After 28 years of careful nurturing, the enigmatic, white-pole retailer Keith Mowbray is ready to part from his beloved site, Maypole Service Station, in King’s Heath, Birmingham – but not to just anyone… yet.
Since putting his site on the market last December he has been surprised not to have received any serious offers from other forecourt operators. He has, however, had several lucrative offers from property developers, the highest being £600,000. You’d think he would be over the moon. But strangely, he is not. He would rather his precious site went to another fuel retailer, to take it on to the next stage and fully realise its potential.
“It’s just too pretty a piece of real estate to be lost from the petrol business,” he explains. “It’s as simple as that. It’s got trees and a park opposite. I thought there would be someone who would want not just a business, but a beautiful site, who would offer me fractionally less than a property developer, and I would have a moral dilemma about who to sell it to.”
Keith believes the fuel retailing fraternity is just too focused on fuel volumes – his forecourt does less than a million litres a year – and would therefore be blinded as to the true potential profitability of his site, which has a 137ft frontage and a depth of 105ft; and a 500sq ft shop. Keith is also proud of his 10-year-old car wash, 1978-built Gilbarco pumps, jet wash and PCL air tower. “It may not be new kit, but it’s the Rolls Royce of its time and has been immaculately preserved,” stresses Keith, who works without the modern trappings of computer or mobile phone.
Certainly to the passing motorist, the site looks spotless and welcoming. It’s clean and tidy, with well-kept flower borders and baskets. Keith believes in high operating standards, and works hard to ensure everything is in tip-top working order, and that customers receive the best service. And for that he is proud to charge the highest fuel prices in the area (he even charges 40p for air). He doesn’t allow anyone to sell above him.
“I’m currently selling at 4ppl above the supermarkets, and 2ppl above the local competition. But my margin is mega – last week it was 6.2ppl,” he says proudly. “I’m only doing office hours – and still making more than £40,000 a year. I’m also doing 8,000 car washes a year. If you were doing three to four million litres a year – which this site could do standing on its head – the car wash sales would nearly double. But no-one can see it.
“I could reduce my unleaded pump by 3ppl and could still earn 3.6ppl. I would sell 65,000 litres a week and could more than double my income on the forecourt. If that’s the case with the petrol, what about the shop and the car wash?”
When customers complain about the high prices Keith agrees. “But,” he explains to them, “we’ve got two air lines which are accurate and working; the grass will always be cut; there are flowers; the staff are in uniforms – and you can always complain to the managing director face to face!”
Keith sees himself as an operator rather than a retailer. He enjoys buying fuel on the spot market, which he likens to gambling on the horses, without completely losing your shirt. He also enjoys taking in a tanker every 10 days. “I can’t explain it – it’s fundamental to the business,” he muses. “When you’ve bought product at the right price and before the stuff is delivered it’s gone up a penny a litre, it’s a great thrill.”
When the site is sold Keith will move to his house by the canal and take with him his price pole, which has proudly displayed the Mowbray brand name since the end of a long-running dispute he had with BP in the nineties.
“After 35 years in the industry and 28 years on this site, I need a rest,” he says as he looks wearily at a threatening letter from a customer about car wash damage. “My biggest complaint is legislation. The rules and regulations have really taken their toll. I hate the lack of honesty these days – it goes against everything I stand for. For example, if you were to trip up on my forecourt I daren’t apologise because I’m admitting liability. After a while it wears you down.
“However, after about a year off I shall be bored stiff and will probably be back in the business in some form or another. But for the moment, all you would-be fuel retailing entrepreneurs – where are you?”