Petrol and diesel supplier Ampol has lost its second-in-command Louise Warner to its former suitor, Alimentation Couche-Tard, stoking speculation that the Canadian convenience retailer could be gearing up to revive its takeover ambitions.

Ms Warner, a highly experienced fuels industry executive who was overlooked for the chief executive role earlier this year, is understood to have been appointed head of global fuels and trading, based on the US east coast.

Louise Warner, who trained as a chemical engineer, has been with the former Caltex since 1999. Pictured with former CFO Simon Hepworth. James Alcock

She would be able to provide valuable insider’s knowledge about the Ampol business should Couche-Tard renew its attentions, although some say that could now more likely be on a hostile basis.

Ms Warner’s experience is also expected to ease concerns among Couche-Tard investors about the risks of acquiring Ampol, given the Canadian firm’s lack of expertise in refining and trading.

A veteran of more than two decades at Ampol in its previous guise as Caltex Australia, Ms Warner was cultivated by former CEO Julian Segal as his successor but was pipped by Matthew Halliday, the former chief financial officer.

The former Rio Tinto executive was initially appointed as interim CEO to steer the company through the $8.8 billion takeover approach before taking the job permanently in June.

Ms Warner will take six months of “gardening leave” before starting her new role, meaning she will be joining Couche-Tard just after the expiry of a 12-month “standstill” commitment which restricted the Canadian firm from buying shares in its target or poaching executives.

Couche-Tard walked away from the proposed $35.25 per share cash takeover in April after the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the transportation fuels market and sent refining margins plunging.

Chief executive Brian Hannasch said then that the firm intended to re-engage on a takeover once the global outlook settled. It again emphasised to investors in early September the “significant runway” it saw for M&A, with a focus on US and Asia, although Mr Hannasch said Ampol’s performance through COVID-19 had “given us pause”.

“The recent results released by Ampol were weaker than we expected and the headlines seem to be more around financial engineering,” he told investors, perhaps referring to the $682 million sale of a 49 per cent stake in a convenience retail property trust to Charter Hall and GIC.

“The refinery at Lytton has experienced strong and persistent pressure on margins, which I guess likely raises some questions as to the near-term viability of that plant,” Mr Hannasch said.

“Retail volumes, like in North America, were also impacted materially and it’s hard to say whether the back core strategy is gaining direction in this COVID environment.”

Ms Warner had significant contact with top Couche-Tard management during the due diligence process they carried out early this year, which is understood to have included a tour by Mr Hannasch of the Lytton refinery.

“She would have presented to Couche-Tard when they made the bid – they were presumably impressed,” said one energy analyst.

“The company would be disappointed to lose her but maybe it was coming when she didn’t get the CEO role.”

Acquisition of Gull New Zealand

Ms Warner’s experience involves commercial and trading experience in London, Amsterdam and Nigeria while seconded to Chevron. She also set up the Ampol trading and shipping arm in Singapore and helped steer its acquisition of Gull New Zealand and the SEAOIL partnership in the Philippines.

Selling about 41 million gallons of fuel a day at service stations across the US, Canada and parts of Europe, Couche-Tard’s fuel sourcing business is a scale beyond Ampol’s, though is limited to fuels rather than also involving crude oil.

“If you look at her skill set and if Couche-Tard buys its fuel through a trading company, they might have looked at this business within Caltex [Ampol] and could see they wanted to get involved,” the analyst said.

Market expectations are low, however, that Couche-Tard will make an early move on Ampol amid uncertainty over the federal government’s proposed $2.5 billion support package for the refining sector, which includes a direct subsidy for local production.

Shares in Ampol barely moved, up 12¢ to $23.77.

Ms Warner will not be directly replaced as as chief commercial officer but the bulk of her responsibilities will be passed to Brent Merrick, currently Singapore-based general manager, trading and shipping, who has been appointed to the new role of executive general manager – commercial, based in Sydney.

A new EGM infrastructure, Andrew Brewer, who is rejoining Ampol in December from Refining NZ, will be responsible for optimising the fuels and infrastructure assets. Joanne Taylor, EGM retail, brand and culture, will take responsibility for the management of Gull New Zealand and the rebranding of service stations to Ampol.

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