It was Bhupa and Lata Gohil’s honeymoon road trip in America in the ’80s that sparked an ambition to run a leading-edge forecourt like those they encountered on their journey. Little did they know then that they would fulfil their goal and in 2010 become Forecourt Trader of the Year.
"We saw some beautiful sites on that journey and it’s now like a dream come true," says Bhupa, husband to Lata and father of Jay. "After 25 years of hard work to be recognised by the industry is some achievement; we feel really proud."
After various developments over the years, Cosford Garage has been transformed into a 24-hour, 5-6mpla Esso-branded forecourt with a Budgens store doing nearly £60,000 a week.
Shop sales have grown steadily since switching to Budgens in 2008, and the good news just keeps on coming. For many years the future of RAF Cosford the RAF’s largest base in the world, located opposite Cosford Garage and accounts for one third of the site’s customer base has been hanging in the balance. But on October 19, the government announced it was scrapping plans to move defence training to South Wales, giving the Cosford base a much longer lease of life.
"This is massive news for us everyone is overjoyed," says Jay. "It is now likely that the base will increase in size, so longer term it will be a massive boost. We will need to make plans to develop the site further in the future."
Cosford Garage is currently free of any significant competition just the NAAFI catering facility with a small shop but no off licence at the base; and a small Esso garage the other side of the M54 motorway. "There’s no serious competition," says Jay. "The nearest forecourt doesn’t have the offer we have and we heard that the people from the base like to come to us because we do better hot food and we have DVD rental."
But the Gohils aren’t fazed by potential competition. "It’s a double-edged sword really, because if the military base expands our customer base would increase by a colossal amount, which would put a strain on us, so we would need some competition," says Jay. "And competition will only sharpen us to make sure we are at the forefront of what we do."
Not that they’re not sharp already. The trio are on top of the business every step of the way. Every six months they undergo a stock-profiling exercise to find out what’s selling well and if those high-performing products have the right amount of space allocated to them. "That works very well," explains Jay. "We analyse the store’s macro layout, looking at the best-selling lines and seeing if there’s any dead wood.
"We’re now in the process of assessing our hot food offer and we have a couple of plans in the pipeline. We need to make the most of that category and we have some big plans because there’s tremendous potential for hot food."
The family estimates that the store will eventually reach £70-75,000 a week. "Every so often we assess whether there is something we can do to make that next step change," says Bhupa.
"When we introduced Coffee Nation nine months ago we changed the position of hot drinks to be near hot food at the front of the store, which we thought would guide customers to the fresh offer. That forced an increase in fresh sales and pushed us over the £50,000 a week barrier."
Cosford Garage isn’t the Gohils’ only focus. They have just refurbished their second site Brocton Garage to add a Londis convenience store. "We bought it in 1985 and the last refit was eight years ago but it’s taken 18 months to bring Cosford up before we could start working on Brocton," explains Bhupa.
"When we were first looking at how we could improve the site, the first thing that came to our minds was adding an off licence, so we’ve brought that in and the final piece of the jigsaw will be the National Lottery."
The trio has transformed the site and increased selling space from 550sq ft to 900sq ft. "The reaction has been very good," says Lata. "People are saying ’wow, where did you find all that extra space?’. We manage the site remotely so we don’t need office space and we now use the Cosford storeroom for Brocton."
With sales at Cosford Garage storming and Brocton Garage newly refurbished, the Gohils are tentatively looking for more sites with an ambition to make it into the Forecourt Trader Top 50 Indies list.
"We have assessed five sites this year and made proposals for some of them, but they haven’t transpired to be the right sites for us," says Bhupa.
"When they didn’t work out it seemed for the best so we are still looking. There are some new developments in and around the M6 so we’ve looked at a couple of greenfield sites."
Adds Jay: "We only want cracking sites. It’s difficult enough running a couple of sites so we don’t have time for average sites."
The three family members are also being careful not to spread themselves too thinly. "We are owner-operators, so if we were to take on four, five, six more sites and continue to operate the way we do now, we may lose that personal touch. We need to either change the way we operate or we’re not able to handle a huge influx of stores."
Bhupa adds: "Culturally we are already changing because traditionally Lata and I did everything ourselves, but now with Jay in the business we need to be a bit more corporate. Our staff are a key part of our success and while some have come and gone we have a core staff that are loyal. We invest in training to groom them to take on more responsibility."
There is also a chance that Jay’s brother, who is currently working in Hong Kong, will eventually join the business, along with the youngest brother who has just started university to study pharmacy. That could facilitate Lata’s goal of opening a pharmacy.
But as Bhupa says: "We would never force them to join the family business. It’s better to have one willing partner than 10 unwilling ones. We’re still looking for a site manager and have tried a couple of people but it hasn’t worked out. It’s a very demanding job.
"People from a corporate background don’t understand what it’s like to be independent. We need someone with the same aspirations as us; operational ability and entrepreneurial flair."