Caltex Australia's move to buy New Zealand fuel company Gull could be the first step in a bigger plan to become a major player in the country's fuel market.
The $340 million deal will see Caltex, now largely owned by Australian investment funds after US giant Chevron sold out last year, take over Gull's Mount Maunganui import fuel terminal, as well as its 77 service stations.
Caltex said it would retain the Gull brand, along with the company's management and employees, but it may have eyes on a bigger prize.
Forsyth Barr analyst Andrew Harvey-Green said Gull's retail network adds little to Caltex's Australian operations and earnings, and any expansion of the Gull network will cost.
"As to why Caltex is buying Gull, we believe acquiring Mobil New Zealand may be the real end goal as the Gull business is a very small add-on to Caltex's existing business," he said in a research note.
"Gull only adds about 2 percent to Caltex sales volumes. At the very least acquiring Gull means Caltex becomes the natural buyer of Mobil."
In September, Mobil launched a multi-million dollar upgrade of its retail business in New Zealand, which it said showed it was here to stay.
There had been speculation that US based giant Exxon-Mobil had looked unsuccessfully to find a buyer for its New Zealand stations.
The market leader is Z Energy, the former Shell retail operations. It has just under half of the fuel retail market after it took over the Caltex New Zealand chain from Chevron earlier this year.