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When the Chartman Group's Winning Post site in Exeter finally opened its doors on May 14 it was the culmination of a seven-year plan to create a legacy. It hasn't all been plain sailing, but by being patient, and with a bit of good luck thrown in, the end result means the site has more than earned its title of 'Winning Post'.
"We bought the site from BP seven years ago with a view to developing it," explains director Clive Sheppard. "It was tired then and we knew it was past its sell-by date. It was an old-style site with a four-square layout and a kiosk, which had been expanded in the '90s. But the forecourt surfaces were cracked and we were forever getting potholes plus the roof in the office used to leak!"
The company did its best to make the most of the 600sq ft Spar shop and forecourt, which is located on the A38 at the end of the M5 also known as the Devon expressway. But the obvious question to ask is why did it take so long to develop it? In contrast the answer is very short planning!
"In the beginning the planning issues dragged endlessly on," explains Clive. "The site is next to an area of scientific interest. Secondly, the area in general is in the Haldon Forest, a rural area. The third aspect, it is the gateway to the Teignbridge District, and the Council wanted something that would set their area in a good light.
"From our perspective we wanted to get the right development done and were a bit constrained by the land we had available. It was important for us to have a state-of-the-art place and we wanted this to be our main development our head office is just down the road. This was also going to be our flagship site we wanted something to be proud of, something that would make people turn their heads as they went by, something with the wow factor.
"It was a challenge and you don't get many of those opportunities in a lifetime. Some companies are developing sites all the time and it becomes a routine thing. We've done a number of developments, but we wanted this to be the biggest and the best."
The planning issues involved endless meetings and a burden of bureaucracy. The situation wasn't helped when the planning officer retired and a younger person took over. "He didn't seem prepared to take any responsibility which was quite frustrating. He would always veer on the side of caution and have to ask someone else, so progress was very slow," says Clive.
The first planning application included a hotel, in the lower area of the four- to five-acre site. However, the Chartman group couldn't find anyone interested. Plus there were also niggles over the size of the forecourt plot.
"We were never quite happy because everything was quite cramped on the site. We approached the Little Chef next door about buying some land from them but that didn't go anywhere. Then Little Chef went into receivership and we seized the opportunity and eventually bought the whole plot from them in January 2012.
"We got it by the seat of our pants. On the day we completed January 31, 2012, one of the Irish banks that had picked up the shell of the business and the government announced there wouldn't be any more asset sales. We just literally got in there at the last minute with the purchase."
Little Chef owned a lot of land, so the acquisition boosted the Chartman Group's plot by about two-thirds to 14 acres, giving the company control of everything around it. "If we hadn't bought the Little Chef we would have had to make a decision, whether to compromise the development, or to keep waiting. As it turned out we waited a while it was long enough but it worked out. We could see the Little Chef was on its last legs, and wouldn't survive."
The acquisition opened the door to going back to the architects and getting a new brief. "We wanted something that would be in-keeping with the natural environment, and the setting," says Clive. Hence the stanchions on the canopy are designed to resemble Silver Birch trees. "We liked the idea of the starting gate layout with the HGVs and ordinary traffic integrated under the same canopy."
Another stroke of luck came in the choice of construction company. Fortunately they chose William Southern (Plymouth). Another favoured company went into administration. "If we had used them they have to take control of the site during construction contractually we would have been stuck," says Clive.
After seven long years, and much activity, including a move to Esso supply in line with the group's seven other sites work finally started in January (see our reports in each issue from April). The site closed for business on March 3, and despite the excitement of the impending development, Clive admits to a few tears as he closed the door on the shop for the last time. The site re-opened after a magnificent transformation on May 14. The 2,000sq ft Spar shop, with its extensive range, including grocery, chilled, off licence, local produce, Costa Coffee and branded Winning Post food-to-go area, is already up to £28,500 a week. Fuel volumes are up to 167,000 litres a week (up from 125,000).
So has it all been worth it? "It was a fantastic experience," says Clive. "It's very hard work and you're living on the edge of your nerves, but I really enjoyed it. The transformation, bringing something up from the ground, it gives you a great sense of power at what you've created. Like having a baby! You're left with a tremendous sense of pride and achievement."