In a public vote by Forecourt Trader readers, Darren Briggs was the clear winner of the Special Recognition Award.

Darren Briggs, chief exec Ascona Group IMG_5640

If ever you want to hear Darren Brigg’s life story, and how he came to be voted as this year’s Special Recognition Award winner, make sure you’ve got a comfortable chair!

It has been a tale of ups and some excruciating downs. But he’s never been completely out. Drive, determination, resilience and a fair dose of bloody mindedness, has seen him climb out of deep holes, where others might have lain in a muddy pool at the bottom. Some of it he can’t even talk about due to confidentiality agreements.

But what is important is that he is alive and kicking today as MD and CEO of the Ascona Group, one of the UK’s fastest-growing forecourt operators. It currently has around 60 sites across the UK, serving over 170,000 customers a week, and at the last count was ranked seventh in Forecourt Trader’s Top 50 Indie listing. Although the roots of the company go back to 2011 and 2012 when he took out leases on his first two sites, it wasn’t until 2017, when he put a strong management team together, that he embarked on a strategy of growth. The first plan was for 20 sites. Then came Cornwall Garages with another 17. Then the plan was upped to 50 sites. But the opportunities have kept coming, with another pipeline of around 30 sites Ascona is looking to acquire in the next 12 months. Now the goal is to have a network of 300 within the next few years, and Darren is confident of achieving that, despite many other retailers struggling to find the right sites to buy.

“Over half the sites that come to us are off-market, because people see that we perform,” he explains. “Most of them are the ‘mom and pops’ – the singles, the two sites – where they’ve been in the family for two or three generations. They’ve reached the stage to either redevelop, do a lease for a pension fund, or sell up. They’re finding the next generation aren’t interested. So they make the decision to sell, to retire.”

Darren says people are attracted to Ascona because it peforms in terms of due diligence and taking the transaction through to completion: “We agree a price and we look after the staff. After two or three generations in the business, those staff are really friends of the family, and when the family sell the asset, they want to make sure the staff are looked after. And I’d like to think that we do a good job of that.

“Our site managers are salaried, have bonuses, death in service cover, private health insurance – so they’re well looked after. As a group operator we prefer to directly manage. The bigger boys have the com-op model. We’ve done our numbers and we can successfully run a direct-managed operation up to 300 sites. Anything more than that becomes tricky – you end up with a huge HR department.”

You don’t have to be long in Darren’s company before you’re confronted with a new verb – to ‘Asconarise’. That’s what happens to any new site the group acquires. It may sound painful, with a lot of tearing down and installations, but it’s worth it in the end. “When we take on a forecourt that’s been unloved, we ‘Asconarise’ it – do a shop refit. It’s not rocket science,” stresses Darren.

The strategy means developing sites into top roadside retail destinations, with leading in-store retail offerings, concentrating on food-to-go, including both commercial retail partnerships and in-house brands. These can include some very tasty things like Ascona fish and chips. And also very practical things like the Ascona launderette. Valeting is also a key element. EV charging not so much – yet. “It’s a watching brief. We think adopting too early is going to be an expensive, costly exercise.

“Forecourts are a great business to be in – retail will be key. But in terms of future-proofing, we look at sites no smaller than a third of an acre, so we can put in hydrogen, EV, additional parking, if needed, in the years to come. But whatever cars run on in the future, we will sell it.”


Up to 2004: Worked initially as a civil engineer, but began his career in the fuel industry with roles at Elf Oil UK and Total UK Ltd, before founding in 2004, which was sold to the PRA in 2008, following collapse of another project, BigMedia.

2011: Did consultancy work, but missed the fuel business, so acquired the lease on Bush Hill Garage in 2011, followed by Crossways in 2012. Legal dispute with supplier went on for three years causing £500K losses.

2017: Created strong management team with Shane Higgon and Duncan Morris, renamed Ascona and embarked on strategy of growth.

2022: Around 60 sites and counting…


Darren Briggs, chief exec Ascona Group IMG_5656

Darren also likes to get stuck into a bit of public debate – like defending the pricing strategies of fuel retailers in the face of a public backlash against rocketing fuel prices: “Doing blogs on Facebook was very much an education exercise for Joe Public. Some of our staff were being verbally abused about the difference in price. Once the public understood that, and realised there is a lag issue, everyone buys at a different price, it was like a lightbulb moment for them. They thanked me for doing it - 99% of the abuse stopped.”