Susie Hawkins hit the headlines last month when news travelled back from the NACS Convention in Las Vegas that she had fought off stiff competition from independent retailers in America and Australia to win the convenience store industry’s Global Scholarship. Women are a rare breed in the forecourt industry so who is the woman behind such an achievement?
What instantly strikes you about 28 year-old Susie is her passion and drive for retailing: “I love my job; I live and breath it, and I get such a kick out of everything,” she says. “The business is always changing so you are never bored, and I love being in control of my own destiny. It’s a fun industry but quite lonely at times,” she adds. “I joined the Lakeside Group almost two years ago and that’s brilliant because you then have people who you can talk to who do the same thing, but aren’t competitors.”
It was through Lakeside that Susie became involved in the competition when the group’s facilitator, David Dovey, sent an email to all members. At the time, Susie’s company was in the process of buying two sites.
“You get so excited about buying a new site, thinking about what you’re going to do and everything else, but it kept getting put off and I thought, right, I need a new challenge,” she says. “So I decided to enter it and also to face my demon, which is presenting.”
The entry involved writing a 4,000-word paper on a major commercial, social, demographic trend that has challenged the convenience store sector, either globally or nationally, and what operators can do to face the challenges. A shortlist of three retailers then went to present to a panel of experts in April this year. It was Susie’s presentation – on how independents can thrive amid growing competition from the multiples – that took her to the Global Scholarship competition in October.
There, Susie competed against the winner of the American National Association of Convenience Stores scholarship, as well as the Australian winner. Her victory will take her to NACS in New Orleans or the Australian equivalent in Sydney next year.
Susie operates six forecourts – in Gloucester, Cheltenham, Stroud, Monmouth, and Coleford and Cinderford in the Forest of Dean – as partner of the Gloucester-based Simon Smith Group. Cinderford and Monmouth were both acquired on August 2 this year, and the Group’s fuel volume is about 26 million litres a year.
The Simon Smith Group is a family business set up by Susie’s parents 31 years ago when her father, Brian Tew, left Shell to run his own site. Susie and her sister Julie were made partners earlier this year – Susie operates the forecourt side while her sister runs the farm and equestrian business. “I grew up in the business, filling shelves etc, and every holiday I used to help the managers, stock-checking and things like that,” says Susie. “I was always going to come back to the business but I wanted to go off and do my own thing first.”
At age 18, Susie began a degree in economics and accounting at Bristol University. “After I graduated I saw the light – in that I didn’t want to be an accountant – but didn’t quite know what I wanted to do, so I did a Masters degree in business management in the food industry at the Royal Agricultural College,” she says.
“That was incredible. It was so full-on, but brilliant, and being the Royal Agricultural College it had a lot of high connections so we got this amazing insight into so many companies in the food industry. It was six years ago, and I was looking at the future of convenience and the role that forecourts would play.
“I don’t want to be horrible to convenience stores, but we are much better placed because we’ve already got x-thousand people coming in for fuel, and we’ve got parking, so shops are just a brilliant add-on. We also looked at the role of convenience in that not everyone wants supermarkets, but also the role of supermarkets and where they’ll go. We had to do strategic action plans for the supermarkets – it was really fascinating.”
This experience has evidently been invaluable to Susie’s business now. “It made me question what we do – look analytically at it – and it gave me incredible confidence,” she says. But still in her early 20s, on completing the Masters, Susie didn’t go back into the business straight away, and went to work in the City as an insurance broker for Lloyds, and then as a management consultant for Mercers.
“I learned the analytical skill to look at how businesses are run and how important people and staff are,” she says. “When you get into a big business where people are just a number, that gets lost, but I learned how much inefficiency arises out of that.”
While Susie was working in London, her parents had a group manager to operate their – at that time – seven sites. When he left, it was crunch time for Susie. “I always wanted to come back and it seemed like a very good time,” she says. She began with a month’s training.
“I had to learn how to do all the accounts and I’d never really had any dealings with manufacturers, so I had this crazy month of intensive training, and then was let loose on my own,” she says. “It took me a good three years to get to grips with it, but you learn as you go, and we’re now at a stage where we’re about to invest really heavily in the business.”
The group now has planning underway to extend the shop at Monmouth, and on January 4, Susie hopes to have the final tender documents for a knock-down rebuild at their Total-branded site in Gloucester, which should take 16 weeks. The group also plans to develop the shops at Cheltenham and Cinderford, so that within nine months they will have done four shops.
The group is financing its forthcoming projects from the sale of a site in Bromsgrove, which was sold for a development of 26 houses in December 2003. In total, the company is investing in the region of £2m. The Gloucester development will create a 2,500sq ft shop, five-pump starter gate, two jet washes, and a car wash.
It is also going with Spar for the first time. “It’s imperative to have the support of a supply chain behind you,” says Susie. The company has also just recruited Mark Stephenson, who was business development manager at Spar wholesaler Capper & Co. “Then Dad will truly retire and Mark and I will run the business.”
Susie is particularly driven when it comes to their site in Cheltenham after Tesco expressed interest in buying it. “It’s always been a difficult site on which to get the right staff so half of me thinks we could just sell it, but the other half says it’s right in our heartland and if Tesco is interested, we can do it.”
Susie says the biggest problem in Cheltenham is fuel price. “The margin there is nothing. I believe we’re the only independent left in Cheltenham and we’ve got Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose all completely undercutting the market.” She adds that the company is also actively looking for more acquisitions. “If we found the right sites, we will buy more,” she says. “We’ve been looking for sites for years – but the right ones. A lot of the disposal sites from the oil companies don’t have the potential to expand and also they’re not disposing in our area because generally – apart from Cheltenham – fuel margins are great.”
Susie accepts that as well as being relatively young, she is in a very male-dominated industry. However, winning the Global Scholarship has been a big boost: “But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to prove yourself.”