Turning up the heat

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The former trucker who built a multi-million-pound online oil company from the spare room of his Teesside home will always have reason to celebrate his birthday in style.

Chris Bicknell turned 38 on July 1 but the date also marked 12 years since the formation of HomeFuels Direct, his Stockton-based company that provided heating oil to locked down homes across the country during the coronavirus crisis.

Two years after its launch the company relocated to offices at Stockton Business Centre where it remains today. To celebrate its 12-year milestone, a new website and data centre was launched at the start of July to prepare for winter and build on its success.

HomeFuels Direct is now one of the UK’s leading online heating oil providers with attention to detail, prices and delivery service which have set them apart from their competitors. The company pulled in £12m in sales last year and is the sector’s second most successful operator.

When he decided to start his own business, Chris knew it would be life-changing and it certainly proved different from years spent on the road working for his father’s Stockton haulage company.

Chris recalls: “I served a three-year apprenticeship working for a large chemical distribution company before I joined my dad’s business as an HGV driver and it was a fantastic experience, but when the business was sold in 2007, I had to get a proper job! I worked as a contractor in an office but really didn’t like it.

“I’d always wanted my own business and as I was working in the petroleum industry and the internet was just taking off, I thought I would sell heating oil online and see how it went.

“I set up in my spare room, trying to get heating oil sales off the ground. The first two years were painful at times – a case of two steps forward, 20 back. In hindsight, I spent so much on idiot tax, it’s scary. The key is to make sure you don’t spend too much money on trial and error.

“I jumped into the unknown in so many ways, but the business really took off and we started to get an identity and understand our clients’ needs. That meant we could find offices in Stockton and move out of the bedroom with the socks and washing on the bed.”

HomeFuels Direct has been awarded the Feefo Platinum Trusted Service Award for 2020, thanks to positive customer feedback on its efficient ordering and delivery service – and some of the cheapest rates in the UK.

Chris’s decision to provide a modern-day service paid dividends during lockdown when thousands needed more oil because they were stuck at home – and he is hoping to build on the positive period.

“It’s been very busy,” he reflects. “With people being furloughed, it affected their spending plans and everyone needs to feed and heat their homes and they have taken advantage of the fact consumption has gone up and the oil price is low.

“We know what consumers want. We have more than 70,000 customers all over the UK now and we have crafted their feedback on things we do well, and not so well, to give the best customer service.

“If you are spending money, you want a service that is pain-free, reliable and quick. It’s no good having great cheap oil if it takes forever to arrive. Over 12 years, we have been working the way I wanted and we can hold our heads high.

“This is the best thing I have ever done. I don’t even class it as a job. It is 24/7 and far from a hobby, but when you enjoy something it’s hard to see it as a job. I don’t get that Sunday/Monday feeling of the dread of going to work. I absolutely love it because it’s my life and it gets my heart pumping.”

For more details, visit homefuelsdirect.co.uk.