The credit crunch means everybody’s cutting costs - poring over their accounts to see where savings can be made. Maintenance and service contracts could jump out as areas where money could be saved, however saving a few hundred pounds on a contract could cost you far more if something goes wrong.

Cambridgeshire-based Forecourt Trader of the Year winner Jonathan James from James Graven & Sons says he wouldn’t advise anybody to cut back on maintenance because you could be compromising your customers’ safety.

He says: "If anything, we have gone the other way and are doing more maintenance. This means jobs we’ve put off are now getting done. For example, we’ve just spent £8,000 on redoing the drainage channels on one of our forecourts to comply with health and safety." He reckons another false economy is reducing response times on call-outs to fix equipment to save money. "We’ve got an eight-hour response time agreement on our pumps but I know some people have gone to 72 hours, which means your pumps could be down for 72 hours which would really hack your customers off and they would go elsewhere."

Obviously there’s a lot of equipment on a forecourt to maintain. One item that can get overlooked is the canopy. But it is an important part of any forecourt - to protect your equipment and your customers from the elements. Canopies might appear to be simple pieces of construction but according to DBS Maintenance they need looking after.

Commercial manager Richard Mould explains: "All the electrics are kept in the canopy void. If you don’t maintain the roof and the guttering the water can’t drain away. The water will fill up and affect the lights and the whole site will trip out. And having no lights means the site has to shut down at night.

"We see this happen quite regularly. It’s dangerous. People go up on the roof to take a look and could fall through. We have heard of cases where the weight of the water has brought the canopy down. The canopy covers a big area and therefore catches a lot of water. "

Mould reckons cutting back on maintenance is definitely a false economy. "One of the things I remind the major oil companies is that a maintenance contract gives you a regular update and report on the condition of your site."

Mould says the oil companies have canopy checks twice a year - in the summer and winter. "You’d be surprised what you find on the roof - footballs, tennis rackets, bottles - we even found a full size rugby ball stuck in one of the outlets.

"For us to put right the average canopy with a two gutter run costs in the region of £3,000-£3,5000 - when you could have paid £350 a year for a regular maintenance contract.

"We would clean and check your canopy yearly which would give it a 20-year life. If you don’t do this you’ll be lucky to get 10 years out of it because although the canopies are made using galvanised steel, they can still rust."

He also recommends having the downpipes checked. "These can get blocked up. We recently had one site where the pipes were blocked. We drilled a small hole in the bottom to allow the water out and the pressure was so great the water shot six feet into the air."

Signage is another important component of a forecourt. Steve Martin, managing director of Xmo Strata, reckons that cutting corners to save a few pounds could impact upon a forecourt’s reputation.

In a survey commissioned recently by the company, 100% of managers felt that poor signage was ’damaging’ or ’very damaging’ to a site. Poor signage included dirty and damaged signs and fluorescent tubes that didn’t work. The same group of survey respondents thought that signage was as important as special offers and promotions, the web, point-of-sale and advertising in helping them to survive a recession. Yet only 20% said their company had a sign maintenance programme in place.

"Any retail manager will tell you that poor signage hits customer numbers fairly quickly, however few will plan major new signage rollouts during the recession (except those involved in mergers and acquisitions)," says Martin. "This makes it even more important that maximum value is leveraged from existing assets by keeping sites properly maintained and functioning efficiently.

"Regular maintenance checks are the only way to guarantee an accurate future-cast on company expenditure - vital in the current economic climate. Emergency call-outs may appear a cheaper alternative but they are not financially credible as a long-term solution. With forward planning, most site work can be completed in one visit while the site remains fully operational, and problems can be fixed before they become discernible to the public."

He says blocked guttering in canopies could cause drainage problems and lead to flooding. Damaged under-sheeting provides an ideal access point for pigeons and other birds. Pigeons are notorious carriers of nasty bacteria and need specialist removal to prevent the risks posed to public health.

Meanwhile structural damage can cause a canopy to collapse resulting in serious health and safety risks. This can also lead to investigations, significant costs and possible breaches of insurance terms; while missing fixings can cause sheets to become loose, rattle in the wind and potentially fall onto someone below.

Says Martin: "A strategic programme will reduce the likelihood of sign failure, property damage and sites appearing unkempt. This will reduce costs in the long run, cutting down on emergency call-out fees and travel costs. It also allows engineers to become familiar with individual sites and have an awareness of recurring issues.

