It’s any retailer’s nightmare: exchanging on a new site only to discover just one month later that the busy A-road the forecourt is located on is due for an imminent change, potentially drawing trade away.
This is was what happened to Simon Privett when he bought Tollgate Service Station in Gravesend, Kent. "I completed on the site in November 1998 and on December 24 discovered that there was an imminent road change. It didn’t come up on the searches but if my soliciter had investigated more we would have found out there was a planned road scheme. I’d shelled out half a million pounds; I was really worried."
The site was located right on the A2, not far off the M25 towards Kent, but a scheme was being planned to build a new, wider road that would bypass Simon’s forecourt. Over the subsequent years Simon fought the Highways Agency for his site to be included in the scheme. There were three options on the table: a widening of the existing road, which would have meant the forecourt would be compulsory purchased; using the existing lanes for one side of the road and build the other side new; or build a new road completely offline.
"I was hoping for the first option," explains Simon. "I could have retired to the Bahamas and sat on the beach with pina coladas! Unfortunately the Highways went for the most expensive scheme that was the most unhelpful to us and the first spade went in the ground in 2006."
It was a huge blow to someone who had been in the forecourt industry since he was 19; first working as a manager for a private company, then a commission operator and Texaco retail operator. "I managed to get a Texaco site as a retail operator but the problem was with restricted earnings," explains Simon. "You could only have one site; it was really rigid. So I looked to Total. Texaco turned a blind eye to that but when I took on another Total site, I had to part company with Texaco.
"I eventually had three Total sites but in 1995 Total gave us the news that they weren’t going to renew our leases. At that time I was in the throes of making my first purchase Baberbridge Service Station which was completed in October 1996. I didn’t tell the bank that I was losing the Total sites. If I had I wouldn’t have got the loan, but I had more aspirations than being a manager."
When Simon took on Baberbridge fuel volume was 18,000 litres per week and £500 in the shop. After two major shop refits and a third smaller one he build business up to around 80,000 litres and £25,000 but decided to sell up in 2003.
In the mean time, Simon was busy working his magic with Tollgate. When he first bought the site volume was 80,000 litres a week and £5,000 in the shop. Within one year he pushed volume up to 150,000 litres. "The site looked pretty horrendous but I look at stuff with rose tinted glasses and I knew it had potential. I just cleaned up, checked all the lights and volume went straight up."
In January 1999 Simon did his first refit with Spar at Tollgate, extending the shop from 750sq ft to 1,700sq ft. In 2000 he decided it was time to replace the "1973 string-held pumps" and tanks. "I had to be careful where I spent my money because there was always the cloud of the road re-routing over us. I was always wondering where I would be in a few years but I had to be proactive. When I did the calculation for the shop I found that if I only had a £2,000 a week increase it would pay for itself in two years, and I knew I had at least a few years before the road was changed."
After 2000 Simon realised the shop wasn’t good enough and in 2001 he extended it again to 2,000sq ft. This coincided with an off licence application being approved. There was another refit in May 2006, taking the store up to 2,600sq ft. "We were really rocking some weeks we were doing 250,000 litres a week and the shop was taking £45-50,000 a week."
Then, in June 2008 the day Simon had been dreading came along and the old road closed. "Day one, bang, we lost 50% of our trade," he recalls. "It was horrendous. I was prepared for it, though. I made sure I had no long-term deals, I had any lease agreements finishing in 2008 and I went crazy to pay off the mortgage so I had no financial commitments when doomsday came. As part of the public inquiry the Highways said they’d put up signage to direct people to our site. The plan looked good on paper but in reality it wasn’t."
So Simon continued his fight while doing everything in his power to get motorists to notice his site (see panel story). A lucky break came one day when a customer he was helping refuel with LPG asked how business was. The man turned out to be the local MP and was forming a lobby group with other local businesses to "hit the Highways over the head". "Thanks to him we got a meeting with the Highways and all the businesses had a chance to pitch," says Simon.
The end result was dedicated signage from the A2. Trade took a turn for the better. "Once we got the road signs it was like turning on a tap and fuel volume was getting up to 190,000 litres and even 200,000 some weeks. We could see that the future wasn’t actually that bad but I wanted to do something with the shop again." Just before Christmas last year Simon completed another Spar refit, making the site 3,000sq ft. Shop sales soared to £40,000 a week and almost £50,000 at Christmas. "If it hadn’t been for the snow we would have rocked £55,000," he says.
Despite challenging times, Simon is positive about the future. "Fuel prices are sky rocketing and that doesn’t help. The nearby Morrisons is 10ppl cheaper than us on diesel I don’t know how they’re doing it and Shell is giving it away. We should be doing 225,000 litres but this week we’ll struggle to do 200,000. We need healthier margins and we need some stability in the world but shop sales are heading in the right direction, which we’re really pleased about. I’m looking forward to Easter and if we have a hot summer that will be absolutely mega. We’ll be rocking and rolling again."
call to attention
When Simon Privett of Tollgate Service Station in Gravesend, Kent lost 50% of his trade because of a road re-routing he decided to do everything possible to get motorists to notice his forecourt.
First he installed an inflatable ’breezy geezer’ on the canopy, and then a helium-filled blimp to advertise the forecourt. "If you drive down the A2 you can see us in the distance," says Simon. "I still have nightmares about the air ship. I had to sign something to say that I would inform the airport authorities if I lost it. You can only have it on on an absolutely still day."
Simon also put up signs anywhere he was allowed to and some places he wasn’t. "There was a closed Esso petrol station up the road and on a weekend I would go up there and put out banners saying ’services next junction down’," explains Simon. "After a couple of months I got a letter from Esso’s soliciter."
Despite trade being back on track Simon still parks his trailer (pictured below) near the roundabout.