Experts say in order to create and sustain a successful business, you have to either offer something completely unique to the market or do it better than the competition. In 1998, Eugene Mayne, now CEO of Dubai-based Tristar, did just that.
After 21 years learning the ropes in liquid logistics, the Indian national knew the “ins and outs” of the business of transporting dangerous and flammable substances from A to B. But perhaps more importantly, the self-confessed “dreamer” had also witnessed the pitfalls of his chosen trade.
He decided there and then it was time for a change and a drive for safety and safe working practices spurred him on.
“One of the hardest things I faced working for an oil company was finding a responsible transporter,” he said. “Tristar was born from a need to find a safety-conscious alternative. When I first started in this industry, the people transporting flammable liquids were not up to scratch and very unreliable.”
Some of the industry horror stories include drivers smoking while their trucks are filled with hazardous substances, as well as vehicles that do not comply with international standards for carrying these types of liquids, Mayne added.
“It’s a scary business and people’s lives were at risk. I knew something needed to be done, but it was difficult to make changes while I was bound by company protocol and regulations. I was just a small fish in a big pond,” he said.
Operating a ‘safe business’
So in 1998, with little to no money, Mayne used his life savings to buy three used trucks and start a business with different values.
“Our focus was to be a safe and a responsible business. This was the foundation,” he recalled. “Moving dangerous liquids is a risky business and it was so important to me to safeguard not only my staff, but also make sure we were not a hazard [to] the communities in which we operated.”
Under his leadership, Tristar has seen a consistent compound annual growth rate of 20% and today boasts an annual turnover of USD 300 million.
The award shelf is literally overflowing and in 2003, Kuwaiti-based Agility Logistics acquired a majority stake in the company making worldwide growth a possibility.
Tristar now operates in 15 countries, headquartered in Jebel Ali’s Industrial Zone and has staff of more than 1,900.
“I came to the UAE in 1976 as a 21-year-old [expat] with big dreams and no money. In fact I had next to nothing,” he said. “It was so tough, but I eventually managed to land a job with American oil company Caltex. I worked for them for more than 20 years – the best education of my life.”
Mayne believes in “on-the-job” training – mainly due to his own educational path – and claims a huge part of Tristar’s success has been investing in staff from the ground up.
“Not only did I learn everything there is to know about the oil and gas industry, but I also learned the finer points of [the] business – codes of conduct, policies and regulations, ethics and running a compliant company, [as well as] business governance,” he said of his time at Caltex. “I was able to develop myself, buy a car and get married and build a life for myself.”
After 22 years, having gained valuable experience in every aspect of the business, Mayne took an early retirement and used his end of service benefit to jump in and go it alone. “I had two small children so I couldn’t fail. It wasn’t an option,” he said.
Tristar is an integrated liquid logistics company mainly for the downstream oil and gas industry servicing a host of multinational companies, the US military and the United Nations.
“The challenge now is differentiating ourselves from the rest. Getting to the top isn’t that difficult. Staying there is,” he said. “You cannot sit back and relax [or] compromise. Not being consistent can have disastrous consequences.”
Boasting a transport fleet in excess of 1,000 road tankers, pick-ups and flatbed trailers, Mayne has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time.
The company has developed a diverse portfolio of services ranging from road transportation, warehousing of dangerous goods and chemicals, management and operation of fuel farms, turnkey fuel operations, plane aviation fuel services, as well as ship owning and chartering for movement of petroleum and chemical products.
Tristar made headlines in the shipping world a few years ago when it placed a firm order for six new MR chemical tankers with Korean shipbuilder Hyundai Mipo Dockyard. The vessels are expected to be delivered in 2016.
But the good news for those struggling is that it wasn’t always this easy. “It was so tough in the beginning,” he admitted. “You start a business and start collecting the money, but it doesn’t go very far. You have to be patient. Eventually you’ll get a break but it takes time. Once you build something that people respect, it becomes a lot easier.
“In the beginning I couldn’t even get AED 100 credit from a bank. Today banks will give me USD 100million.”
For Mayne it took about three years before his “big break” finally reared its head.
“My dream was to find a way to penetrate the oil companies but that’s not an easy process. You have to be accepted, considered even, before you can even attempt to begin proving you can do the job. They couldn’t find professional transporters so they used to do it all on their own. To change the culture and get them to put their trust in someone else and outsource the work was not easy. It took a lot of time.”
The big break
Eventually a chief at BP (British Petroleum) bought Mayne’s passion and gave him a much-needed break and the opportunity to move fuel to the airport in Sharjah.
After that, there was no stopping him and before long, oil giants including Shell, Adnoc and Emarat all followed suit.
Mayne’s advice is to concentrate on key clients. “I operate in 15 countries, but it is my clients who have taken me there. I serviced their needs well and they have taken me to the rest of the world.”
He also believes there is no substitute for hard work, something many entrepreneurs aren’t ready for.
“The harder I have worked, the luckier I have got,” he laughs. “That’s my basic philosophy. You have to dream big. Let your dreams inspire and then chase them, especially if you’re young.
“But be patient. Just because you dream big doesn’t mean it will happen overnight. I was always a dreamer, but for me it took around 21 years [for that dream to] actually happen. I educated and developed myself – that [took] time. You can’t start a business unless you know everything there is to know about that business. That is key,” he said.
Mayne added that “if you want to manage people and be in charge, then you must know it all. Then people respect your knowledge. It also gives you confidence and drives your passion”.
“Don’t give up” is his message to other entrepreneurs. “You can only create trust and respect by living your values. As the leader of a group, you have to lead from the front and believe in yourself.”