Nerve and determination. That’s what it takes to invest £1.65 million in a new state-of-the art service station development at the age of 59 – and Mike Dransfield has it in bucket-loads.
He was not going to be beaten when proposals for a new A5 bypass threatened to sideline his petrol retailing business – Nesscliffe Service Station, a rural site in the village of Nesscliffe, Shrewsbury – which he and his wife Pauline had owned and run for 24 years.
Instead, with his son Mark and daughter Amy both involved in the business, he decided to invest in all their futures. The three-acre development – Nesscliffe Services – which now sits proudly alongside the very road that could have put an end to the family’s livelihood, is the result of many years of planning and hard work. It opened for business shortly before Christmas, on December 5. With its huge forecourt, including HGV parking for five or six trucks; 42 car parking spaces at the rear; a 1500sq ft Spar convenience store including a food-to-go offer; plus an 80-seater restaurant, as well as space for scenic picnic areas, the 24-hour site is a haven along a busy main road.
Mike is rightly proud. For just across the field is the family’s original site – a traditional village service station which, despite everything, is still very much in business, thanks to the drive and ambition of its owners. Mike had bought it after many years working as a garage motor mechanic, picking up tips here and there that would one day give him the confidence to run his own business. He took the plunge with Nesscliffe Service Station, which at the time was Esso-branded, featuring one row of five pumps, no canopy and a sales kiosk. It also had a workshop, which still does MOTs and motor repairs to this day.
Within the first three years Mike had erected a canopy and extended the shop, filling it with groceries and a post office. He also began building the fuel volume, which peaked at 2.75m litres in 2002 – changing fuel brands as he went from Fina to Q8 to Jet.
The closure of another local site in 2000, after the fuel crisis, had left Nesscliffe as the only garage in the area serving the local community.
The building of the new A5 bypass began at the end of 2002 and since it opened in March 2003, Mike’s fuel volume more than halved to 1.3 million litres per annum. However, he and his family were well prepared. News of the road development had been common knowledge since a public inquiry 10 years ago.
“Building a new service station had been on my mind since the inquiry,” says Mike. “It was all about developing enough nerve to go for the planning permission. One of the local farmers gave us the option on the land alongside the new bypass – as long as we got planning permission he promised he would sell it to us. He was true to his word. It wasn’t an easy task, but this whole new development was an obvious move for us – especially with my son taking an interest in the business.”
Over the years the plans changed somewhat. For example, originally there were no plans for a restaurant, but the Highways Agency stipulated that the site should at least have fast food. It is classified as a trans-European route, and therefore it is required to have a full range of 24 hour services and amenities.
“It was a direction we were thinking of anyway, to supplement the low income from fuel, so that wasn’t a problem. We used our own brand name – Food Station. It’s been a bit slow to pick up – although we had a good run over Christmas. It’s going to take a while to try out our ideas and get the restaurant working at its best.”
The family’s biggest headache with the whole project was funding – but gutsy determination won through. “The banks aren’t used to developing forecourts – they get nervous with a project of this magnitude, which is not usually done by a family business,” comments Mike. “The banks can be hard on independent retailers, especially when they see the oil companies retrenching. However, eventually RBS supported us.”
Spar was chosen because of its brand image. “We are catering for both the motorist and the convenience food shopper. It’s a good clean store, and well laid out – and only a couple of miles from local villages. It’s picking up more slowly than the forecourt, but we think that’s because of the site’s perception of being a service area – are people thinking ‘motorway prices’? Neither the shop or the forecourt are premium-priced.”
With average annual throughput on the A5 of 10,000 vehicles a day, anticipated volume for the new site is about 6mlpa, although sales are already up to 89,000 litres a week, including bunker fuel, with 70% of the total attributed to diesel. Jet was signed up to the fuel deal 18 months ago. “It’s a partnership between us and the oil company, which put a lot of effort into launching the site. We’ve been with Jet for five years – since 2000 – on the old site, and it is the best out of all the oil companies,” stresses Mike. “Whatever was in the contract, Jet stuck to it all the way without any argument or disputes. However, it didn’t consider renewing the contract for the village site, which ran out before Christmas. So we chose Gulf there, because its cost-plus deal was the best and the brand image is good – it’s an up-and-coming brand and could be one for the future. We’ve had a lot of support from the local community who kept coming to the old site and shop sales have started to grow. If we hadn’t undertaken the new development, the village site wouldn’t be there now. There would have been no future for it. That’s what this is all about, a long-term future for the business. We’ve put every penny we’ve got into this project. As I keep saying to the family, it’s their future and my pension! I wouldn’t be where I am without the support of my family. They’re all committed to it. It’s the beginning of a great adventure – a huge learning curve.”
You’d think that after the years involved with the project – getting planning permission, raising funds, buying the land, and going through the challenge of working with builders and seeing the project through to fruition – never mind actually running the business – Mike would be feeling totally exhausted at this point.
Not a bit of it. One of the most surprising things is that he would do it all over again. And that’s just what he is planning – on the other side of the road. “The local farmer has given me first option on the land…,” he says with a cheeky wink.