Keith Mowbray is one of the old school petrol retailers. Modern technology may have changed the industry almost beyond recognition since he first started selling fuel, but Keith doesn’t believe in mobile phones, the internet or email. Walking into his office at his site is a bit like stepping back in time
- his desk is stacked with papers on which he has recorded his business transactions over the years, and from which he can pluck any piece of information at a moment’s notice.
And when he closed his site on the outskirts of Birmingham last month, he had happily run his business that way for 30 years. Keith, who has featured in Forecourt Trader many times and is a well-known character in the industry, is also averse to the modern idea of running a forecourt based on fuel volume - for him the more important thing is profitability, as well as taking pride in his job and offering the best level of service at his beloved Maypole Service Station.
And his business beliefs certainly seemed to work. His regular customers happily paid some of the highest fuel prices in the area, and in return they could take advantage of one of the cleanest, tidiest and friendliest forecourts for miles - with a dose of Keith’s unique humour, politeness and genuine kindness thrown in.
But last month Keith packed up his price pole and shut up shop, a decision he made after he failed to sell the site as an ongoing business. It wasn’t that there had been a lack of interest in the site, which had been on the market for more than two years, but that for Keith it was vital to find the right buyer.
"It was never about the money you see," says Keith, who has had several lucrative offers from property developers. "If it had been about the money I would have sold to a developer or just taken a low offer. The site gave me a great life for 30 years and I’m sentimental about it. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. But I’m tired now and I just need a break."
Keith, who has been in the fuel business for 37 years and is an experienced white-pole retailer, wants to sell for the right price and ideally to someone who wants to invest in the site in King’s Heath and keep it as a forecourt. Three years ago he turned down an offer of £600,000 because it didn’t feel right, while other people were "sniffing around" at £620,000, but since then there have been no firm offers. While others might cut and run, Keith wants to sell for what the business is worth. And while he says he probably would have accepted a firm offer of £620,000 for a convenience store business, because this was the "more palatable option", the credit crunch came and put an end to this.
"I could sell it tomorrow if I was prepared to sell it below its value," he muses. "It’s worth more than £600,000 of anyone’s money." But Keith was only prepared to keep working at the forecourt for so long and on Good Friday he finally shut up shop. He feels that prospective buyers are being short-sighted - after all, the forecourt and 500sq ft shop were making a healthy profit even though they were open from just 10am to 4pm and selling 12,000 litres per week. He says it has the potential, with new pumps and tanks, to get up to 4.5mlpa.
He adds: "It’s always been abhorrent to me to do volume. The whole industry is volume-driven but it’s not for me." So for now Keith, who always proudly charged at least 2ppl above the market for his fuel - sometimes as high as 6.2ppl - prefers to wait for the right offer. He plans to spend his time going to Wales to trace the family tree of his beloved pet dog Sam, who died last year. He will also be at this month’s International Forecourt & Fuel Equipment Show (IFFE) and has some industry presentation work coming up. Keith says he’ll probably give himself a year off, and then if he hasn’t had a decent offer he’ll reassess his options. That could include selling the site for land - he has applied for planning permission to extend - or modernising the site and renting it as a business.
Keith adds: "I will still stay focused on the day-to-day running of the business. Spiritually, it just doesn’t seem like the end."