Making it a success in the fuel industry: James Stairmand interview

As recruiters in the fuel industry, we often get the chance to speak to and share ideas with key leaders in the market. We decided to share these insights with you through our new fuel industry leaders series. We’ll be interviewing various interesting professionals – those who embrace change, who show strong initiative, and those you’d likely make a beeline for at an industry event or conference.

For our first article in the series we caught up with James Stairmand, Founder & CEO of OnlineFuels. Here’s what James had to say about his journey in the industry so far and his recommendations for making it a success in the fuel market. 

Setting up your own tech business within the fuel industry is no mean feat! What key factors would you attribute to your success?

Creating something that is of value to customers is probably one of the most important factors to keep in mind when creating a product. Next up is surrounding yourself with an amazing team. I believe we are doing well on both fronts, product and personnel.

I think building a strong network has been a major factor in my own development. When I started out, I surrounded myself with people who could essentially do things I couldn’t, allowing me to gain valuable guidance from the outset. Over the last 10 years of my career, I’ve invested time and effort into building up my contacts within the industry – something which was invaluable when it came to starting OnlineFuels. 

I also think having somewhat of a risk-taking mentality has served me well. It comes down to not letting concerns about what other people think of your ideas get in the way, taking initiative and essentially making things happen.

What would you recommend for anyone hoping to progress their career in the fuel market?

I’ve mentioned how important networking has been for me, but it’s not simply about meeting people. How you treat people is important. It’s a small industry after all, so I’d always recommend to treat others well (no matter what their authority or position is), as you never know who’s going to be a future customer or boss.

And above all take initiative. Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you as things won’t just land on your doorstep. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the top people in the top fuel companies (Linkedin is a powerful tool for this). Take the time to meet senior people and understand their own unique journeys – taking note of the things they did well, the things that went wrong, and learning from these. People are generally happy to share their experiences with you when you take an interest in them.

From a startup perspective, I’d also say don’t be afraid to pivot your business. If you need to change your product or alter your offering then do it –  learn from previous endeavours and move forward. 

Mentorship is a hot topic in the industry right now. Could you tell us about your experiences with mentorship during your career?

Having a mentor who specialises in your field is obviously valuable, but something I’ve also found useful is having a mentor who sits outside of the industry. One mentor in particular who I call on is from one of my close friends, Sebastian Lewis who has set up his own business, Mettrr, and faced many of the challenges that I have. Whilst the fuel industry has its own unique challenges, discussing work related issues with this mentor brings me valuable outside perspectives. Steve Colsell and Ian Maslin also helped out a lot to really professionalize the business in a short space of time and have also come from outside the industry.

Other mentors have included James Spencer from Portland Fuels, who’s given a lot of his time to me. Again, having set his own business up, but within the fuel industry it is always great to get advice on how he sees things going on in the market.

Also Andy Griffin from tPoint, who actually encouraged me to take the risk of starting OnlineFuels. I’d worked for Mabanaft for 8 years and had always had the idea of setting my own thing up, but it was when I met Andy during my honeymoon on the Amalfi coast that the idea really started to take shape. I told Andy about my plans and took him through my business plan, and he liked the idea of getting involved and helping me start. The day I got back from that holiday was the day I quit my job to start OnlineFuels!  

Fast forward 3 and a half years later, OnlineFuels has grown to 15 employees, amassed an impressive client base, and even won Tech Company of the Year at the National Technology Awards, with other winners being companies like Vodafone and Sky! It goes to show you have to put faith in yourself, put yourself out there and weigh up the risk vs reward.

What qualities have some of the best people you’ve worked with had?

I have people I’ll call upon after a difficult situation because I know they will look for the positives. One guy in particular, Erwin Vinall, can take you from feeling -10 to +20 in a ten minute phone call. He’s the sort of person who makes you feel like you can take on the world! Generally, I find passionate and positive people like that are the best to have around because they help you move forward.

Going back to mentorship, Alex Banks, one of our investors, has shown complete faith in me since we met. He believes in my passion and lets me get on with growing the business. Having people around you who believe you can achieve what you’re setting out to do is a huge motivator and valuable quality in a co-worker.

I also think being in a team with a dynamic attitude is important for success. At OnlineFuels, if we don’t achieve something, we fail as a team. There’s no finger pointing – it’s about getting over the line together. 

How has the industry changed since you first started your career? 

Technology definitely plays a bigger part than it ever did before, and I think it will even more so in the next 5-10 years.

I think attitudes towards careers in the industry have shifted too. New people coming into the industry seem to have more fulfilment working in different roles and at different companies, rather than sticking somewhere for 30 years (as used to be the case!).

How do you see the job market in fuel changing over the next 5-10 years? 

There’s a clear emphasis on green fuels as opposed to fossil fuels. You only have to look at the marketing spend of big oil companies to see this – their marketing efforts are being spent on renewables like wind and solar – that’s clearly where the market will eventually go and where future jobs will open up in.

Despite the advances in tech, I still think the whole account manager piece will never be lost. Instead, tech will be used to look after the more mundane tasks (like improving legacy systems – making the entire system work together rather than having to input data into 3 different places!). The personal touch will always be needed, we’ll just have more automated processes – allowing more time to be spent on developing customer relationships.

What skills should less-experienced professionals be working on now, to prepare them for the future changes and challenges?  

I’d say keep aware of what’s going on in different parts of the industry. If you’re in the early stages of your career then don’t be scared to move around and get different experiences. I was at Mabanaft for 8 years, but did four different roles within that time because I was proactive – I said I wanted to learn how all the different areas of the business worked. Push yourself internally to get these experiences, especially when you’re working in an industry which is set to go through significant changes over the next 10 years.


Thank you to James Stairmand for giving his valuable insights. Read the next interview in the series with Mabanaft MD, Martin Cook, or sign up to the newsletter below to be updated. You can find more industry insights on our oil and gas industry blog, or see the latest fuel jobs by visiting our fuel job listing page.