Putting the first spade in the ground for a knockdown rebuild just days before the birth of a first child wasn’t the best of timing, but after four years in the planning, John Stevenson, owner of Total-branded Stevenson of Oxbridge in Stockton-on-Tees, Durham, was relieved his long-awaited redevelopment was under way. The site opened last November, just in time to become the location for Nisa’s first-ever TV ad, which is due for a second burst this month.
"Since we opened the new site, petrol retailing has been the toughest I’ve ever known it to be and my Dad, Ian, said it’s been the toughest in history," says John.
"I can’t see it getting much easier. Margins are very, very tight and I wouldn’t like to think about what financial situation we would be in if we still had the old site when 80% of our living came from fuel. The past 12 months would have been virtually impossible. I’m very glad we developed when we did and had the shop to help support the business."
Ian Stevenson started the business in 1985 with a Ford dealership, workshop and two fuel pumps out the front. Straight away he made plans to flatten half of the building to create a bigger, modern forecourt with three pumps selling all grades of fuel. During the late ’80s, he built up a network of nine sites three owned and six Mobil licensed forecourts. "He gave most of them up in the early ’90s after BP took over Mobil and the deals weren’t as attractive," recalls John. "I used to cut the grass, sweep the forecourt and clean the pumps! I would drive around the sites in the back of Dad’s Volvo so I always had an interest in the business."
John joined the firm after finishing university in 1999, and father and son worked together on the forecourt and started selling used cars. "I didn’t plan to stay that long but I had no idea what I wanted to do for a job and I wanted to help Dad out," he says. "I found retail really interesting and I wanted to help get the business built up again. We ended up doing LPG car conversions, importing Mazdas from Ireland because there was a tax loophole that gave savings to consumers, as well as selling used cars and car servicing. While all this was going on, I knew we had to do something with the forecourt and redevelop the shop."
With the tanks and pipework coming up to 25 years old and needing replacement, John started making plans. "We had to decide whether to replace what we had like-for-like or do more than that, and we ended up planning a knockdown rebuild. Dad took some convincing he was very nervous because it was a massive investment. He also had a lot of memories in the old garage. When the builders started pulling it down in August last year, he came over twice and then not again for two months because it was too upsetting for him. When the memories of the old one had gone and he saw the new site he was over every day. He was so chuffed."
The new development was the final step in John taking over the family business. "Dad had nothing to do with the development and that helped him come out of the business and me take over. Now he just comes in to do his shopping and have a coffee."
The plans for the new site were drawn in 2006 and, after speaking to Nisa, John instantly knew it was the symbol group for him. "We knew that whatever shop we built, Nisa would help us make the most money from it.
"Even before we were a member we got a lot of support from them during the planning stage and the alcohol application. They took me all around the country to see other sites and look at what we could achieve."
Nisa recommended high shelving to squeeze in the largest possible range for a 3,000sq ft store. "There are attractive stores with low-level shelving under other symbol groups but you couldn’t fit in such a big range," says John. "What Nisa said we would turn over in 18 months we did in six months, and we more than five-folded the previous shop turnover."
The process of getting up and running included one year working through planning issues with the council and local residents, and 18 months to get an alcohol licence at the huge cost of £13,000. "No garage is allowed to sell alcohol unless they can prove that the main part of the business isn’t the forecourt side but the problem for us was that it was before," explains John. "I didn’t want to open without an alcohol licence but we were so far in and had spent so much money already in architect and quantity surveyor fees. And we had already cancelled our auction account for the used car side of the business. We were up to £50,000 before we’d even laid a brick. We had to show evidence of what other retailers like us elsewhere in the country had done." Thankfully John’s persistence paid off. And the alcohol licensing authorities need not have been concerned three-quarters of the site’s daily customers come just for the shop.
On the forecourt, the site has the only white Total-branded canopy in Europe. "I wanted bespoke-made signage because I wanted a different look to the site. I think it’s retro and clean looking. Actually, it’s not too disimilar to the old Mobil canopy. It gives the forecourt cleaner lines and ties in with the Nisa signage."
But with Total now sold to Snax 24-led Rontec Investments, John is sitting tight to find out what will happen to his fuel supply deal. "We don’t know what is going to happen or exactly what the deals will be. We’ve been told it’s still business as usual. Total has been brilliant and really good to us. There is uncertainty."
Now, John is on a cushioned Platts deal, which helps him compete more with the hypers.
"When I joined the business we were on a fixed margin deal so it was all about volume. Then Platts came along and suddenly it was about bottom line. Since having the new site, we have a rigid pricing policy with huge peaks and troughs. It always keeps us an agreed amount above the supermarkets so we can do away with big price differentials. It means we’re back on a volume game. Volume has increased but at the cost of margin, which is always fluctuating."
John’s next goal is to buy two more sites. "I don’t want to run before I can walk but you’ve got to get in quick or you will miss the boat. I have seen two sites I like one has a car dealership but I don’t think that will be there forever."
Hopefully his next project won’t coincide with another birth. As John says: "With my daughter being born I thought I would have time off with the rebuild going on but I was wrong! I didn’t appreciate how much time it would take to get up and running. In the lead up I was working every day.
"Between my manager Russell and I, we put in a lot of hard work. Whatever hours I needed him, he worked I couldn’t have done it without him."
Retailer: John Stevenson
Site: Stevenson of Oxbridge, Oxbridge Lane, Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham
Fuel brand: Total
Shop brand: Nisa Local
Size: 3,000sq ft shop; four pump islands
Opening times: 6am to 11pm
Services: Hot food-to-go, coffee-to-go, DVD rental, off licence, National Lottery, fresh and chilled, frozen, flowers, news & magazines, grocery