntons can benefit from ampm’s branding and marketing expertise,” Franks says.

While bp would not provide an exact breakdown, Franks says there are varying levels of ownership and operatorship of ampm stores, but the majority are franchised.

“The strong sales success that ampm has seen over the last 12 years—especially through the pandemic—indicates consumer demand continues to grow for this brand,” he says. “The way ampm continually and consistently performs is testament to its strength. Investing in the convenience space allows bp to give consumers more of what they love as it transitions into an integrated energy company.”

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