Ask most people to point out the exact position of Hull on a map and their fingers will probably waver somewhere vaguely over the north east. "We’re 60 miles from anywhere really," admits Patrick Sewell, managing director of family-run Sewell Retail, which is based in the city.
"Hull often gets a bad press in the media, but it’s a great area to operate in. Hull itself is an inner city area with all the issues associated with that, but it’s right on the edge of the East Riding, which is largely an affluent rural area. Our sites are all relatively close together but span Hull and the East Riding, which creates a great mix for us. With our 12 sites I’d say we’ve probably got just about every customer base covered."
The Top 50 Indies retailer is part of the Sewell Group, a long-established construction and retail company in Hull with a history stretching back more than 130 years. The group is also one of the city’s largest and most successful businesses. On top of that, last month Sewell Retail was named Forecourt Trader of the Year 2009, for its Chanterlands site. Altogether it took home no less than eight awards on the night for three of its sites the others were its sites at Willerby and Pocklington.
As Patrick and I drive around Sewell’s forecourts all 12 are branded Total the varied locations and customer base become apparent. We start at Willerby, a site sandwiched between a retail park and one of the busiest roads into and out of Hull. Customers include local shoppers from one side and transient commuters from the other. One of the main draws at the compact Willerby store is its tea and coffee facilities, and its offer helped it beat the competition at this year’s awards to be named ’Best Hot Beverages Outlet’ (it also won ’Best Main Route Independent with 10 sites or more’).
The site came into the Sewell stable 18 months ago when the company bought six forecourts from Rix Petroleum. The acquisition doubled the number of sites for Sewell, sent its turnover from approximately £25m to £60m, and added about 120 staff.
According to Patrick, Rix was also a well-established company in the area but it was no longer interested in fuel retailing, so the acquisition was "a very good fit". And although Willerby only has a small store, the forecourt is unusual as it has 17 tanks with 500,000 litres of storage.
Next on the tour is the contrasting Cottingham Service Station forecourt, a busy neighbourhood site and one of Sewell’s most successful. It is set in a more affluent area while there is also a student hall of residence around the corner, plus transient trade from the local Hull ferry port. Outside the store is a poster announcing that the Sewell Group was listed in this year’s prestigious Sunday Times Best Companies to Work for Top 100 (the company was ranked 45 in its category of companies with 250-5,000 employees). Patrick is obviously very proud of this achievement, and says it is great for the company’s recruitment.
He says Sewell is the only company from the region which has ever made it on to the list, and the local authorities were so proud that they held a dinner for 200 people, which was attended by the Lord Mayor of Hull. The company has also been an Investor in People since the early 1990s, and now holds the title ’Outstanding Investor in People’.
The company takes part in a retail apprentice scheme with Hull College and runs team-bonding activities such as taking different groups of employees to NACS in the US. Patrick adds: "I think it is the closeness of our company that’s the key. There are no secret agendas, we’re very open."
Next it’s on to Sewell’s flagship operation Chanterlands, which won overall Forecourt Trader of the Year 2009 as well as ’Best Neighbourhood Independent with 10 sites or more’; overall winner of the ’Best Neighbourhood site category’; ’Best Site with a Licence to Sell Alcohol’; and ’Best Car Care & Lubricants Outlet’. The first thing that hits you here is the drinks offering, just inside the shop. It’s a large island which Patrick says is an adaption of an American version offering hot drinks from a Lavazza coffee machine, as well as freshly squeezed orange juice. Patrick says he now has Lavazza at three locations and is very happy with the company. In addition, there is a seating area at the 24-hour site with free wi-fi and two TV screens. As local police officers get free coffees at all Sewell sites, Patrick says they can often be found here catching up on their notes over a drink. He adds: "We typically get about 15 or so police in here every day. It works well. This site used to be prone to shop theft but it definitely makes a difference having the police here."
The seating area also has a customer comments board which, on the day we visited, seemed mainly filled with praise for the "lovely sausage baps", "friendly staff" and "delicious coffee".
The rest of the site is mainly a Londis convenience store with a small Bake ’n’ Bite food-to-go section with hot food available from about 7am to 7pm.
