Fighting fires, responding to accidents and rescuing animals is all in a day’s work for Steve Highland. As well as operating two busy forecourts in Cambridgeshire, Steve has been a retained firefighter for 20 years; a role that gets him up at all hours of the night or day.
The first question that springs to mind when Steve starts telling stories about his second job is how does he fit it all in? The day before our interview he’d spent four hours rescuing a horse that had been trapped in a ditch overnight. "I don’t have a hard life; we just make it work and fit everything in. I have a wonderful wife who is very supportive and accepts that I’m on call whenever I’m at home. And I’m lucky to have great staff at both of my sites."
The role has taught Steve skills that have proved invaluable in life and business. "There are a lot of advantages for retailers in giving a member of staff the flexibility to join the retained fire service. They will learn a lot of skills that they can bring into your workplace first aid and fire safety being just two. Being in the emergency services is all about being part of a team, and that is so important in running a successful petrol station. I have learnt so much and it gives me a lot of satisfaction."
Steve came from an engineering background to petrol retailing in 1983, working for a chain of forecourts called Oakstead Service Stations. In 1985 he bought his own site in Potton, and a year later took on Shell’s fourth Travellers Check-style forecourt in Bishops Stortford, which he ran for six years.
In 1994 he bought Bluntisham Service Station. After a period of illness, Steve decided not to expand the business with a larger network of forecourts, and in 1997 did a small redevelopment at Bluntisham, followed by a complete knock-down rebuild in 2009, turning the site into the hub of the community. The forecourt has a 3,600sq ft Budgens store with a Bluntisham Butchers concession. Also on site is a large café ’The Lounge’, a barbers, and a ladies’ tanning and fitness business called ’The Vibe Studio’. A hairdressers has recently moved out but a fish and chip shop is due to open soon.
During planning, the authorities recommended Steve keep the former shop building because Bluntisham doesn’t have any other amenities. The arrival of the café emerged from an amusing exchange between Steve and a passer-by, who was peeking through the fence at the new development as Steve swept the forecourt. Nick, who now runs the café with his partner Erica, stopped to ask ’the cleaner’ who he needed to speak to about the empty building. "He asked what it was going to be and I said ’Don’t know; what do you want it to be?’. Nick replied that the village could do with café." And Steve agreed. Now, the café has become a meeting place for the local community, with many locals coming in every day.
Aside from fires and other emergencies, Steve has another fight of a different kind on his hands with the Valuation Office Agency (VOA). Like many petrol retailers, Steve is being asked to pay disproportionately high business rates, particularly at Bluntisham. The rateable value for Bluntisham, which includes the independent businesses occupying the building of the previous shop, now stands at £85,200. In neighbouring village Somersham, the total rateable value of all the retail businesses combined, which includes a Tesco Express and One Stop (owned by Tesco), is less than that.
"In discussions with local VOA officials I get the impression they would like to help but are prevented from doing so by a senior officer who is the petrol filling station expert," says Steve. "I have yet to find out who this person is or what planet they are on. The VOA, as part of HMRC, is supposed to take a tax neutrality stance in its assessments and not unjustly enrich larger multiple retailers. In my trading area that is not the case. Buntisham is a rural village with no other facilities. When you look at the burden of my rates, I would certainly think twice before investing heavily again in a rural business and providing 25 much-needed jobs. The VOA is penalising me for giving the community a decent facility and I don’t think it’s fair.
"Every retailer should get a breakdown of their rateable value and they will see the shop is way out of kilter," he adds. "These are austere times and everybody has got to pay their share, but if they’re not careful the community will end up losing a very valuable amenity. If Bluntisham was to shut, people in this village would have to travel six miles to buy a pint of milk or a newspaper, never mind filling up with petrol. How can that be good for the environment? If the same was to happen in Potton, people would have to make a nine-mile round trip. And if they’re going to another petrol station, they’ll likely be doing their shopping there too. We talk about fuel deserts going east from Bluntisham there isn’t another garage for 20 miles."
Bluntisham and Potton have both suffered from the onslaught of unregulated hand car wash operators but Steve is fighting back. At Bluntisham he has taken out his rollover car wash to put in a hand car wash operation after one set up for business down the road. "He’s got no planning permission, no drainage, but isn’t bothered. He knows the authorities are powerless to close him down quickly so I’m fighting fire with fire," says Steve. "If people want a hand car wash, that’s what we will give them. This is a legitimate business run by an Albanian who was recommended to me. There are seven hand car washes around Potton and that’s had a devastating effect on my car wash business, but if that’s the market, you can’t argue with the market. It’s a six-month experiment at Bluntisham and if it doesn’t work, I can put the car wash back in."
Steve’s son Tom, 20, joined the business last summer after completing a three-year apprenticeship as a carpenter, but his job was by no means handed on a plate to him. "When Tom left school he asked if he could work for me. I said no. His mum said ’That’s a bit harsh’, but I questioned what skills he had to offer me. I felt that working for his dad was a soft option although I do now work him harder than the others. Also, if something happened to the business, I wanted him to have an alternative living. But I’ve no doubt that Tom could take the business forward after me if he wants to."
Part of that future is a potential redevelopment of Potton to a similar standard as Bluntisham, but Steve admits that he’s apprehensive about the future. "We’ve got falling fuel margins and who knows what the future holds for fuel supplies and what the policy of the majors is going to be nobody knows.
"You’ve got ConocoPhillips pulling Jet out of the South West, Esso disappearing from Scotland, and we don’t know what’s going to happen to the Total brand, so we’re all going to have to make contingency plans.
"Every dealer must have a plan B in their armoury because of the changing situation within the fuel market. No one is going to work for nothing and we won’t get government subsidies.
"If predatory pricing carries on the way it is, far more petrol stations are going to close down purely because they’ve got no money for investment," adds Steve. "My nearest Sainsbury’s is selling unleaded at 136.9ppl and I can’t buy it for that. Better people than me have been saying that this can’t be allowed to continue. We need to make a living and a little extra to put in the coffers for investment. If we’re not making that, then the plan B might have to be alternative use for the site.
"Bluntisham is a successful business that would stand on its own without fuel, but hopefully the investment we’ve put into the forecourt should mean that we don’t have any difficulty obtaining fuel supply for a good few contracts yet."