A winning team mentality was how the Top 50 Indie Symonds Forecourts described its approach to business in its entry for this year’s Forecourt Trader of the Year awards. And how prophetic that turned out to be. The group’s site in the city of Wells, Somerset, was judged to be the best site in West Country & Wales (2.5mlpa plus category), and ultimately won the industry’s most prestigious prize.
Managing director Nick Lloyd was the focus of attention at the glittering ceremony at the Hilton Park Lane Hotel in London in September, as he was presented with the coveted trophy. Sadly chief executive Jeremy Symonds had been unable to attend an accident on a charity cycle ride had put him out of action.
But he was back on his feet when we visited the wonderful Wells site last month and we were able to photograph him with the trophy at last.
"We’re absolutely delighted to have won," he says. "If you look at the past names on the trophy they’re all people that are very proud of their sites, and have worked very hard to provide a fantastic store and forecourt. So we’re extremely pleased to be part of that elite list of companies."
The site is located on one of the main roads in and out of Bath the B3139 quite a way from the centre of the city, but within a dense residential area, with a good mix of young, old and working families. It had been a small forecourt many years ago, but was then sold off for residential redevelopment. It languished for five years as the recession hit, and when the opportunity came along about two and a half years ago, Symonds Forecourts bought it, razed it to the ground and built a modern service station development including a 2,300sq ft Budgens store and spacious forecourt with rollover car wash. The site officially opened in July 2011. "We had to build the business from scratch it’s very much a brownfield development," explains Jeremy, who had been familiar with the site for many years as he used to supply it. He is part of a family business that began as a convenience wholesaler in the mid-’60s, and grew to supplying 800 stores, including 100 petrol stations around the south west and southern England. In the early ’90s it also developed its own network of c-stores under the Smile brand. In 2007 the c-stores were sold to McColls and the wholesale business to Palmer and Harvey. Symonds Forecourts was established, and has grown to a network of nine forecourt sites.
"Collectively we have a lot of experience in the company and had done quite a lot of research into the location of the Wells site before we opened," explains Symonds. "We recognised the volume of houses around us and how far the residents would have been travelling before we opened this store, to get the kind of products we planned to offer.
"It’s a very difficult city to get around it’s an old historical town with a cathedral, and doesn’t have lots of wide roads. Getting to the centre of town and parking from here is quite challenging, especially at peak times. There used to be 11 petrol stations in Wells and when we opened this there was only one.
"So what I did was provide a fantastic service for consumers this side of the city. The location has allowed us to provide a very good community store, with a well-rounded and comprehensive range of products. In some cases if you provide that range particularly a deep range of fresh foods as a forecourt which is predominantly selling tobacco and soft drinks, you can end up with most of your quality fresh food going to waste. But here the mix of product is very good.
"We do very well with our bakery and our fresh food, and we are able to stock a wide range and variety of products through the different seasons, knowing that the local customers are going to support it. We don’t get a lot of waste."
The lack of wastage was achieved at the outset by taking one third of the Budgens lines out: "We wanted to enable the range to grow," says Nick. "We’ve got all the core lines, but we don’t need so many varieties, such as of tea/coffee/jams/marmalades for example right across the board. We stuck to the core lines that people want. Jeremy’s always talked about the importance of developing the big brands. We put a notice on the board so that when anybody asked us for anything, we could order it in. Cutting back the range gave us the scope to do that. It meant we could listen to our customers, and also bring in a lot more local suppliers as well. We stock 300 local lines, out of a total of 4,500. However those 300 can make a big difference. As a consumer there’s something we’ve got here that would encourage you in, like the local strawberries, or cakes or special bread, for example. We have grown the range in a controlled way. People have grown to enjoy shopping here because we listen to them."
As a result customer feedback has been strong: "We’ve had the fun of fitting out and opening a number of stores in recent years but the customer feedback here has been more positive than anywhere previously," confirms Jeremy.
"To a certain extent the location has helped with the success, but that’s only the start of the journey. The rest is making sure you don’t let those customers down. Nick and I are very keen to make sure that the whole store, not just the manager but right through to the rest of the team, are all on board with the journey, that they take a passion, as we do, in their store, and that we provide them with the appropriate training so they don’t let our customers down."
Training has long been a key part of the Symonds philosophy and last year Symonds launched a management training academy to develop a pool of future managers and supervisors from within the business.
"It’s almost impossible to maintain good general standards unless there’s an element of training involved," says Jeremy. "It’s all very well expecting high standards, but if you haven’t set your stall out so everybody knows what you expect, and you haven’t given them the support to get there, it’ll be no surprise if you turn up one day and things aren’t how you want them to be."
Schemes such as employee of the month as voted for by their peers, giving them the chance to win £50 vouchers help keep staff incentivised. For the first six months of this year, the employee of the month went into a draw and the winner got tickets to go to the Olympics in London.
"We do put a lot of emphasis on what a fantastic job our supervisors and managers and general staff do for the company and there’s a lot of respect that we show them. In a 24/7 business you have to recognise that you’re only ever going to be as good as the person that’s serving on a Sunday night at 6pm when maybe there aren’t as many eyes around. I will often visit stores at that time. It’s very interesting and if you’re doing a good job then, you know you’re doing something right.
"Our objective from the start has always been to be customer focused. We’ve always put an emphasis on trying to provide the right service and products to satisfy customers’ needs."
The Wells site has got off to a brilliant start, but this is just the beginning, according to Jeremy: "Our aim is 3mlpa by the end of the year (currently around 2.7mlpa). But the shop is targeted to do in excess of £40,000 a week it’s currently at £30,000. Car washing could reach £30-40,000 a year.
"It’s going to take a good four or five years while the shop and other aspects of the business continue to grow. It should be really exciting."
best site manager
The judges knew as soon as they drove onto the forecourt and walked into the store that this was a winning site. But it’s not just about the investment made in bricks and mortar. It’s as much about how it is run, ensuring standards are high, and creating a welcoming atmosphere of helpfulness in store. Much of that is down to Jason Tamplin, who won the award for Best Site Manager.
He has worked for Jeremy Symonds for eight years and worked on the design plans for the Wells site with senior management. He built a critical path for the launch of the store and helped to design the store fixtures and layout. He has organised tasting days with local suppliers and also launched employee of the month. He is now working on developing wine and ale clubs, and marketing projects.