The long term future of one of Kent’s oldest and most successful family-run forecourt operations, J C Morrison, has been significantly boosted with the acquisition of a third filling station, situated in the village of Barham near Canterbury. The Gulf-supplied petrol retailer currently employs 60 staff across two sites and generates turnover of £4.65 million through its Budgens forecourt shops with fuel throughput of 7.3 million litres.

Driving this latest initiative is Annabel Du Plessis, daughter of the company’s managing director, Bill Morrison and the fourth generation of a family that started petrol retailing in 1922. An economics graduate, she recently returned to the Thanet-based business having previously worked for accountancy giant, Ernst and Young, in both its London and New York offices.

“I am very proud to have Annabel back in the fold,” enthuses Bill Morrison. “She has been around the business since she was a baby. From the age of 15 she stacked shelves, worked the tills and generally helped out for pocket money.

“She brings dynamism and energy to our business and her talents have already had a positive impact. It’s an exciting time for us all.”

Annabel’s first major project was to secure investment for the acquisition and development of the freehold forecourt in Barham. Having successfully achieved this goal, plans have now been submitted to develop the forecourt and introduce a mini supermarket, four times larger than the current shop.

“The application is supported by the local farming community and with the backing of our forecourt partners, Budgens and Gulf, we are confident of the site’s potential,” says Annabel. “Our initial weekly shop income target is £32k, rising to £40k by year end.

“J C Morrison has always been a progressive company, my great grandfather was a pioneer when he opened one of Kent’s very first petrol stations and Dad followed in his footsteps when we became only the second forecourt in the whole of the UK to secure a Budgens franchise in 2002.”

It was 20 years earlier that Bill Morrison made his first foray into convenience retailing although that adventure was short-lived and costly!

“In 1982 we were itching to move into convenience foods and decided to open a Spar shop at our Ramsgate site,” he explains. “It was too early, the reaction from customers was ‘Very nice but what’s it for?’ so it was back to motor accessories and cheap watches.

“In 1986 we made the decision to leave the motor trade and concentrate on petrol retailing. It was a good decision, ridding ourselves of an increasingly dictatorial regime with contracting margins to concentrate on fuels and develop convenience shopping. Working within the independent fuels sector always presents a range of challenges but at least there is some freedom and flexibility.”

The company utilised its high street location and space when, in 1992, it redeveloped its Broadstairs site with a full blown convenience store, dedicated parking area and 24 hour opening.

“It was a fantastic success,” explains Bill, “and then 10 years later we enjoyed a similar impact when we introduced Budgens and fresh foods.

“We may not be natural retailers but when the time was right we embraced it with open arms, supported all the way by Budgens expertise. They are an excellent business partner, always looking at ways to improve our profitability. Working alongside the ‘Waitrose’ of forecourts sits well with our customer base. It won’t be right for every site and I am sure that Bargain Booze is an ideal partner in less affluent areas.

“We particularly like the fresh food ranges and Budgens’ constant efforts to improve presentation and upgrade product ranges. Its recommendation of Cook meals is an example; very well presented ready-made meals, absolutely delicious and now flying out the door!”

With an eye on the future, another recent change by the Morrison family has been the switch from Total to Gulf.

“We were with Esso for 45 years before they decided we did not fit with their future plans,” Bill recalls. “It proved to be a blessing in disguise. The Total brand came with a first class delivery service and a committed team of people. Now seven and a half years later, we see the move to Gulf as a natural transition. We have kept all key personnel whilst inheriting a strong brand with a promising future.

“The change has been positively received by our customers, our sites look more vibrant in the new décor and volumes have edged up slightly.”

Sharing knowledge and building close working relationships are fundamental to Morrison’s business ethos. Bill Morrison, now 70, is a founder member and ardent supporter of the Lakeside Group, a 100-strong group of leading dealers in Southern England that exchanges information on all aspects of forecourt retailing.

“When you are peppered on all sides by hypermarkets, it is essential to have a good understanding of the market place as well as the support of suppliers who can empathise with our business and are pro active in their response,” continues Bill.

“Tesco is particularly dominant on the Isle of Thanet. There appears to be no limit to the number of hypers that can secure planning permission on green field land by promising job creation. And we all know it’s a complete con, one job at Tesco invariably means one lost in a local shop!

“We have to take on the supermarkets head-on to stay relevant to local motorists and shoppers. At both Broadstairs and Ramsgate, the sites are 24 hour, there is ample parking for shoppers and invariably there are offers including a fuel promotion linked to shop purchases. Many of our walk-in customers, particularly older people, prefer the convenience of shopping with us, not having to walk up and down miles of aisles and then queue for the privilege of paying.

“Petrol retailing can be a lonely business and it is healthy to share best practises and the best available deals with ones peers. This philosophy has served J C Morrison well for many years and I am sure it will continue to do so in the future.”