F or a beginner in forecourt retailing, and just a few months in, Sohail Akram has certainly made a big impact running his first store on Esso-branded Bootle Service Station in Liverpool.
He was given the chance to run the store by the owner of the site, Mr Haneef, who runs a chain of forecourts around Bolton and Merseyside. They got to know each other while Sohail was working at the Bestway cash and carry outlet in Bolton Haneef was a customer. Sohail was known as a bit of a ’high flyer’ having worked his way up to operations manager from a junior role, which he took when he arrived in the UK from Pakistan nine years ago.
"Although I worked for a cash and carry outlet, my background is in retailing in that my family in Pakistan ran grocery stores, so I was always around them," says Sohail. "But I never wanted to get money from my family I wanted to be independent. In the UK I became friends with Haneef and often discussed my ambitions with him. He then offered me a great opportunity a lease for the shop on the Bootle forecourt. I could see the potential of the site particularly because of the houses in the locality, and also because it is on a main route into Liverpool. I took it on officially last July."
He knew the store needed a good image, and he wanted help on the merchandising and marketing side. He put the feelers out and was approached by several symbol groups Londis, Spar, Premier who were keen to get involved in his store, but it was Diane Cannon, business development executive at Bestway, who persuaded him to sign up to the Best-One image.
"Obviously he knew the background to the Bestway business, how the process worked and so on," she explains. "But what he really wanted to know was what support he would get from us."
She persuaded him in less than 20 minutes, according to Sohail, who describes her as "amazing", in terms of the advice and help she has given him. Together they are beginning to drive the business forward, boosting shop sales from around £5,600 a week as a rather tired-looking Esso shop. The goal is to reach £12-£15,000 a week, and great progress has already been made after six to seven weeks it was doing £7,600, according to Sohail. Since taking on the lease, he has doubled the size of the store through a bit of reorganisation and removal of partitions. He has also installed two 3.7m chillers and generally cleaned and brightened up the place to encourage new customers.
Essential to Sohail’s success has been his determination in getting a 24-hour alcohol licence against all the odds. The business had had an alcohol licence from 8am until 11pm, but it required the owner to be on site continually between those hours.
"That was physically not possible," says Sohail. "I also wanted to extend the licence to 24 hours, but it was blocked because of security issues. But I wasn’t going to give up. I pursued it pushing and making lots of calls. I invested in a state-of-the-art CCTV system (there are about nine cameras in the shop covering all angles) and the police were impressed. We got the 24-hour licence, with myself and my colleague Naveen as licence holders. We are doing well, but there are many more things I want to introduce I have great plans."