A vital link in this exclusive series of business leaders’ perspectives, Hilal Ali Al Kharusi, chairman, Oman Oil Marketing Company, shares how the COVID-19 pandemic made his company swing into action, from implementing rigorous health and safety protocols to offering cashlesss refuelling options for customers. “As we move on, we will continue to build on smart fueling and expanding ways of digital access to our customers,” he assures. Excerpts:
What is your brief assessment of the position of your company in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the peak season of Ramadan when business in Oman faced a challenge like never before?
We have continued to serve our customers throughout the pandemic, albeit in ways that look a bit different. From the earliest days, we set out a clearly defined Business Continuity Plan to support all of our business functions and implement all official directives relating to health and hygiene. Our first priority is, of course, the health and safety of our employees, customers and the wider community. Meanwhile, we have focused on continuing to serve our customers in a dedicated and delightful manner, while ensuring they feel cared for when using our services.
What plans/strategies did you adopt to maintain your operations during the lockdown period over the past two-three months? How beneficial did this prove to be?
We implemented rigorous health and hygiene protocols and our ‘work from home’ policy for all administrative employees while taking precautionary and preventive measures to safeguard the remaining staff and our contractors. This was monitored by our CEO, David Kalife, who, along with his management team, visited a number of service stations to ensure that all health and safety rules are maintained to the highest standards. With our newly launched ‘OOMCO World’ app and several digital payment options eliminating the need to handle cash, we have continued to offer our customers smarter ways to shop and re-fuel while minimising physical contact, making their lives easier and enjoying their time with OOMCO.
Looking ahead, what are the immediate and short-term plans that you believe will help the company recalibrate and move forward with renewed purpose?
The way we care about our customers has been changed because of the pandemic and we see it as a positive change. As we move on, we will continue to build on smart fueling, expanding ways of digital access to our customers.While smart fueling has been on our agenda for a while now, the pandemic has certainly brought it to the fore in the eye of the public. Our digital transformation has, therefore, accelerated and improved thus bringing added value to our customers and internally to OOMCO. The important thing is to build on what we have learnt and enhance it to drive OOMCO forward. We will also be moving forward with our global expansion plans, which are already underway in Saudi Arabia and, most recently, Tanzania in retail expansion. Regarding lubricants, we are expanding our reach further in East Africa, Egypt and Asia.
What immediate changes are required in your workplaces, with regard to physical infrastructure, employee welfare, working culture and business promotion in view of new guidelines related to COVID-19 (social distancing, hygiene/sanitation, health and fitness)?
In line with the regulations and advice set by the Supreme Committee for dealing with COVID-19 and the Ministry of Health, strict sanitisation measures are being applied at all of our service stations, Ahlain c-stores and Café Amazon branches. We are also implementing social distancing and have made gloves and masks available to all employees. Meanwhile, we have been at the forefront of raising awareness, with a social media campaign to encourage the community to stay home, wash their hands and apply social distancing, along with the utilisation of our service station screens to air information and instructive videos from the Ministry of Health.
What do you see as the most feasible solutions for mitigating losses experienced due to the lockdown (cost-cutting measures, downsizing staff, enhancing performance, increasing work hours, any other). Do you consider these as short-term or long-term measures?
It is important for all companies to follow the decisions and directives issued by the Supreme Committee and other competent authorities which aims to reduce the damage and losses caused by this pandemic. Oman Oil Marketing Company has built a robust and resilient system, and because of this, we are confident in our ability to overcome the challenges brought about by the pandemic while continuing to meet our customer’s needs. Our priority is to protect our customers, our workforce, and the wider society, while continuing to operate and support the economy as it weathers this difficult time.
What are your primary concerns regarding building/maintaining your company image, post-COVID-19, as well as improving performance to regain connections and trust with your consumers/clients?
