This year has seen massive upheaval in the Top 50 Indies listing, compared with 2018 when not only were the Top 10 companies all the same companies as the previous year, but they were all in the same order too. Not least among the changes is that, for the first time in its existence, the Top 50 is not headed by MRH. It was swallowed up by MFG last year, making the combined organisation well over twice the size of its nearest rival and taking top spot for the first time.

We have also taken the decision to adjust the qualification criteria for the Top 50, in view of some the wider changes in the market, and this has enabled two new entries who were previously at the back of the listing. Harvest Energy, which was previously considered as primarily an oil company, has evolved into a major forecourt operator. It acquired HKS, which was ranked sixth last year, and with no fewer than eight fuel brands in its network, it now claims fifth position in the listing.

The larger motorway service area (MSA) specialists were also previously excluded from the Top 50. However, with several Top 50 companies operating MSAs, and Applegreen acquiring Welcome Break, it became clear that they had to be included, and hence Moto Hospitality has also entered the listing in ninth position.

The third new entry into the Top 10 is perhaps the most intriguing. The founders of MRH, Graham Peacock and Susan Tobell, who built up the company that topped the listing for so many years, are back with what they describe as "a small re-entry into the retail petrol station market". Their 45 sites put them in eighth position, and as they are looking for more sites they could well be higher by this time next year.

When it comes to comparing the total number of sites in the Top 50 with last year, things get complicated. It is clear that with the addition of Moto, Applegreen’s Welcome Break sites and Harvest’s sites that were not previously listed, the total number of sites in the Top 50 is substantially up on last year’s total of 2,276. However, MFG is divesting 38 sites to satisfy competition requirements, and this was due to take place on a rolling basis as the Top 50 went to press. In order to avoid confusion, we have taken their site total as at the beginning of January. However, some of the sites being divested have also been counted by the acquirers, so there will be a small element of double counting in this year’s figures.

Outside the Top 10, there were two more new entries by fast-growing groups. Grove Garages entered in 22nd position, and is interested in developing MSAs this year. And Ascona Group has been snapping up sites at a rapid rate. Its 11 sites put it in 26th position, and CEO Darren Briggs says it is funded to grow significantly during 2019.

With such fierce competition for existing forecourt businesses, a record number of Top 50 Indies are looking to build new-to-industry (NTI) sites as a way of expanding their businesses.

Euro Garages’ main attention is on expanding its business in Europe, the US and Australia, but it is becoming a prolific developer in the UK of NTI and returning-to-industry sites. The Kay Group has been another busy developer of sites with five during the past two years and with more in the pipeline. Symonds Forecourts is also going into development in a big way with six NTI sites in the pipeline, including two scheduled to open this year.

Another way of growing a business constrained by the lack of available acquisitions, is to increase sales through its stores. Many Top 50 Indies have been refitting or extending their existing stores, or simply building much bigger ones as part of a KDRB which typically also involves extra parking.

Store branding is also becoming more important with the vast majority of Top 50 Indies joining symbol groups. While Spar has been the most numerous brand on forecourt shops, Booker has made enormous gains in the forecourt sector with its Londis and Budgens brands, most notably winning the business for the entire MFG estate.

Tie-ups with supermarket brands have had mixed results. Pilot schemes with Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and the Co-op didn’t work out for Euro Garages, MFG and MRH respectively in 2017/18. However Rontec is expanding its relationship with Morrisons, and currently has 47 sites operating under the Morrisons Daily brand, and MPK recently struck a deal that will see the majority of its stores converted to the brand.

Most Top 50 Indies have a food-to-go offer, with Subway, Greggs and Costa springing up throughout the listing, but other brands are also getting a chance. Falcon Sharma is at the forefront of the latest trend for Indian street food, with its Wrapchic franchise, and has a Ginsters/Costa initiative on another site, while Ascona even has its own fish and chips brand, Ascona Fish Bar.

Sites are also diversifying in other ways with Elite Garages opening its fourth Post Office Local, while Sewell on the go and Ascona offer launderette services. Car washes also seem to be making a limited comeback.

All the initiatives mentioned add up to a tremendous willingness by Top 50 Indies to invest in their businesses and strive to expand, and demonstrate their confidence in the future of the sector.