Shailesh Parekh is nothing if not a fighter. He was last seen battling with Esso in the Court of Appeal in 2004 the culmination of a long-running dispute with the oil company. With him were 100 other like-minded retailers, mostly, like him, licensees. They lost the court case and faced huge costs.
Two weeks after that Shailesh used his credit card to put down a deposit to buy Molineux Service Station in Wolverhampton, and become an independent dealer.
"I was proper broke by then," he says, in something of an understatement costs for the group’s five-year fight reached a mind-boggling £1 million. The Federation of Small Businesses helped with £500,000.
But as a mark of the true character of the man, he is not bitter. He has moved on, and used the experience as an inspiration to speak out on a number of issues he feels strongly about and to that end he is seeking to become an MP. He is currently wearing out a great deal of energy and shoe leather delivering leaflets as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for the Hodge Hill Constituency in Birmingham.
"In fairness to Esso, the company was magnanimous in victory," he is keen to stress. "The settlement was generous. Although I’m still paying the company in instalments, it was a fraction of what it could have demanded of me. That left me some breathing space."
He decided to invest in the service station because he loves the petrol retailing business surprising you might think bearing in mind his previous experience, and also because he was a professional jeweller and metallurgist in his native Zambia, before he moved to the UK in 1990. He arrived during a recession and the only job he could get was as a cashier in a service station. He was later offered the chance to run his own service station and hence became a licensee for Esso. Twenty years in the business in spite of the ups and downs! has got him hooked. He has determinedly transformed his site, increasing fuel volumes by a third to 3mlpa, and last year spending £160,000 to redevelop the store, which has jumped from £3,500 a week to £16,000 a week. He is even planning to buy an additional forecourt.
"I’ve put everything into this little venture," he explains. "It’s a trade I’ve really grown to love because it requires you to know quite a few different things. Above all you get to meet a lot of people and it’s not office/laptop bound. It’s a very hands-on business and you can see the rewards instantly or you reap failure instantly, depending how you run the site. You can feel the buzz of it and you can’t say that for many trades.
"You can also feel the buzz of politics in a similar sort of way. If you go and campaign, if care about people and sort a problem out for them, that can be rewarding. While the electorate can be unforgiving too, so will customers be unforgiving if you don’t live up to their expectations. There is a great synergy between the petrol retailing business and politics in my view, because it is community based. I like politics very much, but I never thought I would end up doing it professionally."
The main inspiration came during the legal battle, when he discovered that oil industry undertakings the group had pinned their hopes on, were not going to save them. "I was still relatively new to the country, and when you’ve come from a third-world country you assume that if something is promised to a government it will be honoured. Furthermore you expect the government to see to it that it will be honoured. When that doesn’t happen it is a huge disappointment. It emerged that the government’s remit was not to enforce the undertakings, but to look after the interests of consumers.
"From that point I was rather incensed as a group of retailers, all we were trying to do was earn an honest living, and yet we were being trodden on. If someone is trying to better themselves, and taking their destiny in their own hands, society should be anxious to help propel those people further, because that is the sort of country we want - where people are industrious, self motivated, and people don’t expect a living from anyone else. I associate that with being Conservative.
Shailesh turned to his own MP Caroline Spellman, who helped spur him on his way: "There are too many MPs who have come from big business, civil service or military backgrounds, but very few who have paid a deposit on a credit card to start a business and basically put their head on the parapet financially. What I hope to achieve one day if I ever become an MP is for government to recognise what small businesses really need when they legislate. For me a big prize would be to have recognition in the law in the disparity between a big corporation and a small business. I would also like to see a quasi-judicial process, where if a small company is seeking rectitude they can use that quasi-judicial process to seek redress.
"I would also like to be involved with government schemes that are practical and pragmatic; to help business start-ups and help businesses grow and improve themselves. I believe a country is only as great as its entrepreneurs: independent people not those concerned with corporate budgets who invent and innovate. People who go with their heart and gut feeling and take the risk."