Gulf's former headquarters, originally referred to as "the Gulf Building" (now the Gulf Tower office condos), is an art-deco skyscraper. The tallest building in Pittsburgh until 1970, when it was eclipsed by the U.S. Steel building, it is capped by a "step pyramid" structure several stories high. Until the late 1970s, the entire top was illuminated, changing color with changes in barometric pressure to provide a weather indicator that could be seen for many miles.
Gulf Oil Corporation (GOC) ceased to exist as an independent company in 1984, when it merged with Standard Oil of California (otherwise known as SOCAL or Chevron). However, the Gulf brand name and a number of the constituent business divisions of GOC survived. Gulf has experienced a significant revival since 1990, emerging as a flexible network of allied business interests based on partnerships, franchises and agencies. The network trades worldwide using the slogan "Your Local Global Brand."
Gulf, in its present incarnation, is a "New Economy" business. It employs very few people directly and its assets are mainly in the form of intellectual property: brands, product specifications and scientific expertise. The corporate vehicle at the center of the Gulf network outside North America is Gulf Oil International Ltd (GOI), a company registered in the Cayman Islands since 1985. The ultimate holding company of GOI is Amas Holding SA (Luxembourg), an investment trust. Gulf's research and product development base is in Mumbai, India. Its business development function is run from London, United Kingdom. The company's focus is primarily in the provision of downstream products and services to a mass market through joint ventures, strategic alliances, licensing agreements, and distribution arrangements.
The business that became Gulf Oil started in 1901 with the discovery of oil at Spindletop, Texas. A group of investors came together to promote the development of a modern refinery at nearby Port Arthur to process the oil. The largest investor was William Larimer Mellon of the Pittsburgh Mellon banking family, other investors included many of Mellon's Pennsylvania clients as well as some Texas wildcatters. Mellon Bank and Gulf Oil remained closely associated thereafter. The Gulf Oil Corporation itself was formed in 1907 through the amalgamation of a number of oil businesses, principally the J.M. Guffey Petroleum and Gulf Refining companies of Texas.
Output from Spindletop peaked at around just after it was discovered and then started to decline. Later discoveries made 1927 the peak year of Spindletop production, but Spindletop's early decline forced Gulf to seek alternative sources of supply to sustain its substantial investment in refining capacity. This was achieved by constructing the 400-mile (640-km) Glenn Pool pipeline connecting oilfields in Oklahoma with Gulf's refinery at Port Arthur. The pipeline opened in September 1907. Gulf later built a network of pipelines and refineries in the eastern and southern United States, requiring heavy capital investment. Thus, Gulf Oil provided Mellon Bank with a secure vehicle for investing in the oil sector.
Gulf promoted the concept of branded product sales by selling gasoline in containers and from pumps marked with a distinctive orange disc logo. A customer buying Gulf-branded gasoline could be assured of its quality and consistent standard. (In the early 20th century, nonbranded gasoline in the U.S. was often contaminated or of unreliable quality).
Gulf Oil grew steadily in the inter-war years, with its activities mainly confined to the U.S. The company was characterised by its vertically integrated business activities, and was active across the whole spectrum of the oil industry: exploration, production, transport, refining and marketing. It also involved itself in associated industries such as petrochemicals and automobile component manufacturing. It introduced significant commercial and technical innovations, including the first drive-in service station (1911), complimentary road maps, drilling over water at Ferry Lake, and the catalytic cracking refining process (Gulf installed the world's first commercial catalytic cracking unit at its Port Arthur, Texas refinery complex in 1951). Gulf also established the model for the integrated, international "oil major," which refers to one of a group of very large companies that assumed influential and sensitive positions in the countries in which they operated.
Gulf had extensive exploration and production operations in the Gulf of Mexico area and in Kuwait. The company played a major role in the early development of oil production in Kuwait, and through the 1950s and '60s apparently enjoyed a "special relationship" with the Kuwaiti government. This special relationship attracted unfavourable attention since it was associated with "political contributions" (see below) and support for anti-democratic politics, as evidenced by papers taken from the body of a Gulf executive killed in the crash of a TWA aircraft at Cairo in 1950.
