Set on a main road into the Royal Naval Port town of Dartmouth, Devon, Townstal Road Garage has a powerful selling point to keep customers coming back. Aside from the distinctive BP branding on the forecourt and Spar shop fascia, locally sourced products are proving a big hit with shoppers. So much so that local produce accounts for 20% of total shop sales.
The forecourt is operated by Holliss Filling Stations, a family-run business established 31 years ago by Dave Holliss. The company also has two other sites – Totnes Cross Filling Station and California Cross Filling Station, both in the South Hams area of Devon. Now semi-retired and preferring to spend time in sunnier climes in Spain, Dave has passed the reigns to son Julian. He is still involved in the business and continues to be chairman of the South West BP Forum, but Julian is now the main operator.
“We find that it works well as long as I’m not here too often,” muses Dave. “There can only be one boss and Julian takes it seriously and works very hard. Thirty years in the business was long enough for me – I started at 27.”
Julian, who is now 35, joined the family business in 1991 after completing a business qualification at college. “I’ve always been involved in the industry and grown up with the many changes,” he says. “Strangely it has always appealed to me, although I have days when I regret it!”
In the company’s 31-year history, it has gone from one traditional forecourt where fuel was big business, to having three sites – all of which Holliss describe as convenience stores with petrol pumps outside. In 1973 the company set up Totnes Cross Filling Station under the Esso brand. The site had two pumps and a small shop selling batteries, fan belts, fuses and the like, and an annual volume of 250,000 gallons. Thirteen years later Holliss took on an Esso licensed site in Plymouth. “This is when we started to learn how to retail,” explains Dave. “There was a time when being a licensee was a rewarding business, but then oil companies started wanting more of the cake so we gave up the licence in 1997.” While the company suffered when Esso’s Tiger Tokens promotion came to end and customers were bringing in tokens that had been around for up to 10 years, Dave says the business did sell a lot more fuel because of the promotion. “We didn’t join in [the litigation] with the other licensees and are glad of that now,” he says. “We knew there was an unquantified liability that would jump up and bite us one day.”
In 1989 Holliss bought an old village ‘smithy’ (a blacksmiths). The site at California Cross had two pumps outside, but Dave embarked on a project to create a 80sqm shop and four-square layout forecourt with jet wash with a fuel supply and support from Mobil. Then, in 1991, when Julian became involved in the business, he took on a tenancy agreement at a Mobil company-owned site in Dartmouth – Townstal Road Garage. The company continued to operate the site through its change of ownership to BP, and when it was divested, they snapped it up.
The deal went through on April 17 last year and the company started work on the complete knock-down-rebuild in May, resulting in a 2,000sq ft convenience store with food-to-go, off licence, fresh fruit and vegetables, and an extensive range of chilled foods including fresh meats and dairy.
The Spar package has been a significant driver of the Holliss business and the company has been trading with the symbol group for about two years, starting with its California Cross forecourt, which had a full Spar Millennium refit, producing an increase in shop turnover of 40%. Annual shop turnover is now £800,000.
“The Spar offer has really kick-started sales at Townstal Road” says Julian. “It has brought theatre to the shop, helps us meet ever-increasing consumer expectations and enables us to compete with the supermarkets in the key categories of off-licence, chilled and fresh, and promotions through their Real Deals offer. We combine local food with the Spar offer to bring greater choice to our customers.” And when it comes to local supplies, as a member of the South Hams Food & Drink Association, Julian sources the best-quality local produce which is available in many of the key categories at Townstal Road – meat, fish, wine, organic cider, organic veg, cheese and even chocolate and ice cream.
Townstal Road is now achieving seasonal shop sales of nearly £40,000 a week. “Our plan is for annual sales of £1m excluding National Lottery and utilities,” reveals Julian. “At the moment we’re ahead of plan so we’re very pleased.” In fact, Julian and Dave are running such a slick operation that Townstal Road is one of eight locations – and one of just three forecourts – on Spar’s national study tour this month.
Being based in the heart of the Devon tourist trap, the seasonal nature of the business presents its own set of challenges. “All our sites are fairly seasonal which can be difficult to manage. Depending on the weather, trade can be up by about 50% in the summer,” explains Julian. “We have a core of staff and supplement numbers with university students who are at home for the summer – it suits them and us and we can maintain a relationship over a couple years.”
Holliss has 35 full and part-time staff and has recently received Investors in People status – one of a handful of forecourt retailers that have gained the accreditation. “This has been a great benefit to us,” says Julian. “We have been working at Investors in People for four years. It has provided us with a working structure and defined processes and clear objectives.
“IIP came about through our local Business Link while we were trying to organise ourselves as a business. We had used the Business Link for training courses and had a good relationship with the business advisor, which matured into Investors in People. Our advisor put a lot of effort into helping us and it’s greatly appreciated.”
Julian adds that while companies are investing heavily in their premises, they’ve also got to invest in staff because they are the people who represent the business. “It gives employees a greater sense of purpose and people are aware of the objectives of the company,” he explains.
“It’s early days but Investors in People can only have a positive effect on recruitment, which is a problem because we operate in an area of low unemployment. The key focus for us is keeping good people – the job doesn’t have a good public perception so we’re trying to improve the profile.”
Holliss used the Lifelong Learning programme in conjunction with IIP. It offers training in NVQ levels one to three. There are 10 members of staff at Holliss who have NVQs and six currently working on the qualification.
Competition from the grocery sector also presents a challenge to Holliss. “Now Morrisons has taken over Safeway, it is pricing at what appears as base cost to us,” says Dave. “But we don’t expect to compete on price. It’s having an offer on the road that will keep our customers happy. BP has been a great help in that respect. Sales of Ultimate are increasing continually because people are prepared to pay that premium. The diesel is particularly popular. About 15% of our volume is from premium fuels now.
“The evolution of our stores into the Spar brand has been key. It’s a nice feeling to come into the shop to see how it is now. Ten years ago we thought we were really good but this is leagues apart. It’s a totally different business now.”
Julian adds: “The greatest challenge as an independent is survival and trying to keep pace with the market. Increased labour and environmental costs make it more of a challenge to remain profitable. But it’s not just us, it applies to the whole industry.”
To help them run an efficient business, Julian joined the Lakeside Group this year and is finding it a great benefit. “It’s a very professionally organised and proactive group which is focused on all aspects of the business operated by its members. It’s all about best practice, sharing experiences and ideas.”
Julian adds that the key to future success is evaluating and maintaining the offer and choice that their sites provide and to meet increasing consumer expectations. Future plans include a redevelopment of the company’s Totnes Cross site with an extension of the existing 400sq ft shop to create a 2,500sq ft c-store.
“If the right offer was to present itself, we would consider acquiring more sites,” says Julian. “But we are more focused on developing and running the current businesses. The challenge is to have three sites in perfect working order.”