FROM THE ARCHIVES

Kevin Murphy interrupts the story of his oil search days in Australia with Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) for prospector French Petroleum, and his experiences at the pump with long-gone retailer TOTAL and puts aside even the coming threat of "Peak Oil" to question security, customer rights and safety issues on the forecourt, as they recently affected him.  In these heady days of high profits and generous stakeholder returns, Australian corporates such as Coles Myer can look to dishing up more of the same - improved business performances as the economy continues to grow and costs are reined in, with the new federal Industrial Relations laws offering productivity gains as well.

The ongoing restructure of Coles' empire undertaken by then Chief Executive John Fletcher and the share price fillip fuelled through recent takeover speculation shouldn't dissuade a closer look at one of their lesser performers, the petrol pumper and discounter Coles Express.  First half 2006 sales increased 15.9% to $AUD3Bn, reflected by higher fuel prices.  Against expectations these record prices, enjoyed primarily by the refiners, are turning motorists into criminals.  Service stations in NSW report a 130% rise in drive offs over two years, and Police responding to proprietors' calls for action claim more and more complaints concern stolen or defaced plates.


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Coles Express Picks On a Pensioner

with Malice a'Forecourt?


There was nothing particularly remarkable about the young fellow on pump #10 at Padstow Shell on Davies Road, topping up his very dark, near-black but equally unremarkable V8 utility alongside where I was filling the tank on my battered old green Ford Festiva.  Nothing I should take note of that fine Thursday, December 8th 2005, at least until I was returning to my car, clutching my sales receipt #000841 in the amount of $32.72 (after discount) for the purchase of 28.23 litres of ULP off pump #9.  What the chap did next as I returned to my vehicle, startled me and all the other customers on the forecourt and put those out of their cars in some danger.

Showing precise timing the moment the exit cleared, he set off with motor roaring and tyres squealing crazily.  Upon reversing off the pump he took a wide semi-circle path at high speed around the back of the drive.  He shot past open-mouthed refuelling motorists and then gunned his engine and launched himself southwards into his choice of three clear lanes and was off, home free.  How this one was to be pinned on me is quite without explanation.   The drive off was gone and I had not yet resumed my seat when the operator marched out and advanced towards pump #10 to deal with his loss.  The "very detailed Australia-wide process and policy around the management of drive off issues", as an operations manager for Coles Express was to label it, was cranking up.

"Hullo, Hullo. Are You the Driver of This Car, Sir?"


The earnest young constables from Bankstown Police were taken aback when I answered their ring on my doorbell and I readily agreed I filled up my car earlier that afternoon at the Padstow Shell outlet.  The older of the two policemen told me it was alleged by the operator that I had driven off without paying.  They saw I was shaken by this accusation and when I handed them the sales receipt that showed conclusively that I had paid for my petrol, they admitted they were disturbed by the callout and would take it up with the complainant.
"We don't make house calls for nothing", the senior of the officers told me sternly.
I took this to mean that, sans docket, they would have been bound to cart me off to the Bankstown lockup.  I did not hesitate to ring the Coles Express service station for an explanation as soon as the police left.  It gets worse.  The operator who dobbed me in sounded nonplussed when I challenged him and he blurted out:
"I saw you reverse from #10 and come into #9 before taking off.  It's what they often do."
I pointed out that I was still with my car when he came out on to the forecourt to investigate the drive off and he dropped the clanger:

"We are under pressure from the management to put a number to the drive offs."

How Many Drive Offs Are Really Pilfers?


Who knows?  Where's the proof?  Is it reasonable to assume all losses are drive offs?  Why are the Coles shareholders silent on this issue?  In another life I managed an outlet selling a lot of TOTAL fuel and when the Coles Express operator who fingered me said it was because of his management's edict I was inclined to accept the spontaneous reply as genuine (see my page in this series "The BeeGees").  His reaction was consistent with someone defending himself against an accusation of pilfering when the losses exceed the limits allowed for evaporation.  It's what you would do to satisfy management when you cannot read a number plate - present them with a cheat sheet that balances the shortages and sales against the stock sold and satisfies the bean counters all the way to the ATO, if tax payable is still calculated on net income (and losses are deductible).

