Life is looking good for the Gohil family Bhupa, Lata and their son Jay as they enjoy "fantastic growth" at their Cosford Garage site, and reflect in the glory of scooping the Budgens Store of the Year award. Their success is well deserved. The journey has been long and hard, but it appears to have
strengthened rather than weakened their resolve. Their guts and determination have seen them through to the point where bigger plans are now on the drawing board. The forecourt business is still a challenge and an inspiration to them.
The story begins some 30 years ago when Bhupa could not find work in his chosen profession as an aeronautical engineer. He got a job with a friend working on a garage forecourt, but the long hours away did not go down well with wife Lata.
"We thought it best to go into our own business," explains Bhupa. "So in 1982 we became Elf commission operators on a site in Oldbury, West Midlands. At least we were together then!"
After three or four years, a change of strategy by Elf saw Bhupa and Lata move to a tenancy operation, with sites covering both sides of the A5 near Shrewsbury. "This was a turning point for us, as all traffic heading to Wales and Ireland (and back) had to pass our sites. It was a phenomenally busy operation, and that’s how we made the money to purchase our first site Brocton Garage on the A34 in Stafford and became dealers for the first time, selling Fina fuel," says Bhupa.
Then a big black cloud came on the horizon in the form of a bypass, which wiped out business at the two A5 sites. They took on other com-op sites at one stage they were running four or five sites as com-ops. Life was hectic. Towards the end of the ’80s they decided to redevelop the Brocton Garage site which they still own and have continued to redevelop, with further plans currently afoot.
"It is a traditional site which is starting to flag. However it’s been a steady business for a long time, and was our first ever site, so it is of great sentimental value to us. At its peak fuel volumes were 4mlpa and £10,000 in the shop. We now plan to increase the store by one third, up to about 900ft."
Within five years of developing the Brocton site for the first time, came an opportunity to buy Cosford Garage, in Albright, West Midlands, the site which has given them so much success although not without considerable headaches as well.
"The Fina rep we had worked with for many years had moved to Butler, and recommended the Cosford site to us," says Bhupa.
"Instinctively we felt the site had a lot of potential. It was on an acre site, encompassing several operations, including 1.5mlpa forecourt, workshop, café and corner shop. We thought it could be a good community site.
"It was next to a training school for the armed forces both military and navy (around 2,500 people); next to a busy road carrying commuter traffic into Wolverhampton and haulage traffic into Wales. So in 1992 we bought it."
The Gohils wanted to develop the site, but the existing businesses they had inherited as tenants on the site were a sticking point. For example, they had to pay the newsagent £75,000 about three times the market value to get him out. There were also tenants in the workshop and café more complications which had to be dealt with over the years.
They eventually redeveloped the site in 1998 against the background of Esso’s market-changing Pricewatch campaign, which had affected their volumes. Butler helped them, the majors didn’t want to know. "They only became interested in the site, once we had developed it," explains Bhupa. "The service we had from Butler was great. The company had small tankers. You picked the phone up and the delivery arrived within hours."
However there were several problems during the redevelopment, the most serious one being the discovery of a brook underneath the site. It held up the work for four to five weeks, and the Gohils were faced with serious financial difficulties.
"The bank manager had changed and the new guy didn’t understand the petrol retailing business," says Bhupa. "We had a few sleepless nights and had to borrow family money. But we came through it." Fuel volumes rose to 5mlpa, and sales reached £15,000-plus in the Mace store.
However new problems were afoot. The Butler brand had been taken over by parent company Fina, which was then merged into TotalFinaElf. Internal problems meant problems with deliveries with Total drivers not supplying Fina sites and so on. The Gohils found themselves having to order fuel three to four days in advance. They went to BP on both their sites in 2002.
The last of the tenants left in 2006 and with that came the opportunity they had been waiting for the chance to redevelop the whole site. "Not having vacant posession of the site had been one of the most frustrating times of our lives," says Lata. It was in 2007 that the eldest of Bhupa and Lata’s three sons, Jay, an engineering graduate who had been working in hotel management, came into the business and brought a fresh perspective to the latest redevelopment plans, which had encountered many obstacles. One was plans for the car wash, which held things up for a year, and were eventually dropped. Another was a problem with architects who wanted to put several pillars throughout the store. Local residents added to the pain, although the Gohils used this as an opportunity to engage with them, and indeed continue to get involved with community activities. Eventually in 2009 the site was transformed into a leading edge 24-hour 5-6mlpa Esso-branded forecourt with a big Budgens store doing £58,000 a week. The Gohils who bring their own complementary skills to the business have now restructured the company and are currently considering opportunities on four or five sites. "But we still love meeting our customers, and being on the shop floor," says Bhupa.
"We’re here to serve the community not the other way round."