Our promise – You trust, We care – has never seemed more important than it is now, as we face this global pandemic. Building on our customer-centric approach we are continuing to prioritise our customers’ safety, while finding ways to support them during this challenging time. At our service stations, customers are provided with four payment options to minimise interaction, including the new Basma Plus prepaid fuel card and the OOMCO World app. We are also offering even greater benefits from using our services, one such example being our collaboration with NBO to offer 15% cash back on fuel for credit card users.
Did you have the option of working from home for your staff during the lockdown and to what extent was it helpful? Will you continue to offer that option as part of your new strategy?
Early on in the pandemic, the OOMCO management initiated ‘work from home’ procedures to reduce the number of employees attending our offices. The Health, Safety, Environment & Quality (HSEQ) and Human Resources (HR), along with Information Technology (IT) teams made sure that our employees working remotely were properly equipped with the technology and resources they needed to function from home. These circumstances have encouraged OOMCO to change and modernise its methods of work, resulting in us becoming more flexible and more innovative, internally and externally, for the benefit of our employees and customers, wherever they are located.
What lessons were learnt from this crisis that would help redefine your corporate goals as well as help your company experience sustained growth in the years ahead?
Challenges always arise when applying and following a new work system, and although remote work mechanisms have been applied for more than a decade, it took the pandemic to really see it applied on a large scale. Yet, by being responsive and adaptive, we have been able to thrive. In the fuel marketing sector, the biggest challenge remains in maintaining productivity and sales. But through the Business Continuity System and the various precautionary measures that we are implementing to face the current situation, we hope to maintain the level of productivity and continue to meet the requirements of our customers at all times.
What additional challenges do you anticipate in 2020/2021 and would you now place greater emphasis on risk management so that you are not caught off-guard again?
Companies need to develop plans and work systems that ensure the continuity of their business and at the same time maintain the health, safety and security of their customers and employees. Of course, all companies must think about the lessons learned from the current situation by reassessing the mechanisms they follow and setting future and precautionary plans in order to be able to face such catastrophes and health disasters. For example, companies have to invest in innovative technologies that ensure the continuity of their business through a remote work system and virtual meetings, as well as remote payment technologies, and many others.
In your opinion, how important it is for staff to undergo training to realign themselves with the company’s policies/new strategies as well as to immerse themselves in a new work culture that the pandemic has dictated?
Developing policies and strategies is not only a matter reserved for the senior management, it is a process that employees across all departments and levels should engage with. A way to achieve this goes through questionnaires, to collect their ideas on the mechanisms that best suit them to fulfil their responsibilities in alignment with the company goals. It is vital to train and familiarise employees with modern technologies to enable them to perform their roles, maintain the level of corporate productivity and reduce losses, particularly in the event of health or other crises.
How long do you envisage it will be, if at all, that your particular sector is performing at pre-COVID-19 levels?
Despite the multiple negative effects of this pandemic, especially when we talk about the oil and gas sector, a ray of hope always emerges to hold onto and think on the positive side. Because of the severe impacts brought by this unexpected crisis to all sectors of the economy and all countries, we believe pre COVID-19 levels could be found again during the fourth quarter of 2021 or the first quarter of 2022.
Are there examples of new thinking in other sectors that yours could adopt to good effect?
This virus has emphasised the importance of innovation and technology not only in dealing with health outbreaks, but in the ways that institutions function. We have seen a remarkable surge in innovation across sectors, as businesses think of ways to serve their customers under hugely challenging circumstances. Not only this but there has been a real increase in companies using their capabilities and resources to help the community, from donating money to making equipment, and finding ways to keep people safe and limit the spread of the virus. These are all things we can take forward with us.
What is the No 1 positive aspect you would take from the last three months?
This virus has completely changed the way we work and live and a lot of this has been for the positive. People have learned to be more flexible, companies have learned to be more innovative, and people, in general, appreciate a less distracted life. We have discovered just what we are capable of under vastly different and unprecedented circumstances while staying at home, and social distancing has made us appreciate the value of connection. I trust that despite the great repercussions that this pandemic will leave, we can embrace the positives and employ them after this pandemic disappears.