In 1934, the Kuwait Oil Company was formed as a joint venture by British Petroleum (BP) and Gulf. Both BP and Gulf held equal shares in the venture. KOC pioneered the exploration for oil in Kuwait during the late 1930s. Oil was discovered at Burgan in 1938 but it was not until 1946 that the first crude oil was shipped. Oil production started from Rawdhatain in 1955 and Minagish in 1959. KOC started gas production in 1964. It was the cheap oil and gas being shipped from Kuwait that formed the economic basis for Gulf’s diverse petroleum sector operations in Europe, the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. These last operations were coordinated by Gulf Oil Corporation, Eastern Hemisphere (EH) from an office at Portman Street, London.
Gulf expanded on a worldwide basis from the end of the war until the mid-1970s. Much of the expansion was through the acquisition of privately-owned chains of filling stations in various countries, allowing Gulf outlets to sell product (sometimes through 'matching' arrangements) from the oil that it was "lifting" in the Gulf of Mexico and Kuwait. Some of these acquisitions were to prove less than resilient in the face of economic and political developments from the 1970s on. Gulf invested heavily in product technology and developed many speciality products, particularly for application in the maritime and aviation engineering sectors. It was particularly noted for its range of lubricants and greases.
Gulf Oil reached the peak of its development in around 1970. In that year, the company processed of crude daily, held assets worth $6.5 billion, employed 58,000 employees worldwide, and was owned by 163,000 shareholders. In addition to its petroleum marketing interests, Gulf was a major producer of petrochemicals, plastics, and agricultural chemicals. Through its subsidiary, Gulf General Atomic Inc., it was also active in the nuclear energy sector. Gulf abandoned its involvement in the nuclear sector after a failed deal to build atomic power plants in Romania in the mid-1970s.
In 1974, the Kuwait National Assembly took a 60 percent stake in the equity of KOC with the remaining 40 percent divided equally between BP and Gulf. The Kuwaitis took over the rest of the equity in 1975, giving them full ownership of KOC. This meant that Gulf (EH) had to start supplying its downstream operations in Europe with crude bought on the world market at commercial prices. The whole GOC(EH) edifice now became highly marginal in an economic sense. Many of the marketing companies that Gulf had established in Europe were never truly viable on a stand-alone basis.
Gulf was at the forefront of various projects in the late 1960s intended to adjust the world oil industry to developments of the time including closure of the Suez canal after the 1967 war. In particular, Gulf undertook the construction of deep water terminals at Bantry Bay in Ireland and Okinawa in Japan capable of handling Ultra Large Crude Carrier (ULCC) vessels serving the European and Asian markets respectively. In 1968, the Universe Ireland was added to Gulf's tanker fleet. At , this was the largest vessel in the world and incapable of berthing at most normal ports.
Gulf also participated in a partnership with other majors, including Texaco, to build the Pembroke Catalytic Cracker refinery at Milford Haven and the associated Mainline Pipelines fuel distribution network. The eventual reopening of the Suez canal and upgrading of the older European oil terminals (Europoort and Marchwood) meant that the financial return from these projects was not all that had been hoped for. The Bantry terminal was devastated by the explosion of a Total tanker, the Betelgeuse, in January 1979 (the Betelgeuse incident) and it was never fully reopened. The Irish government took over ownership of the terminal in 1986 and held its strategic oil reserve there.
In the 1970s, Gulf participated in the development of new oilfields in the UK North Sea and in Cabinda, although these were high-cost operations that never compensated for the loss of Gulf's interest in Kuwait. A mercenary army had to be raised to protect the oil installations in Cabinda during the Angolan civil war. The Angolan connection was another "special relationship" that attracted comment. In the late 1970s, Gulf was effectively funding a Soviet bloc regime in Africa while the US government was attempting to overthrow that regime by supporting the UNITA rebels lead by Jonas Savimbi.
In 1975, several senior Gulf executives, including Chairman Bob Dorsey, were implicated in the making of illegal "political contributions" and were forced to step down from their positions. This loss of senior personnel at a critical time in Gulf's fortunes may have had a bearing on the events that followed.
Gulf's operations worldwide were struggling financially in the recession of the early 1980s, so Gulf's management devised the "Big Jobber" strategic realignment in 1981 (along with a program of selective divestments) to maintain viability. The Big Jobber strategy recognized that the day of the integrated, multi-national oil major might be over, since it involved concentrating on those parts of the supply chain where Gulf had a competitive advantage.
