There’s no doubt the team at Portsbridge Service Station in Cosham, Portsmouth, are absolutely delighted to have won this year’s most prestigious fuel retailing prize Forecourt Trader of the Year. And having read their story in Forecourt Trader earlier in the year (see June 2014 issue), many people in the industry were delighted for them too, having become familiar with their brave and ingenious transformation of a small, outdated garage, into a shining, modern, fuel and convenience retailing operation.
"After you read out our name at the end, everything else became a blur," says Mike Garner, who runs the family-owned Garner Group along with his brother Tim, and financial director Dave Auger.
"There was a big cheer and everyone came to our table congratulating us. There was lots of handshaking, and then you come up on stage and you’re sort of in your own bubble."
Praise came from many quarters: "This prestigious award is a magnificant achievement by the Garner Group, who have been part of the Jet family for over 53 years, only a few years less than the Jet brand itself," says Guy Pulham, manager of regional sales at Phillips 66. "This fantastic result is well-deserved recognition of everyone’s determination to bring their vision to life."
Raj Krishan, Nisa’s format and development director, says: "Tim and Mike Garner really invested in our new store of the future format, and it has been executed fantastically in-store. It is therefore great to see the hard work of the store being acknowledged."
Mike says winning the award has been fantastic for the business: "We’re in the spotlight, but that’s okay, because now we’ve really got to up our game. The business is a constant evolution, and we’re still learning. We’ve had lots of visitors come here following our win and we’re happy to share our experiences with other retailers, because other retailers have been extremely helpful to us."
Tim agrees: "We’d worked hard to achieve it. We’d never felt we had the right site to enter the awards before, but we wanted to show our intentions and say ’yes, we can do a good job on a good site’. Hence why we entered with the help of Jet and Nisa, who have both been very supportive. Our success is testament to the effort that everyone’s put in, particularly our staff.
"Winning the award gives us that added boost, and really does make us focus on keeping the growth heading in the right direction and keeping the standards up. That’s the hardest thing, and that’s the key to success. You’ve got to constantly evolve and change not always massively but as new things come along you’ve got to be prepared to change too. These are our first steps into the big world of convenience retailing, which I find very exciting. Seeing the sales grow and getting involved with the promotions gives everything a buzz, and there’s a great atmosphere in the store."
Store manager Lisa Kemp (see Day in the Life, page 54) who clearly shares the Garners’ passion for the business, plays a big part in creating such an atmosphere, her bubbly character helping to generate in-store theatre with promotions and product displays; staff motivation; and building relationships with customers, which is key for a neighbourhood store. She is full of ideas which often involve wearing some kind of fancy dress outfit as part of a charity fund-raising exercise: "You get more interaction and banter with customers in a funny outfit," she says. However, innovations aren’t just restricted to the shop. On the forecourt are multi-media pumps, including one for red diesel.
"Nobody in Portsmouth sells red diesel through the pump," says Mike. "There are a lot of boats around here obviously as we’re a sea port and builders. It wasn’t expensive to do. We’ve got the tank capacity, all we had to do was buy a pump. It’s slow at the moment, and so far we have only marketed it through Facebook and Twitter. But when spring comes we’ll do some more direct marketing, focusing on the boats. Anybody that’s got a portable tank can fill up with us. We had to beome a registered dealer in controlled oils; have to keep a record of everyone we sell to; and make a return to HMRC. But we think it was worthwhile putting in."
The multi-media pumps currently feature Nisa promotions, and have been generating extra business as people take notice and come in to the store straight away and ask for the product advertised.
While coming to terms with the rigours of running a convenience store such as 20 cages of stock arriving on one day the Garners are very pleased with the design of the building, which includes an upper floor, providing huge accommodation for offices, staff room, and store room. "The store room works really well upstairs despite the fact we had to install a lift," says Tim. "It is a great use of space and gives us more room to sell in the shop." The currently huge, but spartan office will soon be furnished and will become the hub of the business, as everything is centralised. Significant investment in technology for many years means the management team can keep detailed tabs on the business from one site. They can look at customer flow every 15 minutes, and recently had their first ’1,000 customers’ day.
They are already more than half way to achieving their two-year mature target; and fuel sales are currently 10% ahead.
"The success of this development has given us the confidence to look at other opportunities," says Tim.
Another winning site perhaps?
History in the making
Portsbridge Service Station was originally a pub garden, acquired in 1967 by Mike and Tim’s father Maurice, who founded the Garner fuel retailing business, which in recent times has celebrated 50 years as an independent Jet dealer.
All those years ago, Maurice, a chartered accountant, saw an opportunity in fuel retailing with the fast-rising number of cars on the road. He signed his first supply contract with Jet in 1961, following the opening of his first service station near Portsmouth, and five decades later, the Garner Group operates three Jet forecourts in the region Woolmer, Green Road and Portsbridge; and one Shell site.
During that time the company has bought, redeveloped and sold a number of forecourts, running as many as eight sites at one time.
"The Portsbridge site was a typical garage with workshops, a small shop and a few car sales," explains Tim Garner. "We’d changed it a bit over the years, but volumes on the site had started to drop to less than half of the 5mlpa of its heyday. We had two choices close it and put flats on it, or go with it and try and make good money out of the shop as well as the forecourt. It’s a big gamble."
However, the Garners enjoy the business petrol’s in their blood and so they went ahead, transforming an odd-shaped plot into a modern retailing operation for the 21st century, with spacious and modern Jet-branded forecourt, including a covered jet wash; parking; and a 2,200sq ft Nisa convenience store.