Petrol sales in March 2014 dropped to the lowest level on record – March 2013 had been a previous record low. The UK's drivers still managed to buy 1,367 billion litres of fuel, though, according to HMRC. Motoring organisation the AA reports a 24.7% reduction in sales for the oil industry in the first quarter of this year, which it puts down to reduced household incomes.

The picture across Europe is also one of major change to transportation habits. Car sales across the European Union fell by 25% between 2007 and 2013, and automotive industry analysts Inovev don't believe there will be a significant return to car usage when the downturn eases. Indeed, Michel Costes of Inovev told The Guardian newspaper "we do not expect to see a return to pre-crisis volumes".

As the business technology leader for the retail arm of oil producer Shell, Maggie Van'T Hoff is dealing with a range of business challenges and changes that are equal to those her peers in purely retail organisations face.

She has been GM for Retail IT at Shell for over two years and has worked at the global organisation for most of her professional career. We meet at the imposing Shell Centre offices across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament in central London.

"Shell Retail is in 80 countries, we have 45,000 sites and make a sizeable contribution to the Shell group," Van'T Hoff says of her organisation. "We have to deal with a lot of price variation in different countries, and many countries have different regulations. Here in Europe, the competition is high, so we try and differentiate the fuel to help the car be more efficient. This is part of the focus on the customer experience, so we seek to make sure that we are targeting our marketing around the experience, and our people are doing everything to make your visit welcoming," Van'T Hoff explains of the challenges, both unique and typical of retail, she and her team face.

"For the retail business, the demands are going down and people are taking more care. We are trying to provide alternative fuels and have a huge sustainable energy business. And as the population booms in Asia there is going to be a huge challenge for organisations. We are looking at all the other areas for fuel, like sugar cane, for example," she says of social and economic disruptions the business may face.

Retail focus

Shell Retail came into being in the mid-90s as the organisation moved away from national business units and into three core operations: retail, manufacturing and commercial. Throughout the interview Van'T Hoff demonstrates her heritage across the wider Shell organisation – she has worked in both the commercial and manufacturing arms. She's clearly a retail CIO, though, and like many leading CIOs that can move across vertical markets, understands the lexicon and business technology challenges of the sector she finds herself in at present.

"Loyal customers come back, so we work on giving the customer the best experience we can. Digital marketing is about understanding what the customer wants and what will make them come back to Shell. We deal with billions of transactions, so the CRM is a huge component of that customer experience," she reveals of her focus. "Our strategic lever is on convenience retailing, offering a fast and easy service, and making sure you are treated like a guest and that all requires IT," Van'T Hoff explains.

Shell Retail CIO Maggie Van'T Hoff

Speed and convenience are major battlegrounds in the retail sector at present. In June 2014, supermarket retailer Tesco announced its worst set of sales results in over a decade. Industry experts believe the rise of online shopping is also creating an increase in convenience shopping and that the supermarket chains are losing market share in that battle. Data from retail analysts Kantar shows that Tesco has lost over a million customer visits per week, which is an estimated revenue loss of £25 million in sales. Just as the supermarkets have taken a chunk of the fuel sales market, so too are the fuel companies such as Shell capturing a slice of the convenience retail market.

"We sell 3 billion litres of coke on top of our fuel sales. In this day and age, we have to be good at convenience.

"At Shell, we compare ourselves against the likes of Exxon and BP, and in the Retail business we are marking ourselves against Tesco, Starbucks and McDonald's, because that is what the consumer wants. We measure our business according to the consumer needs," Van'T Hoff reveals. "To stay with the competition, I have to have a swift and easy payment application, mobile connection, and get all of that out to the customer in the right way."

Mobility, currently seen as a bit of a no-go area for fuel retailing, is set to be the next big challenge and opportunity for Van'T Hoff and her team. Just as supermarkets and general merchandise retailers are exploiting the use of mobile devices by consumers in their stores to either serve marketing to or accept payments from, so too are the fuel retailers. At present, consumers are urged not to use their mobile devices on the forecourt.

"Everything is moving to mobile, so by 2020 in the EU, 50% of people will be paying via mobile at fuel stations. We are already moving to mobile in certain markets and scaling up in 2015. That is a huge change at the sites," she says. This is not the only major technology change coming to her sector.

Accountancy and business services provider Deloitte believes that in the next 20 years "robotics and automation will disrupt a variety of industries, affecting 35% of existing job roles," Deloitte told CIO UK.