Patrick points out that customers seem to like the wider aisles and automatic doors which make the store more accessible for prams and wheelchairs. The site’s manager is 22-year-old Emma Batch who recently took over from Quentin Wilson (Quentin is now a senior manager and still has a role overseeing the site). Like all managers, Emma’s appointment was an internal promotion at Team Sewell. She started out as a part-time cashier at the company and worked her way up. And I soon discover, Emma, like most of Team Sewell, is not the only member of her family working for the company her sister Katherine Batch is senior manager at Willerby.
All sites operate a loyalty card scheme to encourage repeat business. Anyone spending more than £5 in store earns a stamp which counts towards a free coffee or car wash, and the cards can be used in any Sewell store. This is all part of Patrick’s plan to standardise all sites as much as possible and work on the Sewell branding.
In a similar vein, Chanterlands is supplied by Londis, but the Sewell Retail branding is everywhere from the posters and shelves in store to the fascia outside. Patrick explains: "We’ve evolved in our thinking of what branding means. The fascia is something that’s very visible. What I hope to achieve is to get more of our sites the same. I would say that in Hull the Sewell name is as well known as Londis. We want to get standardisation and recognition so people recognise us and what we do. They’ll know our coffee is good, we have ATMs and the lottery etc. It’s about taking the thought process away from people you don’t want to confuse customers. It’s not for every company of course, but it’s relevant to us because we’re clustered in a very close area and we’re in Hull, which I always think of as a little island by itself. The chances are that customers will often visit more than one of our sites, and I want someone to be able to walk in and recognise them as ours."
Chanterlands is similar to other Sewell sites in that on the outside of the building there are large posters showing photos of staff publicising various parts of the business. Patrick explains: "We’ve got a portfolio of about 30 members of the team who did this photoshoot. It’s adaptable because it can be used for anything from the car wash to coffee. The emphasis is on people the face of the product. It’s worked really well and our staff absolutely love it! It’s the buzz they get from feeling they are visibly involved in the business, and it includes everyone from trainee managers to handymen."
There is also generous car parking at the site with room for about 80 vehicles.
Inside Chanterlands there is a large reproduction of a black and white photograph on one wall which Patrick proudly tells me is of his grand-dad’s fruit and veg stall at York market. The Sewell family went on to buy into construction company Sewell Group, which was owned by an unrelated family coincidentally also by the name of Sewell. Patrick’s father Paul is now managing director of the Sewell Group.
The group has a very high profile in the community with four main divisions: developments, facilities management, construction and retail. On the construction side, the company has built schools, hospitals and libraries in the local area. It opened its first forecourt in 1989. The group’s local involvement has led to decisions about what it stocks in its forecourts for example none of its sites sell alcopops. Patrick says: "We need to retail responsibly. My job is to make us profitable but we also need to look after the brand."
Meanwhile, the company has supported many charities over the years. It’s latest event is a sponsored staff walk between all its sites for the Smile Foundation, a local organisation for post-natal depression sufferers.
The next site is Ferriby Service Station, which has the enviable location of being the first forecourt on the A63 after the docks at Hull. It’s a very busy forecourt for transient customers, especially with HGVs at about 5am. It sells about 4mlpa of fuel but has a small basic shop which Patrick is planning to knock down and rebuild. Meanwhile, at our final stop, at South Cave Service Station, there is a car wash displaying the new ’Sewell Car Spa’ branding, which the company hopes to roll out to more sites. Patrick describes South Cave as "a little honeypot" due to its location on a busy road in an affluent rural area. It attracts commuters on different missions. For example, they may call in for fuel and breakfast in the morning and then again for a bottle of wine on their way home. Although a compact store, it has some premium products on sale, including a fridge packed with Champagne and a chiller displaying some pretty pricey wine.
Patrick tries to visit at least half of his sites every week, and he’s optimistic about the future. He says: "The economic situation means we’ve spent the past six months doing a lot of work behind the scenes with things like planning applications. We’re a smallish company and we have to keep in mind that we’re a retailer and not a developer. So we’ve been concentrating on being a retailer.
"I’ve had a lot of people approaching us regarding sites that are up for sale, and we’ve been looking reasonably seriously at a couple. Our business plan and strategy is to keep growing the turnover of our business."