June 6 will be a big day in the Dearing household. It will mark the end of an era for Mike and Julie as they hand over the keys of the service station which they have nurtured to success for the past 14 years. Following much discussion with close family, including their 14-year-old son Joshua,
they have decided to give up their precious Chatham Road Service Station in Maidstone which they have sold for close to £3 million.
Not only are they selling the garage, but they are giving up the life of a petrol retailer - for good. "I’ve been doing it for 30 years - my wife for 20 years, since we married - and there comes a point in your life when you think, ’do I want to carry on with this, or do I want to do other things in my life?’, Mike explains. "We’ve worked hard, and now we want to do things as a family rather than be tied to the business all the time."
"We were thinking about it for about six to nine months last year, toying with the idea - should we or shouldn’t we? But with the prices of forecourts going up all the time, we decided we would take the opportunity while it was there, and not risk the bubble bursting. We wanted to achieve as much as we could for the business as a going concern.
"And certainly the Chancellor made me think more about it - once I knew the Capital Gains Tax was going up from 10 to 18% in April. In fact we wrote off a week’s holiday in the Caribbean so that we could be back in time to complete the deal before the April deadline - otherwise we would have lost £100,000 in tax."
The Dearings have been on the site since 1994, first as licensees, then two and half years later, as dealers, having bought it from BP for £112,500.
"BP had put the site up for sale for £200,000 but no-one had looked at it for six months," says Mike. "Then we approached BP and said we’d like to buy it, this is what we’re offering and they accepted it.
"We were told at the time by several people in BP that we were absolutely mad to buy it. We had phone calls from reps that we’d known for years saying ’don’t do it’, telling us we were buying an old dog, and that it would never do anything. But we were given great encouragement and advice by the late Tony Bray, a former BP executive turned consultant, who told us to ’get on the gravy train’. And that’s what we did. Life as a licensee was hard - you’d build up the business only for BP to take it away from you after two years, so you’d have to start all over again on another site. It was boom and bust."
While they were licensees on the Chatham Road site it was blighted by roadworks - the construction of the A229 bypass. It took two and a half years to build. The end of the work coincided with the completion of their purchase of the site.
"The roadworks caused mayhem," stresses Julie. "It was a very difficult time. But we could see light at the end of the tunnel. We believed that once the dual carriageway was built the traffic flow would increase."
And they were right. With signage on the bypass publicising the forecourt (which is not visible from the road) fuel volumes shot up from 30,000 litres a week to 65,000 litres overnight.
"With a shack for a shop and three pumps we built the business up - fuel volumes reach about 110,000 litres a week - until we reached bursting point. It was mayhem. Cars were parking back onto the bypass trying to come in - you couldn’t stop them -because this was the last site before the M20, M26 and M25; and there weren’t any services on the M20 towards Dover at the time, so they had to come to us."
Hence in 1999 Mike and Julie put in the planning permission for a full knockdown and rebuild which took 14 weeks and was completed in November 2000. They kept all the staff from the old site and paid them during the closure, to ensure a seamless start.
With a new 1,000 sq ft store, car wash and forecourt, the business went from strength to strength. Today turnover in the immaculately presented Mace store has reached £24,000 and is still growing. Fuel volumes are 165,000 litres a week.
"As we moved forward the site has grown, and we’re pleased to have won several awards. We’ve just come to the conclusion to sell the business while it is running so well. We chose Christie’s to market it as they put the highest valuation on the site. We were amazed by the response, which proved it was marketed at the right price. We got the buyer we wanted within a month.
"I don’t think any sale is easy, but you have to be very thorough. We were advised to have as much information in a readily-available format as possible, otherwise the process could be delayed as everyone requires different bits of information."
Obviously the new owners SS Garage Ltd, were convinced: "It’s a strong, profitable business and anyone that takes it over is going to reap the benefit of that," stresses Mike. "The key is to pay attention to detail the whole time - be nit-picky. Shop presentation; good promotions and customer service is paramount. Quite often we’ve been 3-4ppl more than the Shell site down the road, but we’re still busier than them and haven’t seen a downturn in our volume."
While the Dearings have no regrets about giving up the 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-of-the-year job, they did find it hard telling their long-serving staff, who have played a key part in their success, and will now work for the new owners. "It was hard, but we tried to do it as sensitively as possible and provide them with as much information as possible. They’re a good team and work very well together."
So what of the future? "We’ve got various options," comments Mike. "We have a property in the Channel Islands in which we hope to spend more time. We’ll be taking time to reflect, but also doing other things - you’ve got to keep the grey matter going. We both do charity work which we will continue. Meanwhile, it’s good to be going out while we’re on top!"