Queues of local residents were snaked along Bath Road as BP-branded Symonds’ Budgens of Wells in Somerset poised to open its doors to the public for the first time last month, leaving Top 50 Indie retailer Symonds Forecourts thrilled at its most successful launch to date.
Located in Britain’s smallest city with a population of just 10,000, the new site epitomises the blueprint for Symonds’ petrol stations. As chief executive Jeremy Symonds says: "We believe that the best overall facility for a modern forecourt is to have a big convenience store, parking, car wash, cash machine, National Lottery, and to be located in a lovely community. All of these services combined to provide a complete solution for our customers.
"Our aim is to provide quality sites in a location that will have a good sustainable long-term future," adds Jeremy. "Developments like Wells are very much within that vision. You’ve got to look at the opportunity here today and look at what might happen over the next 10 years. First we use our own knowledge and view all sites personally to have a good understanding of the site and be confident with the location. And, working with a supplier like Musgrave, we get their opinions, too."
And the eighth site in the Symonds network looks tipped to achieve that longevity. The 2,300sq ft Budgens store offers everything the neighbourhood or passing shopper could need, without having to make a trip to a supermarket. Out-of-the-ordinary products such as fresh deli-style olives, elephant garlic and samphire (a sea vegetable that grows on shorelines, in marshy shallows and on salty mudflats), sit on-shelf among an extensive range of fresh produce, meat, fish and chilled convenience foods.
Local products feature in every category from juices to cupcakes and the store offers an extensive off licence, JJ Beanos fairtrade hot beverages, food-to-go and bakery alongside the usual convenience store fayre. On the forecourt, motorists will find a top-of-the-range car wash, jet wash, cash machine and the full range of BP fuels.
The new site is expected to turnover around £50,000 once established and achieve fuel volumes of 4-5mlpa. "Wells is a very exciting proposition. It’s the most successful launch we’ve ever had we’re absolutely delighted," says Jeremy. "At one time Wells had 11 petrol stations but was down to one until we opened this site. Two-thirds of the population of Wells live around this site and there are a lot of surrounding villages. The key thing is location, location, location, and this is a fab location."
Symonds Forecourts has grown relatively quickly since it transformed from a wholesaler and operator of c-stores to a petrol retailer in 2007, and there’s further growth on the horizon. The family business began as a convenience wholesaler in the mid ’60s, growing to supply 800 stores including 100 petrol stations around the south west and southern England. In the early ’90s it started to develop its own network of stores under the Smile brand. That grew to 100 stores and in 2007 Jeremy sold to McColls. At the same time he sold the wholesale side of the business to P&H and set up Symonds Forecourts.
Now the company operates eight petrol stations with either a Budgens or Londis c-store in the south west in Sherborne, Bruton, Bath, Gloucester, Cartgate, Wells and two in Bristol. It is in the final stages of purchasing another site in Somerset, which Jeremy expects to develop into another BP/Budgens site similar to Wells, has an imminent expansion of a store at one of its Bristol sites, along with other developments in the pipeline.
"That’s very exciting but the key thing for us is not chasing numbers it’s about quality of sites," says Jeremy. "We are very fortunate to have had a great relationship with the forecourt sector as a wholesaler for all those years and many of those people are still friends of mine. That gives us a great opportunity when people decide they want to sell their site. Seven of our eight sites were bought from customers of ours from when we were a wholesaler. That’s one thing about the industry there are really super people in the independent sector."
One of the vital cogs in Symonds’ plans for growth is employee development. Managing director Nick Lloyd, who has worked for Roadchef, Smile Stores, McColls and Musgrave before joining Symonds Forecourts in September last year, has set up the Symonds Management Academy to invest in staff for the future. The 12-month training programme will see eight members of staff learn everything they need to be able to work in retail management.
"They will learn about managing people, motivating staff and team building, as well as handling theft and loss, ordering stock, managing fuel, managing fresh, due diligence and working with suppliers," explains Nick. "At the end of the programme we will have eight managers of the future for us and we will be able to promote from within. Because we’re a family business, we want to keep that closeness with the staff and ensure that people can have a whole career with us. They can work their way up with Symonds, and that’s personally rewarding for us, too. It’s exciting that our sales advisors of today will be our managers of the future."
Both Nick and Jeremy admit that the forecourt market is getting tougher but are so confident in their business model of quality sites in high-footfall locations, that wider issues of growing competition and fuel prices seem of little consequence. Says Nick: "It’s a tough market but our focus is on driving the shop and giving customers plenty of reasons to come to us. Perceptions are changing we’re not a forecourt with a shop, we’re a shop with a forecourt.
"We’ve got to find other ways to drive the business forward for ourselves because no one is going to do it for us," adds Nick. "We make sure we offer things like Nectar points on our BP sites and Shell cards on our Shell sites. You’ve also got to look at what else is happening, such as the Olympic package with BP. You have to get behind those things because we can’t compete with the supermarkets on price."
Retailer: Symonds Forecourts
Number of sites: 8
HQ: Yeovil, Somerset
Site locations: Sherborne, Bruton, Wells, Bath, Bristol, Gloucester, Cartgate
Fuel brands: BP, Texaco, Shell, Jet
Shop brands: Budgens, Londis
Latest opening: Symonds’ Budgens of Wells, Somerset
Employees: More than 100