Well, he sure got a good look at my number plate, still on the car and parked at the pump.  There could be no mistaking my number, no defaced numerals or mud spatters.  Perhaps mine was the cleanest plate on the forecourt, but when he wrote it down in place of the real offender's rego number, you can bet the incident was not supposed to go any further.  After months of talks with Coles Express management, no one could tell me how they determine which losses are from staff pilfering and which losses come from fair dinkum drive offs and whether anyone is keeping score at all.  I knew there should be a "list" of some sort because shrinkage, wastage, call it what you will, must be accounted for in any business yet all those I spoke to denied lists for that purpose existed and none of their "processes" encouraged operators to put a number down.  Shareholders sitting on dividends are not asking questions about drive off losses and how they are being recorded and claimed and how much is due to pilfering.  Why not?

The Petrol Discounter From (S)Hell


Police forces around the country are united in their recommendation for pre-payment.  Many independent operators have embraced pre-paying as the most effective way of preventing drive offs, however the two major chains, Coles and Woolies, are adamant in their opposition to pre-pay and continue exposing their customers on forecourts, vulnerable to the desperate measures adopted by escaping robbers and drive offs.  Cynics argue they take that position because they know petrol volumes will drop, as will retail sales in the service centres because fewer than 30% of customers carry spare cash for non-fuel purchases, preferring to pay by credit card and to make only a single transaction and make it once.

Nevertheless, a bold trial of pre-pay by sixty independent service stations in Bankstown and Liverpool has begun.  Coles and Woolies were invited but are not taking part.  Among the measures considered in the past to arrest the losses and curb the alarming spate of violence and mayhem people can face filling up the family car are:-

  • Employee Pay.  Helped along by the promise of new IR laws, some proprietors in Australia simply deduct losses from employee pay packets (an already established practice overseas), taking care not to go below minimum wage limits.  There has been recent argument on this approach in federal parliament (Hansard 15 Aug 06)
  • Thumb Prints on Card.  A variation on the Club Card idea.  An ID card is swiped at the pump and if valid, the pump is turned on by the operator
  • Police Cabin on Forecourt.  Used in the UK in built-up areas.  Provides a permanent police presence and serves as a convenient base for coppers on the beat
  • Staff Do Crime Reports.  This avoids phone-ups each incident.  The employee writes up a sheet of drive offs and occurrences and hands it in to the police at the end of his shift

    A Coles Express spokeswoman told Edmund Tadros (SMH 31 Aug 06) they had "a series of processes in place" to minimise petrol theft.  And well they might have improved since they got me.  They sure keep these processes and the results, hushed up.  I say they need to invest in better technology and safer, more secure systems, because Coles Express can't stop drive offs.  They can't catch the ones they can't stop and they can't prosecute those they do catch.

    Walking the Talk on Ethics


    "We are under pressure from the management to put a number to the drive offs," said the operator who mistakenly identified me.  While no one has denied he said it, no managers I spoke to would confirm his admission was a Coles Express requirement, one senior manager adding that the offending operator had been counselled.  Wow!  Another offered me a $50 gift voucher for my troubles.  Yippee!  All gave plenty of sorries and regrets, all the way up the management chain of Coles Express.  And well might they be sincerely sorry.  I hope it will be a universal and lasting condition within Coles Express, for there is no contrition, no admissions made or reparations begun to improve their flawed systems.  Coles Express would have the enquiring public believe their methods are perfect, losses are minor and not a problem compared to other parts of the Coles group of businesses and should not be questioned.

    Where are their ethics?  Well, there is an indication where Coles believe they lie in the little 40-page booklet HQ have put out to all their suppliers.  Introducing the pamphlet, CEO John Fletcher is quoted saying,

    "We have established a set of values and behaviours that provide a framework for how we do business.  Our values are Integrity, Respect and Recognition, Passion for Excellence and Working together".

