Sunil Tandon knows about the importance of a brand. As the managing director of Park Garage Group (PGG), he’s not only built himself a successful chain of forecourts - PGG is third in our Top 50 Indies list for 2009 - he’s also the creator of one of the most successful independent retailer brands in the business.

The Park & Shop format began life as an experiment five years ago at two of the group’s sites in Kent - Sittingbourne and Strood. Sunil says he and his brother Balraj wanted to find a way of differentiating their sites, and not just team up with one of the more well-known brand names such as Spar or Londis. The move was so successful he has since expanded Park & Shop to 34 shops on sites throughout the network. But that’s just the start.

While many businesses are battening down the hatches and waiting out the recession, Sunil reveals he is looking to forge ahead with plans to grow the brand further. By the end of this year he wants another 30 Park & Shops installed, and he aims to have all 85 shops in the network with the branding by the middle of next year. Meanwhile, there are also big plans to roll out the branding on the fuel side.

The Croydon-based company, started by Sunil’s father in 1975 with one Shell licence site in London, currently has seven forecourts with the Park & Shop branding on fuel - PGG buys the fuel from Harvest Energy and ConocoPhillips and adds its own name.

And Sunil says it is working well: "These seven sites are completely branded including the fuel side - it’s a new concept for Park & Shop. We started trialling it three years ago and people seem to like it. This is a very competitive industry so we started looking at what made a site successful and popular - was it the brand, location, or price point on fuel? It’s a challenge. You also start thinking about things like, is it my business or is it the oil company’s business?

"We started buying fuel for these sites from Harvest Energy, and then we convinced ConocoPhillips to come on board. And so far we have no regrets!

"The advantage is that you are not relying on a global brand, you are involved with a local brand. We often forget that a forecourt is a local company. We manage to stay fairly competitive with supermarket fuel prices but we will never undercut. Our strategy is to make money - we try to get our fuel margins at about 4-4.5p per litre."

Sunil now plans to start rolling out the Park & Shop fuel brand to several other sites. Of the 85 sites, 43 are owned by PGG, 37 are Total COGOPs, and five are run under Esso tenancy agreements. PGG plans to add four more Esso sites under tenancy by the end of September, taking its total number of sites to 89. It has relationships with five oil companies in addition to Harvest Energy and Conoco - Esso, Shell, BP, Texaco and Total. Sunil says: "Oil companies are now approaching us to do business with them because they like our model."

PGG has 650 staff and Sunil repeatedly says how important his employees are: "It’s all about the team.You have to get the best people you can, and we’ve been very, very lucky with our team. We’re a very people-focused company and we’ve recently invested in developments such as an e-training programme."

The company’s training manager Paul Thyer came up with the e-training concept, which is 15 online learning courses covering a range of subjects from basic food hygiene to selling age-restricted products. All staff, including managers and those in head office, have to complete the courses as well as do regular refreshers for topics such as selling alcohol. Paul says: "When I joined the company three years ago there was only a very basic and informal training programme in place. Last year we got the go ahead to do the online learning. The staff like it a lot better than the paper-based system."

The company also holds an annual conference day for managers, and gives awards to its top stores and staff. Meanwhile, its sites are regularly star performers in Texaco’s mystery motorist checks, with staff winning voucher prizes and trips from the oil company for maintaining such high forecourt standards.

Back to the Park & Shop brand, and Sunil reveals there are still bigger plans afoot in store. Last month the company introduced its first own-label drink: a fruit juice. Available in a plastic bottle bearing the Park Café branding on the label - the name PGG has for its food-to-go section. It’s available in two flavours: orange and apple. If the move is successful, PGG wants to introduce other branded food and drink products to its shops.

Operations director Miles Harvey, who joined the company seven years ago, explains: "Food and drink is a big opportunity for branding, we buy the product from one company and get another one to brand it for us. We’re planning to do branded water next. These products will be available at all our sites. The idea of ’local’ and ’brand’ are very important to us. People feel comfortable when they see a grocrey brand they recognise. We’re aiming for great products at an acceptable price. About two-thirds of our stores are neighbour-hood sites so the local offer is vital."

Sunil says PGG has responded to the credit crunch by launching a Pound Zone range at certain stores, with posters advertising "Everyday essentials for £1. Come in and See. Beat the Crunch".

Meanwhile, PGG has developed a new format to suit its smaller stores called Park & Shop Daily Essentials, which has a daily offer with distress purchases and a smaller coffee shop. The first of these, Pantiles Service Station in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, opened in May, and Miles says the plan is to have about 30 other stores converted by the end of the year.

The company’s full convenience offer is called Life Essentials.

PGG is very proud of its latest site to open, the Watford Road forecourt in Harrow. Previously a closed Texaco site, PGG spent in excess of £400,000 completely rebuilding and refurbishing the site, including building a new 1,050sq ft shop, relining tanks, and becoming the first retailer in the UK to install Scheidt & Bachmann pumps. Since it started trading in February it’s become the company’s flagship site, with Esso fuel and Park & Shop branding on the store, and sales forecast for £1m in the first year.

Finally, although Sunil says the company is always on the look out for good sites, it has no plans to buy any in the immediate future.