Gulf Oil was the primary sponsor for NBC News special events coverage in the 1960s, notably for coverage of the U.S. space program. The company used the connection to its advantage by offering giveaway or promotional items at its stations, including sticker sheets of space mission logos, a paper punch-out lunar module model kit, and a book titled "We Came In Peace," containing pictures of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
One particularly memorable Gulf advertisement carried by NBC during their coverage of the Apollo missions showed aerial and onboard views of the Universe Ireland with Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers singing "Bringin' Home the Oil" - a tribute to the opening of Gulf's operations in Bantry Bay.
Gulf Oil was most synonymous for its association with auto racing, as it famously sponsored the John Wyer Automotive team in the 1960s and early '70s. The signature light blue and orange color scheme associated with its Ford GT40 and Porsche 917 is one of the most famous corporate racing colors and has been replicated by other racing teams sponsored by Gulf. Much of its popularity is attributed to the fact that in the 1971 film Le Mans, Steve McQueen's character, Michael Delaney, drives for the Gulf team. As a result of McQueen's increasing popularity following his death and the increasing popularity of the Heuer Monaco which he wore at the film, TAG Heuer released a limited edition of the watch with the Gulf logo and trademark color scheme. In the same era, Gulf Oil also sponsored Team McLaren during the Bruce McLaren days, which used a papaya orange color scheme with Gulf blue for lettering.
From 1963 to 1980, Gulf Oil had a formal agreement with Holiday Inn, the world's largest lodging chain, for which Holiday Inns in the U.S. and Canada would accept Gulf credit cards for food and lodging. In return, Gulf placed service stations on the premises of many Holiday Inn properties along major U.S. highways to provide one-stop availability for gasoline, auto service, food and lodging. Many older Holiday Inns still have those original Gulf stations on their properties, some in operation and some closed, but few operate today as Gulf stations.
Gulf No-Nox gasoline was promoted with a bucking horse leaving an imprint of two horseshoes. Several promotions centered around the two horseshoes. In 1966 bright orange 3-D plastic self-adhesive horseshoes for your bumper were given away. Another popular giveaway was during the 1968 election season, gold horseshoe lapel pins featuring either a democrat donkey or a republican elephant.
Its undoing as an independent company began in 1982 when T. Boone Pickens, an Amarillo, Texas oilman and corporate raider (or greenmailer), and owner of Mesa Petroleum made an offer for the much larger Cities Service Company from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Gulf offered to be a white knight and take over Cities Service (more generally known by the name Citgo) to keep it out of the clutches of Mesa. Gulf terminated the Cities Service acquisition over a dispute regarding accuracy of Cities Service's reserves and Cities Service was ultimately sold to Occidental Petroleum, and the retail operations were resold to Southland Corporation, the operators of 7-Eleven stores. Gulf's termination of the Cities Service acquisition resulted in more than 15 years of shareholder litigation against Gulf (and later Chevron).
Mesa and a group of associated investors then turned on Gulf. They quickly acquired 11 percent of the company's stock and engaged in a proxy war to get control of its board. Pickens made loud criticisms of the existing Gulf management and offered an alternative business plan intended to release shareholder value through a drastic slimming down of the Gulf operation. Pickens had acquired the reputation of being a corporate raider whose skill lay in making profits out of bidding for companies but without actually acquiring them. During the early 1980s alone, he made failed bids for Cities Services, General American Oil, Gulf, Phillips Petroleum and Unocal. The process of making such bids would promote a frenzy of asset divestiture and debt reduction in the target companies. This is a standard defensive tactic calculated to boost the current share price, although possibly at the expense of long term strategic advantage. The target shares would rise sharply in price, at which point Pickens would dispose of his interest at a substantial profit.
Gulf management and directors took the view that the Mesa bid represented an undervaluation of the Gulf business as a going concern and that it was not in the interest of Gulf shareholders. Gulf, therefore, sought to resist Pickens by various means, finally turning to Chevron to act as its white knight in 1984. Gulf divested many of its worldwide operating subsidiaries and then merged with Chevron. The Mesa group of investors was reported to have made a profit of $760 million when it assigned its Gulf shares to Chevron.
The forced merger of Gulf and Chevron was a controversy that was widely discussed and was referred to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC only approved the deal subject to strict conditions. Never before had a "small operator" successfully taken apart a Fortune 500 company. The $13-billion merger with Chevron would become the largest corporate merger in world history to that time, and as of 2006 it still remained the second largest. Chevron, to settle with the government antitrust requirements, sold some Gulf stations and a refinery in the eastern United States to British Petroleum (BP) and Cumberland Farms in 1985 as well as some of the international operations.
