Four site redevelopments in 15 months might be more than one feat too many for most retailers, but not for Robert and Hugh Fraser of the Thames Valley-based Fraser Group. The brothers relished such a mighty task, and with their inspiring enthusiasm, hard work and business nous – not to mention guts – they have just completed their final project.
And to top that off, they also scooped Forecourt Trader’s Highly Commended Retailer accolade for their site in Brize Norton, Oxfordshire – plus a handful of specialist category awards including Best Use of Retail Technology, Best Display of Soft Drinks, Best Tobacco Merchandising and Best Display of Chilled Foods – at this year’s Forecourt Trader of the Year awards. In total, the pair have six sites, one of which is dormant at Brize Norton. Lower Earley is a Total-branded forecourt with 1,550sq ft shop, and was the site which won Robert the Forecourt Trader award back in 1997; Brize Norton has a 2,400sq ft shop and is Esso-branded; Pippin in Calne is BP-branded with a 1,400sq ft store; Cannon Pool in Witney is 1,250sq ft with BP fuel; and Georgetown in Didcot, whose revamp has just been completed, and which won Hugh his Forecourt Trader of the Year award in 1998, is 2,800sq ft and also BP-branded. All have Spar shops.
The Frasers redevelopment programme began three years ago when they decided to go with Spar at Lower Earley. “We didn’t want to have the fuel brand above the shop so it was important to find a good partner,” says Robert. “Generally we wanted to get our retaliation in first. It was obvious the way the market was going several years ago so we had to find a partner.
“Georgetown was going to be Budgens, but we’re so into the philosophy of Spar and we feel very comfortable with it, in that we know where its going, so it’s more difficult for Budgens to come in. In time, we could look at other fascias, but I believe that if you have a success story, it’s better to stick with it.”
The Frasers did a number of things at Lower Earley at the same time. They went with Spar, put in Torex point-of-sale and back office systems, and upgraded the car wash, as well as investing in new refrigeration. “We didn’t want to do it piece-meal because it would take a long time and we wouldn’t learn quickly enough,” says Robert. “Most people would do those one at a time but we’re not that type of people. We learnt from Lower Earley and were very pleased in the uplift in sales of about 35%. Then it was a question of getting all the designs, which took about 18 months to two years, then we went for all of the sites.”
Last year they had four projects going at the same time. “We were mad because all of them had new tills, new back offices, all changing to Spar. We had rebuilds, and knock down rebuilds, but now we’ve done it,” says Robert. “Georgetown was meant to be finished last year as well but in the end we ran out of energy. It almost broke us anyway because it was very hard work, but we have got a lot of energy and we’ve got a very good team, an exceptional operations manager Mark Wilson who’s fantastic, and my son Nick is in the business now.”
With Nick and Mark on board, Robert and Hugh are able to share the workload. “Nick has taken on the shops and Mark will be taking on the operations side of the business,” he says. “Hugh works on hardware and technology and I do the accounts. We survived it because of the team really.”
The Frasers have a policy of remaining open during any redevelopment. Four sites continued to trade from a Portakabin, but for the Brize Norton knock-down rebuild, they bought another site to trade from.
“When we rebuilt Brize Norton last year, we bought an old Save site up the road so that when we closed Brize Norton, we could trade out of that site, which was quite acute,” says Robert. “By doing that we actually kept two thirds of our business, which was pretty remarkable really.”
Robert and Hugh are well known in the industry – Robert formed the Lakeside Group five years ago and continues to be its chairman, while Hugh is an active member. The group of like-minded retailers sharing best practice has since grown to 23 members.
“Everybody adds something to the equation,” explains Robert. “The important thing is to have boosters not drainers so people have to give and share rather than just receive and I think it works very well like that. If you put our enthusiasm, knowledge and experience together, I doubt if all the oil companies’ people combined would have what we’ve got in the Lakeside Group,” he adds. “We’ve got some fantastic people and I believe that there should be groups like this all over the country. I formed Lakeside to share best practice and knowledge, and to inspire ourselves to go the extra step. As we’ve got so many members, we’re using it as a buying tool as well.”
But while Robert and Hugh are well-known now, their renown within the industry hasn’t always been so and that’s what led them to begin entering Shell Shine competitions back in the early 1980s after Robert came into the business. Hugh was already running a Shell licensee garage down the road from Georgetown. “No one really knew us so we thought the best way to get known was to start to feature in these competitions because if people knew you they were more likely to work with you, and for example, you might get money spent on the site by Shell.”
Eight years out of 10 one of their sites came in the top four. “We never actually won Shell Shine, but it was still a pretty good achievement, and every time we always won the Southern Region award,” says Robert.
The Frasers are now in the middle of installing a head office system with Torex. “We didn’t have a natural link between their back office and our accounting suite so we’re changing our suite to Sage and using Prism Plus to link to Sage,” explains Robert.
The group will also have a master product file at head office, which will be maintained by them. “We’re doing that because we’re all getting older, and every time you open a new site it is very hard work. We will expand and grow the business more, so if you’ve got a centralised accounting system and product file, it is so much easier.”
The Frasers have no plans as yet to open more forecourts, and in fact, have only ever bought one site in the marketplace, which was Pippin two years ago. “All the other sites have been scraps from the rich man’s table. No one wanted them, but they might now,” he says. Robert adds that the group’s priority is to get all their existing businesses up to the highest standard possible. “We would prefer to consolidate the businesses at a very high standard, get the accounting systems so that we can grow and have training as a way of life.
“A lot of people are acquiring sites, and putting commission operators in, but my opinion is that that’s going to be a more difficult way to wrest business from the superstores,” he says. “We knew they were coming so with a site as good as Georgetown, Brize Norton or any of the others, then they fight on our ground, we don’t fight on their ground. The only site we were late on was Georgetown and if we’d done it a year ago we would have got in before the Co-op next door, but now we’ve got to fight and take theirs. It’s a challenge but we’ll be up for it.”
Robert and Hugh plan to spend more time on marketing and are currently working on promotional campaigns with a new company called In Situ. “One of the things we have to do now is make every single part of our business perform to its peak,” says Robert. “We might have off licence clubs, we might use texting or email for offers, we’ll have web pages... there’ll be quite a lot happening.”
Robert says that to survive in such a competitive market, independents must analyse their businesses and talk to people who have already invested in the areas where they feel they’re weak. “That may be in administration, training, incentive schemes, forecourt layout, shop design, supplier. What people should do out there is identify those things and have the courage to ask people and invest,” he says.
“We spent over £2m last year and we’ve had a very good return. Our business is a way of life, we retain our businesses and we’ve never sold a site. The way I’d like to see my retirement is to put in place people like Mark and Nick so they are empowered to move the business forward. I’ll never really retire but when we’ve got everything right – the accounting, central product file, training so that it becomes a total culture, and the marketing set up – it’s a question of Hugh and I being more strategy, and Nick and Mark are the young stags who will take it on.”