As the room erupted in smoke, lights and applause when the Forecourt Trader of the Year 2015 was announced, a surprised and delighted Laurence King, managing director of Westmorland Ltd, went up on stage to collect the coveted trophy.
It was the fifth time he had been up there during September’s prestigious awards ceremony at the London Hilton Park Lane. He had already collected awards for Best Community Engagement, Best Design & Development, Best Motorway Services Outlet as well as being voted Retailer Champion by his peers.
The site at the centre of all the plaudits was Gloucester Services northbound, which opened in May 2014, as part of a £40 million development on the M5, completed this year with the opening of the southbound services by Prince Charles in July.
"Winning has been amazing," enthuses Laurence. "It lets the world know about us.
"That means more people may become customers; they may come to us with other opportunities; they may come to us with products; they may come to us for a job. There’s lots of benefits from having good coverage and recognition of what you’re trying to do. It’s not about glory, it’s about letting people know you’re around and helping them to understand what you’re trying to do."
Much praise, not to mention awards, have been lavished on the Gloucester Services development by both the trade and national press, and other organisations, because its entire ethos and manifestation is such a world away from the traditional forecourt fayre.
It was summarised thus on the night: ’Gloucester Services is the antithesis of a normal motorway services area. There is no clutter of major coffee or foodservice brands clamouring for your attention; there is no piped music. There is space, there is calm, there are scenic views. There is a farm shop, a butchers, a cheesemonger; there are freshly made scones and elderflower cordial; a mouthwatering menu of ’home-cooked’ options to sit and eat as you look out at the countryside scenes and fountain of flowing water. There are dry-stone walls and wooden beams and a meadow on the forecourt roof! This is something really special, such that it is becoming a destination for thousands of motorists and commercial drivers as they drive along the M5 motorway’.
Westmorland Ltd is a Cumbrian-based, family-run company dedicated to local food, farming and the surrounding community. It has sites on the M6 in Cumbria Tebay Services, north and southbound; Junction 38 Services; and the Rheghed Centre. The company has two main aims at Gloucester Services to make local, quality food accessible and affordable to everyone on the move; and to inject vital investment back into the surrounding community thanks to a unique partnership with Gloucestershire Gateway Trust to which it donates a percentage of its revenue.
But however tranquil and welcoming Gloucester Services appears today, building it was no mean feat. The journey began more than seven years ago when Westmorland was, what Laurence describes as an old and established business that was valued by its loyal customers but not particularly well-known beyond that.
"Westmorland was a minnow in an industry of much bigger players and a modest one at that," he explains. "It didn’t shout about anything. There were no great plans for expansion, although the company had in mind to take what it did to a wider audience.
"We have four million people coming into Tebay each year and they all think it’s really great, so why not take it to others? Good opportunities in the industry are rare. But in 2007 the Gloucester Gateway Trust presented us with this opportunity in Gloucester which had the sort of rural location with lots of local producers and a following for good food that made it the perfect venue for us," explains Laurence.
Westmorland chief executive Sarah Dunning had taken over from her father John founder of the company with his wife Barbara - just two years before. It was a catalyst to Laurence’s recruitment, because they realised they needed someone who’d got the accounting and fund-raising experience to run a project of such scale.
"Then we went through three and a half years of sheer hell to get the planning permission," stresses Laurence. "It was a resilience test. But we passed that test of resilience by taking on our rivals in the court.
"It was such a big deal for a company like us. At times it would have been easy to say it was too difficult and give in. But if you received a huge pack from the QC on a Friday evening which needed comments back by the Monday, you’d have to turn it round."
A successful outcome at the Court of Appeal in 2011 meant the stalled project could continue. Another major challenge was the financial backing.
"It was very, very difficult to raise the funds initially," says Laurence. "We began the process in 2008, at the start of the recession. One of our problems was that the appeal process went on for a year and a half. It was hard to engage Highways England and banks when in truth you didn’t have a clear run. But after the final judgement, things went very well.
"My background in funding helped the accountant in me in that when I joined Westmorland I turned the accounts on their head. It’s now driven by passing traffic, turn-in, number of people through the doors, and the tills. It’s measurable. I can show banks exactly what happens when you have passing traffic of 20,000 or 40,000 vehicles. So if they agree all those figures, why wouldn’t they invest?"
One year after opening, and Gloucester Services is "really flowing" and already well ahead of plan. Laurence takes particular pride in the fact that those people who were very sceptical at first are now very supportive of what is being achieved.
"We have taken 60 acres of low-value farmland and enhanced it ecologically. We’ve built swales and beehives, and created pathways for hedgehogs. If we continue to hit our targets, £10m over 20 years will benefit local charities. We have given work to 130 local and regional producers and 400 local people.
"We’re really pleased with the finished article. It has surpassed our expectations," says a delighted Laurence.
The company’s next project includes enhancing its recently acquired Cairn Lodge motorway services outlet on the M74. It is also looking at other opportunities which may or may not come to fruition.
"We can’t let the grass grow under our feet," stresses Laurence.
Even if it is growing on top of their forecourts!