Just as MRH was again named the UK’s number-one independent forecourt retailer in our 2011 Top 50 Indies listing, the company announced the sale of its commercial fuels distribution business Pace Fuelcare Ltd to GB Oils Ltd, a major operating subsidiary of Dublin-based DCC plc, and owner of Gulf Retail (see news pages).

MRH is currently considering a number of projects within the UK as it focuses its energies on growth in the ownership and operation of petrol filling stations. It is well-funded to achieve this, commenting in the Top 50 Indies review that it would consider single sites, groups of sites and company acquisitions. MRH chief executive Graham Peacock said: "Although we are always alert to new growth opportunities, we expect 2011 to be another tough trading year and delivering results from our base business is our number-one priority."

MRH isn’t the only Top 50 independent with plans to expand its network. Expansion or shop development is on the agenda for the majority on the list. The ninth largest independent retailer Hockenhull Garages is currently in negotiations to purchase a group of six sites, which will bring its total number of operated sites to 35. Managing director Peter Hockenhull said: "Our strategy is for sites with around 5mlpa and a minimum of £12,000 a week turnover in the shop or the potential for growth."

Spring Petroleum is continuing its forecourt development and refurbishment programme, and investment in wholesale and overseas refining is also ongoing. Managing director Jabir Sheth said: "In a few years time the UK petrol filling station market will be majority independently owned, creating an opportunity to selectively expand our portfolio in retail and wholesale."

Motor Fuel Group has added seven sites in the past six months, including four former M&S stores, and is in the process of selling a few sites that sit at the lower end of its requirements. Director Sej Sejpal said: "We will continue to look for opportunities with a focus on convenience. We are currently in the middle of a shop redevelopment programme with Mace and have already completed 21 re-brands."

Over the past year MPK Garages has continued to add higher profile sites to its network and improve its retail offer. Director Paul Kershaw said: "A key focus is to expand the shop development programme that is now in place with Londis and Costcutter. Early signs are very encouraging and we expect this to continue as the top-up convenience shopping market continues to grow."

Martin Ashcroft, finance director at Euro Garages, said: "We have successfully raised significant funding to take part in the ongoing sector consolidation and we are looking to acquire around 40 sites in the next year. To help create internal capacity for expansion, we handed back 15 COGOP sites to Total in August 2010."

Park Garage added eight sites last year, reversing its ratio of owned-to-operated sites with 50 owned and 48 operated, compared to 43 owned and 47 operated in 2010. Managing director Sunil Tandon said: "Last year was challenging, but the introduction of our own branded products Park and Shop water, sweets and juices helped to grow margins in the shop. We are looking at more own-label products this year."

Another theme among retailers was concern over growing competition from the multiples. Said Spring’s Jabir Sheth: "If the hypers acquire the current oil companies which are up for sale, then this would be very damaging for the independents, with fuel and shop margins suffering as a result. I hope the Competition Commission will not overlook this."

This year’s listing also saw seven new entrants into the top 50, including M&L Richardson, which operates 15 sites and is looking to expand its network, and Berkshire-based Majid & Sons Service Station which incorporates U&I Fuels with 12 sites, and is also still looking for more acquisitions.

Other newcomers to the Top 50 list were Sai Service Stations with nine sites, Sectorsure, Symonds Forecourts and Rais Corp all with seven sites and Intake Developments with six sites.