BP, Chevron, Cumberland Farms and other companies that acquired former Gulf operations continued to use the Gulf name through the early 1990s. This caused consumer confusion in the US retail market as the parent companies would not accept each others' credit cards. All former Gulf stations franchised by BP and Chevron in the United States have since been converted to those names. Gulf Oil Limited Partnership ('GOLP'), based in Chelsea, Massachusetts(but has since moved to Newton, Massachusetts in 2007), has bought a license for North American rights to the Gulf brand from Chevron. Chevron still owns the Gulf brand, but as of 2006 was making almost no direct use of it. GOLP operates a distribution network reaching from Maine to Ohio. Most Gulf-branded filling stations in North America are owned by Cumberland Farms of Canton, Massachusetts, which owns a two-thirds interest in GOLP. In addition there are some independently-owned franchises still operating under the Gulf brand within North America, such as the American Refining Group, which is licensed by Chevron to blend and distribute Gulf-branded lubricants.
Gulf Oil International (GOI) owns the rights to the Gulf brand outside North America and is based in London. It is owned by an anonymous Luxembourg investment trust, and functions as an independent business. GOI's own literature claims that it is a part of the Hinduja group. GOI trades mainly in lubricants, oils, and greases and has exclusive rights to the Gulf brand outside North America. GOI is also involved in franchising the Gulf brand to operators in the petroleum and automotive sectors; Gulf-branded filling stations can be found in several countries including the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Madagascar. GOI has direct and indirect interests in a number of businesses that use the Gulf brand under license.
The Canadian exploration and production arm of Gulf Oil continued as an independent oil company (Gulf Canada Resources) until its acquisition by Conoco in 2002.
Most Gulf downstream operations in Europe were sold to the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation in early 1983. The associated Gulf filling stations were converted to trade under the Q8 brand by 1988. However, attempts to sell Gulf Oil (Great Britain) to KPC failed because of irrevocable GOC guarantees given earlier in regard to bonds issued to finance the construction of refinery facilities in the UK. GO(GB) was taken over by Chevron and its stations continued to use the Gulf brand name and insignia until 1997 when the network was sold to Shell, although by this stage a fairly large proportion of Gulf stations were supplied by jobbers rather than Gulf Oil (GB). Gulf completely withdrew from the UK in 1997. This represented the end of the last major direct use of the Gulf brand by Chevron.
GOI continues to sell Gulf-branded lubricants worldwide through a network of country subsidiary companies. Some of these subsidiaries franchise use of the Gulf brand to local independent petroleum retailers ("affiliates"). Hence, Gulf-branded products and filling stations can still be found in many countries.
Several former GOC subsidiaries were sold to local owners (e.g. Gulf Oil India to a partnership including GOI, Ashok Leyland and the Hinduja group) who continue to use the Gulf name and insignia. Gulf Oil India (GOIn) has raised the market profile of the Gulf brand in recent years. It has introduced the whole range of Gulf international products into South Asia through toll blending arrangements. In 1995, GOIn set up its first blending plant at Silvassa (with technical assistance from GOI) to produce Gulf-branded lubricants locally. These local lubricants are produced to Gulf specifications and sell at a premium to the products of wholly-local competitors. In 2002, GOIn merged with the explosives manufacturer IDL to form Gulf Oil Corporation Ltd, an Indian Company described as a member of the Hinduja Group. The direct GOI interest in this company is limited to 20 percent of GOCL's equity held by Gulf Oil International (Mauritius) Inc. GOCL claims to have gained a six-percent share of the Indian automotive lubricant market and a three-percent share of the industrial market. GOCL exports to South Asian countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. It also provides Gulf product licensing and technical support to local affiliates in the region including a major manufacturing operation in China.
GOI has now licensed the Gulf brand and logo in the UK to the Bayford group, one of the largest independent fuel distributors. Starting in 2001, a new Gulf network of independent stations is slowly reappearing across the UK. At present, many of these stations are notable for offering genuine leaded four-star petrol, for which Bayford has a special dispensation to sell. At the same time, Gulf Lubricants (UK) Ltd was set up to market Gulf products (mostly manufactured by the Gulf Netherlands operation) in the UK. This return by Gulf to the UK after a four-year absence used driven by the slogan "The Return of the Legend." The post-2001 Gulf presence in the UK is a wholly-network-based operation. It involves almost no direct Gulf investment in fixed assets, corporate infrastructure, or manufacturing capability. This is a complete contrast to the pre-1997 presence.