"As a maintenance company we’re looking for visible damage, or structural problems that may be difficult to spot and which could lead to future problems (for example, missing fixings).  We’re also looking at safety-related issues, things like illumination faults. Missing or faulty tubes in an illuminated sign can make an entire site look shabby.  We’ll check for storm and vandal damage, operator misuse and missing components," he says.

Meanwhile, in an unusual move, Budgens retailer Dee Patel has launched a forecourt services business called Forecourt Facilities. Operating across the UK, the company provides a wide range of services including general ground work and building work; concrete repairs; manhole cover repairs and replacements; painting and landscaping; bollard repairs; disposal of redundant equipment; fencing; forecourt valeting; and auto and jet wash cleaning and repairs.

Patel explains: "Through working with the Budgens brand, I have come to recognise the importance of high standards and quality of service. Forecourts are no different; first impressions do count and their presentation is one of the key factors in influencing regular customer use.

"I believe that there is a gap in the market for a speedy, efficient and cost-effective service and I am confident that oil companies, group dealers and independents can improve their forecourts and increase their business with our help.

"There is always a temptation to cut expenditure in this area but the maintenance of health and safety standards is paramount."

Greg Salverson, director of solutions engineering at FuelQuest, also emphasises the importance of compliance: "While the shrinking economy is causing companies to focus on cutting costs, it is important to select strategies that maintain regulatory compliance. Strategies like cutting back on wet stock maintenance place your business at risk of penalties and may eventually result in loss of sales. Local authorities need revenue from non-compliance and will be vigilant about imposing fines. It is important that a petrol station proves due diligence that it took every step possible to maintain dispensing rates within legal limits or detected and resolved a leak."

Salveson says the first step is to show equipment compliance. "Several companies offer SIR products to identify sites as ’failed’ each month, identifying there is a problem but may or may not provide or recommend a solution. One week of waiting for SIR results can mean the difference between a leak of a few litres and a large leak resulting in a £20,000 fine.

"The second step is to show wet-stock reconciliation. Under-dispensing nozzles not only result in penalties; they can result in loss of market share.

"Customers don’t quickly forgive a business for short-changing them. Over-dispensing nozzles allow your fuel to be given away, which tight margin businesses cannot afford in any economy. These steps are only effective strategies if you implement processes that ensure each issue identified is resolved.

"Our alarm response protocol routes the issue to a trained professional, gives them steps to investigate the issue, and skills required in a service provider to resolve the issue on site."

Final comment goes to Keith Jewers, director at Gulf Retail: "Recession or no recession, forecourt maintenance should never be compromised.

"Forecourt equipment that fails and results in a short-term loss of business might be inconvenient but is usually manageable. But if the equipment, through lack of maintenance, results in an incident that impacts upon a member of staff or the public, the consequences could be catastrophic for the operation.

"Petrol retailing has always been at the forefront of health and safety legislation and compromise is not an option, even in tough times."


=== gilbarco’s formula for success ===

Gilbarco Veeder-Root has more than 140 factory-trained service engineers on the road, offering national coverage 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Its services includes the maintenance of dispensers, tank gauges, pos systems, delivery control devices and sensors.

The company says its approach to maximum forecourt up-time is based on a four-level approach:

1) Prevention is the best cure - Gilbarco structures scheduled maintenance agreements on a proactive basis to minimise reactive calls, prevent problems occurring and maximise forecourt up-time.

2) Remote fix wherever possible - the use of remote diagnostic technology resolves issues in a fraction of the time of on-site intervention. Gilbarco says it has both the organisational structure and the technology in place to fix issues without a site call.

3) Respond quickly and fix first time - Gilbarco says it boasts "some impressive response times". Its service level performance is over 90%. Its automated logistics processes help ensure that the correct spares are almost always available in its vans to enable a first-time fix.

4) Tailored agreements - Gilbarco tailors maintenance packages to meet individual customers’ needs.

James Withey, the company’s UK managing director, comments: "Our customers really value the comprehensive solution we provide."


=== 10 things to insist upon before signing a contract: ===

1. A guaranteed four-hour emergency call-out

2. Out-of-hours contact numbers

3. Fully trained and experienced teams

4. Completion of work-at-height checklists

5. Cost transparency of remedial work

6. Fully trained and experienced electricians

7. Clear refusal-to-work procedures

8. Vehicle tracking systems and sat nav

9. Evidence of a proven track record

10. Accreditation to the International Contractor’s Safety Rating System (ICSRS)

Source: Xmo Strata