Academic journal article The McKinsey Quarterly

Roadside Retail in China: To Make Money from the Expansion of the Chinese Market, Most Oil Companies Will Have to Sell Much More Than Gasoline

Academic journal article The McKinsey Quarterly

Roadside Retail in China: To Make Money from the Expansion of the Chinese Market, Most Oil Companies Will Have to Sell Much More Than Gasoline

Article excerpt

China's automotive market is predicted to be the third largest in the world by 2008.1 The accompanying growth in demand for gasoline and related car fuel products--combined with government plans to deregulate the sector and the need to address the chronic inefficiency of current distribution--should create a juicy opportunity for multinational oil companies as well as for China's two domestic giants, PetroChina and Sinopec.

Gasoline reaches the huge Chinese market through a fragmented retail and distribution network of about 90,000 stations, almost all state owned. Many are run more as sinecures than as businesses, often with a staff four to five times larger than the international norm but with less than a quarter of the average gasoline throughput of US stations. The Chinese government, which is well aware of the problem, has resolved not to allow the country's energy infrastructure to burden the whole economy: it is fast deregulating the sector, which will be fully opened up to foreign companies in 2004 under the commitments attending the country's membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Foreign oil companies have hitherto been restricted to one-off local deals in special economic zones or tied to investments in toll-road construction.

Although the stage should thus be set for canny corporations to move into the market, it remains unclear how they will make money. Competition is already driving down retail margins on gasoline, while prices for the best station sites have soared as China's large domestic oil companies have rushed to buy them. Oil companies in the West facing similar margin pressures know that most gasoline stations are viable only if they offer general-retail facilities at least as large as a convenience store, in addition to gasoline. This is true in China as well. The highest-volume sites might be made profitable on their fuel revenues alone, but the rest need substantial nonfuel revenues to make a profit.

The strategic implications are clear. In China as elsewhere, the first decision for an oil company is whether to own and operate sites or merely to supply them with gasoline. If the company opts for ownership, it has a choice: to adopt a retail strategy and pursue nonfuel revenues from a portfolio of retail sites or to target only the highest-volume sites, using them to build a high-quality gasoline brand that can also be offered through independent retailers. At present, the Chinese oil majors are pursuing neither strategy; they have simply rushed to grab any available site, where they sell as much petroleum-based product as possible while ignoring the retail potential. The multinationals have been more judicious in selecting sites for their initial joint ventures, but they too have neglected the strategic choice. Unless all of these companies, domestic and international alike, change tack, their investments in expensive Chinese real estate may unravel.

The market and site economics

China's dominant oil companies are Sinopec, in the south and east, and PetroChina, which has the more comprehensive refinery and distribution network of the two, in the north and west (Exhibit 1). The two companies aim to capture, between them, 70 percent of China's gasoline sales volume by 2005. Since their IPOs, in 2000, they have invested heavily in petroleum-related infrastructure and in brand building. Having already raised their share of sales to more than 40 percent and secured most of the prime sites in the biggest cities, they are on track to meet this target.

Until 2004, multinational companies will be allowed to own outright only the 300 or so sites they now possess through local deals struck before government deregulation of foreign investment in the sector, in the mid-1990s, but they can build up their holdings through joint ventures with Chinese companies. BP, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch/Shell are establishing joint ventures with PetroChina and Sinopec by contributing capital for the purchase of sites and by supplying higher-margin premium fuels; BP and PetroChina, for example, aim to boost their holdings to 950 stations by acquiring 670 stations from local companies in Fujian and Guangdong. …

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