A portrait photo of Fiona Matthews MD (ROI) of Applegreen.

“As Managing Director, you have a serious duty of care to a lot of people, so it was a big responsibility.”

Fiona Matthews | MD (ROI) of Applegreen
Fiona Matthews experienced a baptism of fire when she became Managing Director (ROI) at Applegreen in 2021. Having been Commercial Director with the company since 2019, she knew the business—but forecourts across the country were keenly feeling the effects of the pandemic, as lockdowns curtailed movement and business suffered due to government restrictions.

“It was very challenging not knowing what we were dealing with,” she recalled. “But when the pandemic reached Ireland, we quickly established a COVID-19 response team and communicated daily with our people to ensure they had the information they needed to stay safe.”

As the retail sector worked through the uncertainty, the resilience of her teams and support of her colleagues inspired Fiona daily. “I was personally blown away by how our people came together,” she said. “As Managing Director, you have a serious duty of care to a lot of people, so it was a big responsibility. The diversity in our business proved to be very beneficial and we saw significant growth in our smaller convenience stores across the country.”


A person looking out on a cityscape

“We see ourselves as disruptors in the market. We certainly have an entrepreneurial culture that embraces change and new ideas.”

— Fiona Matthews


Fresh perspectives

Today, Fiona continues to drive that customer-centric and innovative spirit as consumer habits continue to change, from launching Applegreen’s new Braeburn coffee brand to the company’s partnership with M&S Food. New ideas, she believes, are the reason the company has grown from one service station in Ballyfermot back in 1992 to one of Ireland’s business success stories, with 620 motorway service areas/plazas and service stations in Ireland, the UK and the US, employing more than 15,000 people.

“At Applegreen, we see ourselves as disruptors in the market. We certainly have an entrepreneurial culture that embraces change and new ideas, which is very much down to the founding partners, Bob Etchingham and Joe Barrett,” Fiona said. “In my role, I focus on empowering people within the company and encouraging open communication.”

For Fiona, this communication mustn’t be just top-down but also bottom-up. “I visit sites regularly and encourage our leaders and managers to spend time on-site to understand our retail business better, because that’s where some of our best ideas come from,” she said. “We also give our colleagues at all levels the autonomy to propose a project and see it through to completion. That approach, coupled with the hungry, high-calibre graduates that join the business through our award-winning international graduate programme, helps us maintain a fresh perspective on our business.”


A person smiling.

“It’s so important to have empathy, invest in people and be open to change.”

— Fiona Matthews


Reinventing for the future

Keeping pace with changing consumer demands is one thing. But anticipating future trends and reinventing your business and infrastructure on that basis is quite another—particularly when your business includes the sale of fossil fuels. However, Fiona is looking forward to a greener future for forecourt retailers. And for her, it can’t come too soon. “As a company, we are acutely aware of the challenges that come with the industry we operate in,” Fiona said. “But we strive to do what is within our control to support sustainability and be a responsible business.”

To that end, Applegreen has committed to being net zero in its operations by 2030. It has also established a new electric vehicle (EV) business called Applegreen Electric to invest in charging infrastructure and support the shift to electric vehicles. Applegreen has been providing EV charging services on its network of sites since 2014, and currently has more than 600 DC Fast Chargers at its sites in Ireland, the UK and the US. “At present, there are about 36,000 fully electric vehicles in Ireland and a similar number of plug-in hybrids. The Government has a target to reach one million EVs by 2030, which looks ambitious given the current position.

“We are supporting the increasing shift to EVs through our ever-increasing network of fast chargers and we will also continue to drive our own ESG agenda and support climate action wherever we can,” she added.

Looking further ahead, however, is a challenge for all business leaders—but Fiona’s strategy for achieving sustained success focuses on people. “It’s imperative that any organisation’s day-to-day operations are led by a strong operations team and that you carve out the right skills in your commercial and strategic planning teams so that they can focus on what’s coming next,” she said.

“At Applegreen, we also ensure that our teams attend trade shows and industry events to gather market insights. And we have great partnerships with our suppliers and contractors and challenge them to bring future-proofing opportunities our way. Beyond that, it comes down to empowering people to own the responsibility for reinvention and to report back on progress.”


Quality customer experience

Roadside retail is “evolving and merging with different industries,” according to Fiona. She describes it as “a hybrid of retail and hospitality” with fuel becoming a smaller part of the picture, and quality food, coffee, top-up shopping and services leading customers’ decision-making.

In that context, Fiona believes that Applegreen’s route to continued success also lies in experience. “Our focus is on creating a great customer experience,” she said. “Quality service, convenience and creating the right atmosphere are crucial for us. We want people to feel comfortable and welcome when they stop on their journey to use our services, for coffee, fuel or for top-up shopping and food for later. That will set us apart and continue to keep us relevant in the future.”



The human touch

As the leader of a successful Irish company, Fiona is part of an increasingly bigger picture. Applegreen has made significant inroads in the UK market through its stake in Welcome Break, the second-largest motorway service operator in the UK. Applegreen is also now the largest motorway service provider in the Northeast USA.

As the company continues to grow, Fiona will rely on a humble but effective strategy for getting the best out of both herself and those around her—being human. “It’s so important to have empathy, invest in people and be open to change,” she said. “These are the three things that have served me best during my career and with the change that lies ahead, they will only become more important.”


A portrait photo of Feargal O'Rourke.

Feargal O'Rourke

Managing Partner, PwC Ireland

Ger McDonough

Ciarán Kelly

Partner, PwC Ireland

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