Firing up growth in the fuel market

Diversification and expansion have been key to Union Gas' success for over 40 years

As the son of a gas entrepreneur, Union Gas chief executive Teo Hark Piang describes the bright blue LPG cylinder as a "constant companion" in his growing-up years. With over 200 vehicles, the group operates one of the largest delivery fleets for the
As the son of a gas entrepreneur, Union Gas chief executive Teo Hark Piang describes the bright blue LPG cylinder as a "constant companion" in his growing-up years. With over 200 vehicles, the group operates one of the largest delivery fleets for the supply of bottled LPG cylinders in Singapore. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A familiar object in Mr Teo Hark Piang's childhood was the blue 60cm-tall liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder that is associated with warm kitchens, home-cooked food and family meals.

"As a kid, I remember the cylinder being taller and bigger than me initially, but over the years, I outgrew it in terms of height," recalled the 42-year-old chief executive of SGX-listed fuel products supplier Union Gas Holdings.

"It was an essential part of our lives - we cooked with it, we ate with it. It has generated many wonderful memories for our family."

More than four decades ago, his father, Mr Teo Kiang Ang, founded the family's gas distribution business, selling and delivering bottled Caltex gas to households in Singapore.

In the late 1990s, when Caltex Gas exited the Singapore market after the onset of the Asian financial crisis, Mr Teo's father grabbed the opportunity to acquire the oil firm's gas distribution business, as well as its bottling facility.

That watershed move in 2000 allowed the company to establish its Union Energy brand, turning it into the only local distributor to own one of Singapore's four gas bottling plants.

As the scion of a gas entrepreneur, Mr Teo's relationship with the bright blue cylinder extended beyond the kitchen into his teenage years. He helped with customer deliveries after school and, over the years, honed the skills of the trade, such as welding, pipe-laying and stove repair.

"The LPG cylinder has been my constant companion through childhood and my growing-up years. I definitely have a strong attachment to it," he said with a grin.

Today, Union Gas is an established provider of fuel products in Singapore, with a track record of more than 40 years of operations. Its three key businesses comprise retail LPG, compressed natural gas (CNG) and diesel.

The group, which listed on the Singapore Exchange's (SGX) Catalist board in July 2017, has a current market capitalisation of nearly $60 million.

EVOLVING THE BRAND

Under its Union brand, the group supplies bottled LPG cylinders to more than 180,000 domestic households in Singapore, mostly in mature public housing or landed residential estates.

  • $6.4m

    Union Gas' revenue from the commercial sales of retail LPG for the six months ended June 30 last year, surpassing the $5.6 million registered for the whole of 2018.

Other sources of demand include dormitories, as well as corporate and private events.

With over 200 vehicles, the group operates one of the largest delivery fleets for the supply of bottled LPG cylinders in Singapore. Its 50-strong call centre operates all year round to take orders, while its Fuel My Life application allows customers to make purchases online through their mobile devices.

From its roots as a traditional LPG player, Union Gas has evolved to become a supplier of CNG and diesel. The group sells and distributes both CNG and diesel at its 24-hour fuel station in Old Toh Tuck Road.

It also supplies CNG to natural gas vehicles and industrial customers, as well as transports, distributes and bulk-sells diesel to commercial clients.

In 2018, it enlarged its domestic distribution network by acquiring non-contractual domestic customers from Semgas Supply and other small LPG dealers.

"In recent years, there has been a gradual attrition of smaller players in the retail LPG segment, mainly due to increased operating costs, stricter regulations and higher customer expectations," said Mr Teo.

"This trend presents us with opportunities to acquire or partner smaller dealers to enlarge our share of the residential market."

In 2018, Union Gas also expanded into the commercial and industrial segment with the acquisition of U-Gas, which is primarily involved in the retail sale of LPG to hawker centres in Singapore.

The group is working to broaden its distribution network to supply the cooking gas to eating houses, coffee shops and/or commercial central kitchens.

"Given the typical Singaporean's penchant for eating out, hawker food centres and coffee shops are very much woven into the fabric of our society," Mr Teo said.

"This push into hawker centres is expected to pave the way for our entry into other commercial segments, including coffee shops, and will reap benefits for years to come."

The strategy is starting to pay off - Union Gas chalked up revenue of $6.4 million from the commercial sales of retail LPG for the six months ended June 30 last year, surpassing the $5.6 million registered for the whole of 2018.

At its initial public offering, Union Gas disclosed plans to diversify into the supply and retail of piped natural gas to the manufacturing and service sectors in Singapore, including industrial and commercial customers in the food and beverage industry. It obtained a gas retailing licence from the Energy Market Authority in 2017.

The group has yet to embark on this plan, but Mr Teo said it is assessing markets in Asean and less-developed cities in China that do not have access to piped gas networks.

The threat of alternative energy sources, such as solar power and electricity, continues to loom. With greater awareness of environmental protection and sustainability, fossil fuels are facing increased public opposition.

"We believe there will still be uses for both diesel and CNG, and new applications for these energy sources will emerge," Mr Teo added.

• This is an excerpt from Singapore Exchange's Kopi-C: The Company Brew, a column featuring C-level executives of SGX-listed firms. Previous editions are on SGX's website www.sgx.com/research

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2020, with the headline Firing up growth in the fuel market. Subscribe