Gulf Georgia has a new CEO. Craig Kramer brings over thirty years of experience in the oil industry with him.
Gulf Georgia’s new CEO Craig Kramer, who has more than thirty years of experience in the oil industry, has worked both with small companies and large brand names. He has climbed all rungs of the career ladder – as a consultant, a team leader, a supervisor, the head of a department, and as a regional manager. Over the last ten years, Mr. Kramer has held senior positions at companies such as Couche Tard – the Canadian market leader, which he helped grow and expand in North America; Rogers Petroleum – a leading wholesale fuel distributor in the Southeast of the United States, where he set up a highly effective sales system from almost scratch and successfully oversaw sales of both branded and unbranded fuel; and Empire Petroleum Partners, which acts as distributor for branded retailers such as Chevron, Crown, ExxonMobil, Gulf, Marathon, Phillips 66, Shell, Sunoco, Texaco, and Valero. At Empire Petroleum, Craig Kramer was responsible for the Southern United States region, managing more than 350 retail outlets. In March 2019, he further enhanced his already rich job portfolio by becoming the CEO of Gulf Georgia.
In Forbes’original index of the 150 most profitable companies in the country, Gulf Georgia holds a position in the top ten. The company’s revenue from fuel sales grew by 28% in 2018, prior to the pandemic. Gulf operates 144 petrol stations and employs 1,300 people across Georgia. Over the last three years alone, the company paid GEL 409 million in taxes and spent more than GEL 2 million on charitable donations.
It only took Craig Kramer one trip to Georgia to accept the offer from Gulf. However, this was not his first visit here. In 1996, he was involved in the development of the first Western-style convenience store/gas station in Gurjaani for the Tbilisi based firm Greco. He stayed in Georgia and trained locals in the management of a western-style petrol station. Twenty-four years later, he was offered the opportunity to return to the country and become the CEO of Gulf Georgia. He arrived last year, assessed the radically different environment, and accepted the offer.
Craig Kramer admits that many issues have been complicated by the pandemic. However, he passionately believes in the future, knows exactly what customers need and what the company can offer them. Adhering to all the relevant health regulations, Forbes Georgia visited Craig Kramer in his office and recorded the following interview.
You bring thirty years of experience with you to Gulf Georgia. What will be your stamp as the company’s new CEO?
I have the benefit of having worked at numerous companies. I have observed many different management styles and have often been in the various roles that characterize this business. I can, therefore, tell when people are not putting in the maximum effort, which is vitally important for improving efficiency.
As for Gulf Georgia, we are the local market leaders. We have achieved this position by developing an innovative vision and turning it into a reality. I intend to continue this work. It is clear to me that our competitors are now going down the same route that we did. We will continue to show them the next new path.
Could you describe your company in figures?
We operate the most petrol stations in Georgia and hold the largest market share. We are also one of the largest private employers in the country. We give our employees the opportunity to grow professionally. If a vacancy arises at the company, we promote one of our own employees to enhance staff motivation and engagement.
You have had to accept this position of great responsibility during uncertain times, as we are dealing with the effects of the pandemic. What are your main challenges in this regard?
When I arrived here in March 2019, I intended to stay for a long time, familiarize myself with the company and determine the course of our future development. However, as we all know, things then took a different turn – there was a lockdown, and I had to return to the United States three weeks later. The very fact that I was unable to be here was quite a big challenge.
Is it too early to talk about opportunities?
The fact is that we managed to avoid station closures at a time when our competitors had to make these sacrifices. We retained all of our frontline staff. I, therefore, regard it as an opportunity that the average Georgian will see us as a responsible employer, and we are extremely proud of this.
We are also proud of the fact that we never turned our backs to charitable causes. Against the background of the pandemic, we supported the government from the very beginning, providing fuel for the doctors. We did not forget about the ongoing programs, either. For example, we continued to look after homeless dogs. We are also involved in several other programs, which we do not publicize.
We believe that since our business has been successfully growing thanks to the Georgian public, we must repay them, even at a time when the crisis is affecting our revenue. We have stayed true to our values and will continue to do so in the future by helping not only our shareholders but also our staff and the country as a whole.
Since you mentioned revenue, we must note that the global oil prices have been falling. How does this affect your business?
To be honest, this is not our biggest problem. As we only sell finished oil products and do not produce anything ourselves, the falling prices do not affect our Industry directly, but the local currency exchange rate does. We buy fuel in U.S. dollars and sell it in Lari. As a result, the devaluation of the local currency creates a significant problem for all of us.
Does the average customer understand this?
Naturally, it is difficult for customers to fully understand this process. They see the global prices falling, but they fail to connect the final price of fuel on the local market to the fact that the Lari has lost 10-15% of its value against the dollar over the past six months.
Your website states that your goal is to exceed all expectations. What exactly does that mean, and have these expectations changed with you becoming the CEO of the company?
We are proud of this statement and have thought about it a lot. We are leading the Georgian market with the most attractive and convenient petrol stations, best personnel, and best service. However, we are still lagging behind European standards. The progress achieved over the last twenty-four years has been amazing, but we now have new expectations, and our aim is to exceed them.
You often talk about the past twenty-four years and your changed impressions of Georgia. Is it really as easy to do business here as claimed by the World Bank and other organizations?
It was very difficult to do business in Georgia twenty-four years ago. All the vital information was in the hands of several individuals and we had no access to it. There was also no internet to fill the gaps and provide some balance. In fact, transparency of information still remains an issue. However, while I would have given the overall business environment a score of 5 out of 100 back in 1996, today I would give it at least 90. An American firm can now visit the office of the American Chamber of Commerce and obtain all the basic information about applying for a visa, establishing a company, paying taxes, and other issues. Twenty-four years ago, paying taxes was an extremely complicated process. Now everything is simple and transparent in this regard. Therefore, I agree that doing business in Georgia today is easy and does not come with hidden expenses. Even the problem of corruption, which the country used to drown in, has largely been resolved as far as I can tell, and that is a fantastic achievement.
Could you also say a few words about the future? What can we expect from Gulf Georgia under your leadership?
We are currently keeping our plans secret and will disclose them gradually. At this point, I can only say that we will improve the retail section and open new stores where customers will be able to purchase coffee and ready meals. This is the path that our western counterparts successfully took 10-20 years ago, providing stiff competition to the fast-food industry and offering customers much more than fuel.
Are customers ready to accept such a transformation of your company?
Not only are they ready, but also they are demanding such changes. The opening of the borders has turned Georgians into highly sophisticated consumers. The industry must now catch up with their demands.
We are conducting this interview against the background of the recent elections. What would your message be to the new government? What actions can they take to further facilitate doing business in Georgia for you?
It would be good to see the government enforce the regulations that it has already adopted. I am talking about imposing the Euro 5 standard on diesel, which would protect both the environment and the consumer. Improving the quality of diesel would also help the government with regards to collecting taxes. It is unfortunate that the implementation of these regulations has been delayed. As the quality of diesel is not being adequately controlled, small companies are importing the kind of fuel that is not good for anyone. This is not simply an environmental issue or a matter of customer satisfaction. The problem is considerably more complex. Consumers often do not realize that long-term usage of cheaper, low-quality fuel damages their vehicles. They are attracted to lower prices. If we wish to improve the standard of living, it is necessary to implement the aforementioned regulations. Generally speaking, it is better for the government to intervene in business activities as little as possible. However, in this case, imposing regulations would serve to place all market players on an equal footing. So, this is the action that I would expect the new government to take.