GOLP has been expanding use of the Gulf brand in the Northeast USA, and it has become conspicuous at major sporting events in the area with ads for Gulf in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. To take one case as an illustrative example of the Gulf revival—after Texaco's 2001 merger with Chevron, many former Texaco stations in Pittsburgh switched to Gulf since Chevron does not service the Greater Pittsburgh area. (Although Chevron does service the nearby Morgantown, West Virginia and the Wheeling, West Virginia/Steubenville, Ohio areas.) As a result, the Texaco brand name disappeared from the area in June 2006 when the nonexclusive rights agreement with Shell expired, with Shell itself expanding in the area by means other than Texaco.
The Gulf logo (shown at the head of this page) is still used around the world by a large number of business interests. It is a widely recognized brand and many independent operators are willing to pay for the franchise rights to use it. Although GOLP, GOCL and GOI are principal stakeholders in the Gulf brand, others do have rights to use it. Attempts have been made to coordinate the marketing strategies of those with an interest in the Gulf brand, but this has not produced a result to date.
Between 1980 and 2000, Gulf moved from being a monolithic, vertically-integrated multinational corporation to being more of a network of allied business interests. This has given the entire Gulf enterprise a high degree of strategic and operational flexibility. It is a move that reflects fundamental change in the economics of international business.
In 1970, there were nearly 25,000 filling stations in the UK, of which 10,000 were 'independents' (typically, privately-owned and supplied by a major or jobber while using a brand under license). By the end of 1999, the number of filling stations had dropped to 13,700 and to 9,700 at the end of 2005. In recent years, filling stations have been closing at a rate of 50 per month. Many of the smaller and independent stations have succumbed to competition from out-of-town supermarkets that undercut local enterprises through sheer volume of sales and shared overheads.
The Gulf brand in the UK is franchised by GOI to the Bayford group which specializes in operating service stations on minor trunk roads in rural areas. Bayford supplies about 185 Gulf-branded filling stations in the UK, all of which are independently owned. The Gulf filling stations provide outlets for Gulf-branded oils and lubricants.
The illustration shows a typical Bayford/Gulf filling station in the UK, still associated with a service garage, restaurant and retailing facilities. It is in an isolated location, five miles (8 km) south of Wooler in the Cheviot Hills, catering to both local residents and passing tourist traffic. It is not vulnerable to competition from supermarkets and provides something of a local community center.
For decades, Gulf operated filling stations on the Pennsylvania Turnpike toll highway system alongside the Howard Johnson's restaurants at the Turnpike's travel plazas (which correspond to European motorway service areas). This began in 1950 with the opening of the Philadelphia Extension, and Gulf added more filling stations as the system was extended. The Standard Oil Company of Pennsylvania (now part of Exxon) had exclusive rights to provide filling station services on the sections of the system that opened prior to 1950, principally the Irwin-to-Carlisle section.
In the 1980s, Sunoco was awarded the franchise to operate the filling stations at the Sideling Hill and now-closed Hempfield travel plazas. This led to a bidding war among three of Pennsylvania's most recognizable gasoline brands each time a travel plaza franchise came up for renewal. Gulf had the opportunity to become the exclusive provider of filling stations at travel plazas along the Pennsylvania Turnpike after Exxon withdrew from the Turnpike in 1990. GOLP submitted a bid to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, but the Commission preferred a bid submitted by Sunoco. The Commission’s decision in this regard may have been influenced by the recent instability of the Gulf brand. By 1993, the Gulf filling stations on the Turnpike (as with the Exxon ones before it) had converted to Sunoco. All of the travel plazas continue to sell Sunoco fuel to this day.
GOI still produces and sells a wide range of branded oil based products including lubricants and greases of all kinds. These include products for a variety of applications ranging from metal working oils to refrigeration oils. Car engine oils include the Gulf Formula, Gulf MAX, and Gulf TEC ranges. Heavy duty diesel engine lubricants include the Gulf Supreme and Gulf Superfleet ranges. The sale of lubricants is one area where product specification and quality assurance are vital elements. Therefore, brand differentiation remains a feature of the marketplace. Gulf's product catalog includes a well-developed portfolio of 400 distinctive products.