Imagine the scene 14 years ago. A half-acre plot of land - part of the Ministry of Defence Army barracks - on the outskirts of Honiton in Devon, comes up for sale. It is surrounded by nothing more than fields and open spaces - and a minor road. Interested? Steve Parks was, and he bought it.
Today that plot of land is a thriving BP forecourt with a very smart 2,000sq ft Budgens store - in a busy community that includes an industrial estate on his doorstep.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," says Steve. "There was only one other garage in Honiton. It didn’t open on Sundays and used to close at 6pm. As far as shops were concerned there was only a Co-op. Honiton was growing and I saw an opportunity.
"Two years later Tesco turned up - so we must have made the right decision!"
Steve began his career at what was then Carnation Foods in south London as an account manager - the company was eventually taken over by Nestlé. "Then a garage popped up in sunny Devon, where I had lived for a while as a child," says Steve. "I’d always wanted to work for myself, so my wife Julie and I made the decision to give up our London jobs, and at the age of 24, I became a licensee on a BP site in Brixington, Exmouth.
"We started - like everyone does - working very hard, from seven in the morning till 10 at night, seven days a week, with either myself or my wife on the till. We built up a good rapport with the customers, improved the shop offer, and did a lot of promotions. The site was doing 4-500,000 litres a year when we arrived; and when we left about 12 years later, it was doing three million litres.
"We didn’t have a choice about leaving. BP sold out to Safeway and it became a joint-venture site. It was my baby - and I cried."
However, Steve was not left empty-handed. He had also been looking after three other sites as a licensee and had already bought his "bit of grass".
"BP had done a site-swap deal with Texaco, and we looked after those sites until Texaco did the deal with Somerfield," explains Steve. "I also bought another freehold BP site in Exmouth - called Courtland Cross Service Station; and one in Tiverton - which I currently rent out."
The three sites Steve owns are all covered for alternative use - residential or industrial - which gives him a number of options in the future. "I’m always on the lookout for other sites, but at the moment I’m dumbfounded at what some people are trying to sell their sites for - considering their fuel volume and shop size."
One thing is certain however, his first choice fuel supplier would be BP. "I’ve been with BP for donkeys years. I’m happy with the contract, service, promotion and delivery. Out of all the oil companies it’s got to be the best one to go with."
Initial development in the Honiton site - known as Heathpark Service Station - cost around £400,000. From a standing start volume grew quickly and steadily over the years, settling on about 7mlpa. It was a fairly traditional garage, with a small 800sq ft shop supplied by Bookers. But about two years ago Steve began looking for a new supplier who could provide him with a comprehensive convenience store range, with six-day delivery, and a good fresh offer.
"We knew we had to go forward," stresses Steve. "We looked at Spar and Costcutter, but when Budgens came along we liked the people and the offer - particularly on fresh. We soon realised the company could supply us with everything we wanted to turn us into a convenience store. The support Budgens offered appeared to outweigh that of any of the others, and the company wasn’t at all dictatorial in its approach to our business.
"I didn’t ask about prices. I was looking at the bigger picture. I wanted to know what Budgens could offer me in terms of range, training and service. If it could solve our weaknesses in terms of our offer - that was the main deciding factor for us.
"The company has been excellent - spending nearly a month with us when we initially opened. Marc Treneman, Budgens’ regional sales manager for the south west, was here every two to three weeks doing a range review.
"I see it as a two-way partnership - the company is there to help you develop and grow your business."
When the decision had been made to go with Budgens, Steve embarked on a £340,000 redevelopment - including digging up the forecourt for electrical work. The shop was extended to just under 2,000sq ft. The car wash was moved and a new one installed. It was completed in March 2006.
"Within three months we had got the feel of the place," says Steve. "It was a bit of a culture shock. We went from having one delivery a week to six deliveries a week. Plus we were selling chickens, cucumbers and lettuces. We had a back-office computer that we’d never had before. It was quite stressful and a steep learning curve, but it was something we had to do."
Steve took on more staff - a total of 13 now. But in terms of the relaunch of the shop, Steve decided against spending thousands of pounds on balloons and bouncy castles.
"We did a leaflet drop in the local paper. But we took the view the money would be better spent for the long term - making our prices on grocery, chilled and fresh produce competitive with our local Tesco’s - a 30,000sq ft site with fuel. So far that’s worked.
"It’s very difficult to get it into someone’s head that you’ve gone from being a petrol station with a shop, to a convenience store, and I know it doesn’t happen over night. We’re seeing a lot more people now with baskets and shopping trolleys. So far the reaction from customers has been very positive.
"We get a lot of walk-on trade from the industrial estate. In the summer we get a lot of passing trade from people going on holiday. We’ve also got our regular customers from the housing estate - so it’s quite a mixture."
Steve has also found it hard getting to grips with the food-to-go offer. "You go from having a microwave in your shop, and ready-made sandwiches being delivered, to having to think about health and hygiene, and employing staff to make up fresh sandwiches and serve hot food. It’s tough going. It’s something that needs to be constantly worked at. You need to staff it right - one person isn’t enough. We have two, although we probably need one and a half!"
The site has a bake-off doing pies, pasties and sausage rolls. The food-to-go line up also includes a range of freshly made baguettes for £2.50 each (the minted lamb was very nice!); and at the weekends cooked chickens. Steve has even been out in the store cooking pizzas (a flamboyant performance by all accounts!) to try and get across what’s on offer.
"If you work it out at the moment it’s probably breaking even," says Steve. "But food-to-go is part of the overall offer. Like fresh there’s a lot of wastage - which we’re not used to. The food side is growing, but you need to vary it to see what works. Time will tell."
Shop turnover is currently £120,000 a month, up from £85,000, but Steve says he doesn’t have a particular target - "we’re constantly looking at the business and trying to grow it".
Like any successful business Steve has a loyal team behind him, particularly the site’s charming and hard-working manageress Shirley Reeks: "The staff are the most important people in your business," says Steve. "If you’ve got good staff and look after them, they’re worth their weight in gold."
=== Budgens ===
Budgens’ scheme is open to progressive independent retailers with proven track records. Stores must be at least 2,000sq ft and must conform to Budgens’ strict criteria, with the potential for a sales mix of fresh products of 35%. Budgens says the most important factor is that retailers are focused on the long-term success of their business.
Categories supplied: All categories with particular strength in fresh and chilled.
Loyalty scheme: Independent retailers are incentivised to purchase 95% of their products from MBL and are encouraged to list local products.
For more information on Budgens call 0870 400 6224.