"Interactive refuelling is coming, offering other ways to refill the car at the pump and we are researching how to use the new smart technologies coming into cars. If it's raining and the kids are screaming an automatic way to refill the car is a way we can offer to do things differently. The technology is out there," Van'T Hoff says.

Shell is currently working on a pilot with Volkswagen and SAP to find new ways for drivers to refuel and pay at petrol pumps without leaving their cars. Amy Suhl, project and technology CIO at Shell has described how her team is researching wearable and mobile devices, and payment technologies with a variety of partners in the IT and automotive space.

A more immediate focus for Van'T Hoff is what she calls the "site of the future", which aims to pull as much of the logic off the site as possible. At present, each site is in essence a technology control point for its locality, but with networking and cloud technology improvements and cost reductions she wants to centralise more of the control systems.

One benefit she is hoping this will bring is to enable greater dynamism to the digital marketing at a local level, and a faster sales channel to keep Shell Retail competitive. The challenge with this strategy she says is that Shell Retail doesn't own all of its sites, many are franchise operations. "It will improve our ability to be more local and we know we need to be more agile," she argues.

Van'T Hoff has had a 27-year career with Shell and admits to having her sights set on the CIO role, which she achieved with the Shell manufacturing division in 2005.

After two years as a manufacturing CIO, Van'T Hoff moved into an architectural role as General Manager for Strategy Planning and Architecture. "That was good for understanding what we are going towards as a business and making sure that the outcome is tangible," she reveals.

"The technology is different, but also similar as you have to manage process control systems, and the interesting bit is that you are dealing with flammable fuels." Van'T Hoff also began her technology career, as well as her CIO career, in chemical manufacturing. This reflects how manufacturing sector organisations such as Shell are pushing the boundaries of mobility in ways not dissimilar to what consumerisation is doing to CIOs across the business world.

"In the 90s, we were pushing handhelds to make maintenance easier and now what we are doing is the same to make the consumers life easier."

With 12 years of IT leadership experience, Van'T Hoff has lived through major SAP implementations and worked on the introduction of the enterprise resource planning (ERP) tool into the downstream business of Shell (downstream is from the oil refinery to the retail pump)."That is a highly global and standardised implementation that has done us well and we get good value from that. But at the same time, we have to keep up with the markets and digital, CRM and fleet customers have their requirements. So the tag line of being global and standard doesn't always fit," she says.

Chemical balance

Van'T Hoff balances leading the Retail IT for Shell with being a working mother. She's become a champion for work-life balance across both Shell and the wider female IT leadership community.

"I work four days a week. Until child number three I kept everything very close and then I realised I couldn't carry on," she reveals of the development of her leadership style. "I needed to empower the team more. One of my direct reports wrote a report. I was red lining and correcting the document, when they said, 'if you do my job, what do I do?'

"That was a pivotal moment and I realised I had to allow my team to grow and to shine. My position now is make sure that my team is empowered and when they need some strategic perspective I'm there. It's a journey. You start your career thinking that you have to know every detail, yet perfection is the enemy of good. You've got to be able to compartmentalise otherwise, what else do they put on your tomb stone?"

Implementing SAP across Shell is a shared family experience; her husband was also involved in leading an implementation.

"His stint in IT was good because he was asking the right questions and it's always about the business. IT is everywhere, so business people know what they need for the business," she says. Van'T Hoff reports to the CIO for the Shell downstream business and to the head of the Retail business.

Leading women

CIO UK first met Van'T Hoff at the recent Harvey Nash CIO Survey event. She was the only women on a panel debate and the first female CIO to speak at that annual event for two or three years.

"There is such a stigma for women in IT and we need to be getting more women into STEM subjects," she says.

"Are businesses doing enough to allow more diversity in their organisations? I don't believe so. Not until men stand up and talk about diversity as an issue. I took on the diversity issue three or four years ago as women didn't have enough role models that said you can have a career and a life. So I tell my story a lot to show to other women that you can be the one's holding yourself back.

"Shell has been doing a lot of analysis about what the cut-off point is in this organisation that stops women being leaders. Is there a risk averse culture that we need to remove?" she asks of the challenge businesses and women may face when the analysis is completed.

"Men are better at negotiating. I only know this after years of experience. But a new law on parental leave may change things; it will be good to watch. It takes two to make a baby, raise a child and we have a lot of conversations about that on the senior leadership team here at Shell."

Maggie Van'T Hoff, Shell Retail CIO