    "Gosh," writes Janine Perrett in her SMH column 11 Aug 06, "you could have fooled the myriad small businesses Coles has bullied in the past."  To that end, I'll add to those ranks one employee and one customer they've bullied, too.  She goes on in the same vein,

    "The ethics book outlines all the terrible things Coles is now against - everything from child labour to companies that don't give adequate toilet breaks to their workers.  Not a problem, Mr. Fletcher - at the rate the big supermarkets are squeezing small local companies out of business, the workers won't have to be concerned about toilet access, nor even pay and conditions, because they won't have a job.  The book is timely as the market power of the supermarket chains threatens to force more jobs offshore to the very countries that do abuse their workers.  One assumes these pamphlets were being prepared with new Asian suppliers in mind,"

    In the Name of Shell....


  •   Shell Oil is trading 14 million barrels of oil equivalent every day throughout the world.  They lease to Coles Express, 650 or so service stations in Australia and have done so since 2003
  •   Drivers of stolen cars are very enthusiastic users of stolen petrol.  When they pull in to fill up, they usually leave in a hurry.  80,000 cars were stolen in 2002 according to ABS
  •   Losses throughout Victoria's 1400 stations in 2002 were up to $100,000 per week.   $12m pa was stolen in 2003.  A great many rego plates worn on drive off cars were simply stolen or defaced
  •   Canberra losses due to drive offs so far in 2006 are up 35% on last year, while NSW figures show a 130% increase measured over two years
  •   Shell (NZ) is putting safety of site staff and customers first.  They claim they are "investing more than $2 million over the next 18 months on improving the security features at our sites to make sure they are safer and our sites are less attractive to robbers."

    So how was it that Coles Express slipped up on my case and damned me to the cops as a thief?  After much humming and harring, dancing about and straight obfuscation, I can summarise without fear of contradiction that the picture quality from the too few cameras with too many black spots to cover and not enough eyes to peruse while the staff were tending to retail sales was too grainy and too difficult to retrieve in a hurry to be useful for checking before calling the police.  There was no audio track recorded - operators relied on hearing cars revving up or the squeals of tyres on the forecourt to warn them of a pending drive off and if they accurately read the rego plates of ridgy-didge drive offs, they chose not to put forward the CCTV tape in evidence.  Instead, the company told me they prosecuted in court on the statements of their witnessing operators but declined to give me any figures on successful prosecutions.

    "What Can We Do to Get You Back in Our Stores?"


    That was a very good question, put to me by the Coles Express managing director in an early morning call he made in March 2006.  What indeed?  I pondered, pleased by the attention of the moment.  I pondered another three months and considered that of the petrol stations around me at Bankstown, two were very convenient and both were Coles Express and I was avoiding them so where was that getting me?  I wasn't going to make a claim on them of any kind for damages or anything although I was still pretty riled up over their dreadful slur and the hamfisted way they were treating my complaint.  I didn't believe there was a figure you could put to the kind of indignity I experienced, but Coles Express could recover the lost ground if they directed a personal apology to me in a very public manner.

    I asked that a public apology be placed, minimum 7cm x 9cm in a Saturday edition during August 2006 in the SMH and Sydney Daily Telegraph, to appear not past page 8.  The ads were to state the facts of the police being summoned to my home and how it was all a mistake and an entirely inappropriate action and that Coles Express were at fault  and if they did that, I would come back.

    August 2006 passed and they had nothing to say.  It is clear there will be no public apology from Coles Express.  I believe I have no obligation to keep this episode a secret any longer and will further describe the conversations I had with staff and executives of the company, what pertinent technical issues and statistics and corroborating material I found on the Internet and conclusions I have reached regarding the safety and security of people buying fuel from this company, to any person who is so interested.  The Coles Group manager I was talking to has gone from boss of grog, to gas, to grub in a patch they've done to replace a most recent sacking.  Good luck in your new career, Mick!

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  • The Man Who Sacked the BeeGees .....
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    LINK TO THESE DIGESTS FROM THIS PAGE

    Cashbook and
    Claypan 
    Birdsville
    or Bust 
    East from
    Oodna 
    Alive in the
    Dead Heart 
    B-Line for
    Birdsville 


    GONE TO MOTHBALLS .....
    Thommo's Desert Report The BeeGees Page
    Coles Express Picks On a Pensioner The Kid From Towra Point
    Bulldozing a Desert Trans National Causeway
    Signwriter for the Simpson The Long Haul
    Simpson Desert Birdlife French Line Circa 1979

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