Turning challenges into opportunities in solid fuel

The Hardware Journal met Niall McGuinness, Managing Director of CPL Fuels Ireland, to discuss the changes facing the solid fuel industry and learn how meeting the evolving demands of customers and the hardware retail sector is driving success.

In just seven years, CPL Fuels Ireland has made a big impact in the Irish solid fuel market by making its products more convenient and appealing to merchants and their customers.

Since its inception, CPL has focused on enhancing the prospects for more environmentally-friendly and retailer-friendly solid fuel. The company entered the Irish solid fuel market in 2012 with a simple vision; to promote cleaner fuels and lead the industry towards a position where solid fuel had a future. According to Managing Director Niall McGuinness, this has been the key to their success.

With over 20 years’ experience in the solid fuel market, Niall McGuinness brings the wealth of knowledge necessary to adapt and thrive in a fast-changing landscape. “When you see what consumers are now demanding of business and legislators with regard to a cleaner environment, I believe our vision has been correct. And we have been well-placed to respond to this change.”

In 2013, when Environment Minister Phil Hogan stated his objective to have an all-island ban on the burning of smoky coal, CPL announced plans to build a plant at Foynes, Ireland’s second largest port on the Shannon Estuary, to support this switch. The CPL board invested £17 million in an advanced new production facility, which opened in 2016. This facility is capable of producing 200,000 tonnes per annum, but more importantly, is well equipped to meet the on-going demands that will be forced on the sector by the requirement for cleaner fuels.

At the same time, CPL has enabled hardware merchants and other retailers to continue to see solid fuel as a good income stream, by cleaning up the physical product for sale on the shop floor.

Survival and success

“The hardware industry is notoriously tough and not immune from economic ups and downs,” McGuinness explains. “For merchants, every revenue stream is critical to continued
existence. The recession taught us that lesson and now we have the uncertainty of Brexit.”

“At the height of the Celtic Tiger, I saw many hardware merchants deciding that solid fuels weren’t something they really wanted to be selling. Some products were poorly presented; often with water running from bags, which made solid fuel unsuitable for the shop floor. Getting delivery staff was also an issue.”

“When we set up CPL, our key objective was to have solid fuel on the shop floor. So we knew cleanliness and convenience were vital. Our major investment in Foynes gave us a plant capable of having every coal ovoid produced and packed before it ever sees the light of day. There is no water in an ovoid bag from CPL!” For this reason CPL’s Homefire product range has been well received by the trade and consumers. Its success is all about the end consumer walking the shop floor and knowing they can pick up fuel as they browse the aisles.

“Despite Brexit, it would still be fair to say that things have picked up in recent years. I don’t see hardware merchants turning away from selling solid fuel. Indeed many retailers are looking for cleaner, more convenient options which we are prepared to offer,” observes McGuinness.

Meeting demands for cleaner fuel

This year, CPL extended its Homefire range to four ovoids, including a new direct replacement for smoky coal to reduce emissions. Yet Homefire Wildfire will have all the same, if not more, advantages.

  • Fast – lighting as quickly as coal
  • Convenient – available in 35kg bags
  • Efficient – lasting longer than 40kg of coal
  • Safe – no sparks!

Braced for Brexit

CPL is prepared for Brexit, assures McGuinness. “We have a significant presence in Northern Ireland, and all product is supplied by us via Foynes, so we are obviously  concerned about how it will operate post-Brexit. However, plans are in place to cover every eventuality.”

Valued assets, people and place

CPL’s production facility at Foynes is extensive, spanning two and a half acres – capable of holding 10,000 tonnes of in-feed material under roof. And because the site sits on 17 acres, the company is able to start this season with a massive 30,000 tonnes of bagged product to meet consumer demand.

McGuinness is confident. “CPL won’t run out of product!” CPL now employs 50 staff at the peak of the season, based between head office in Dundalk, the Foynes plant, and those in
the field looking after the customer base.

“I am delighted that some employees have been with me from the very start, including loyal folk who have worked alongside me for many years prior to establishing CPL. We’re lucky to have great people and a fantastic site,” says McGuinness.

Future proofing

So what is the CPL outlook for the sector, given emerging trends and issues? “Firstly, climate change is a problem for everyone on this planet, now acknowledged by all (or nearly all). However a more mature debate is needed on climate change and the burden needs to be genuinely shared,” states McGuinness.

“As I see it, middle Ireland and the legitimate trade are being asked to pay too heavy a penalty and Government are failing in their duty to enforce the laws of the land – laws they are making.”

“To put some context on it; after the budget, the tax being collected on a bag of smoky or indeed low smoke fuel will be circa €5 per bag. An average home unable to afford a fill of oil (never mind retrofitting their home) will be using three bags per week at the height of the winter. So that adds up to €15 additional tax to be paid weekly. But these households have no other option. Yet how much Carbon Tax is paid by those of us lucky enough to fly
as often as we like to the winter sun? A reality check is needed!”

With smuggling also an issue, industry is coming together to protect the trade. CPL have joined Retailers Against Smuggling (RAS), set up in 2009 to represent retailers in the fight against the black market in Ireland. They have almost 3,000 retail members around the country and 15 corporate sponsors. RAS aims include raising awareness and imposing fines as appropriate on the illicit trade, as well as pushing for legal reform. RAS also liaise with  law enforcement.

Social media is one of the biggest changes taking place. CPL are taking steps to maximise its potential for business. “Like cleaner fuels, it’s the future,” McGuinness believes. “CPL
will be rolling out a social media plan over the coming months to reach two key audiences: educating our end users and enhancing engagement with trade customers.”

Pink is the new black

A proud ‘Pink Partner’, CPL is supporting the Irish Cancer Society for the second year running, even creating limited edition pink bags of its best-selling Homefire Supertherm Smokeless Coal!

2020 and beyond

CPL has ambitious plans, according to McGuinness. “We have a confident outlook, because we will continue to focus on what succeeds – innovation and leading the market. Hopefully, in doing this, we will bring our customers along on the journey.” “To offer consumers greater choice, CPL is adding new fuels to our range in the season ahead. And, as part of
our customer-focussed approach, we will be undertaking a complete re-brand of our Homefire range. So we are excited and upbeat about the future.”