Everything has been shaping up nicely at Hill’s Retail, which not long ago reached its 10-year landmark. The Redditch-based business was set up by directors David Hill and Jackie Braziel, and has recently extended its relationship with Gulf as it continues to future-proof its operations, with all three of its forecourts re-liveried in Gulf’s new image.

"We have a strong working relationship with Gulf and making a long-term commitment to them is the right decision for our business," says David. "In partnership with Gulf, we have continued to grow our revenues. The brand is strong, it’s respected by motorists and we compete on price, even though Morrisons Superstore has fuel just 300 yards from our Battens Drive site. Under Gulf our volumes have continued to rise; we pumped 10mlpa five years ago and that has grown to nearer 14mlpa!"

David and Jackie saw an opportunity to establish a forecourt business when Bristol Street Motors set up its Ford Dealership in Batten Drive, Redditch in 2009. The adjacent filling station was surplus to its requirements so the pair bought the site, set up Hill’s Retail and in the ensuing years have added two more forecourts to their impressive operation. Both directors remain fully immersed in the day-to-day activities and with just a 15-minute journey time between sites, the business is easily managed and allows members of the 30-strong workforce to seamlessly work across the three locations.

Hill’s Retail has refurbished all three sites in the past five years and each has been re-pumped. Shop sales have continued to rise. All was looking good.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic which threw the normally smooth-running business off course.

"It was very stressful early on trying to get to grips with all of the implications of the lockdown, not least protecting our staff and planning new hours of opening," explains Jackie. "We decided to reduce hours at Alcester and Foxlydiate Garage while remaining 24/7 at Batten Drive. People are really appreciative that we are open and it’s heartening to hear customers thanking our staff for being there when they need them. We are cleaning all key touch points including pump nozzles at least three times a day and using the serving hatches more frequently for fuel-only customers. We’ve introduced social distancing in the shop and new cleansing protocols. The way people are respectfully keeping their distances has been impressive. Site traffic is obviously down although we are finding that many people prefer to shop with us rather than join a supermarket queue. At Alcester we have a number of elderly customers and are taking phone orders from them and dropping the shopping off at their front doors. Things are running much more smoothly now, our customers are happy and our staff are doing an exceptional job.

"By juggling working hours across the three sites we’ve avoided furloughing any members of staff. I am extremely proud of that."

The sites carry a huge amount of goodwill, according to David, and that is directly attributable to the staff who are all local people with great personalities and committed to providing the best possible levels of customer service: "We value our staff and recognise the important role they play in the success of our business. We are proud to have so many long-serving team members and that continuity is just as important to our customers as it is to us. Whether part time or full time, we feel that all our staff are treated well and enjoy the working environment."

While adjusting to the ’new normal’ brought by the pandemic, the company recognises the importance of continuity in developing strong business relationships with industry suppliers and that was an important factor in extending the relationship with Gulf. "Everyone in Gulf Retail is accessible," says David. "There is a continuity in people and approach that we consider invaluable. This extends to the delivery drivers and order office staff, all of whom are friendly and flexible and on first name terms with us. If we are in need of a top-up we can rely on Gulf’s support and if they are looking to offload a pot or two, we will do our best to oblige. Our shop sales have continued to improve year-on-year and we’ve worked hard to utilise the limited shop space available to us. We currently work with Costcutter and promote the Mace brand. The balancing act for every retailer is whether to put your ’convenience’ eggs in one basket or have a dedicated symbol supplier that suits the customer characteristics of a specific venue."

Apart from the ongoing pandemic, David and Jackie’s most immediate challenge relates to the banning of menthol cigarettes on May 20 and the uncertainty surrounding non Track and Trace product. "There are still too many grey areas with painful financial consequences for retailers," says David. "We are hoping that we are not left with a large quantity of unsellable stock. Tobacco sales account for around 48% of our shop sales and, surprisingly, sales were not affected in the slightest by removing cigarettes from the shelves."

One of the other challenges facing Hill’s is shop theft. "It’s become a major issue. The police are just as frustrated as us but without the resources, there is rarely any action taken if the value is under £200."

Meanwhile, the company is always ready to invest in the business and add sites to its portfolio as long as they are the right sites within an easy drive time, according to David: "For now, Jackie, myself and our great team will continue to provide the best offering we can to the communities we serve."