When Susie Hawkins attended her first Forecourt Trader awards ceremony back in 2002 she gave herself a goal – she wanted to be the one up there collecting the winner’s trophy. Just three years later Susie, who celebrates her 29th birthday this month, has achieved that goal, becoming one of our youngest ever winners and the first female solo entrant to pick up the petrol retailing industry’s top award, Forecourt Trader of the Year 2005. When Susie Hawkins attended her first Forecourt Trader awards ceremony back in 2002 she gave herself a goal – she wanted to be the one up there collecting the winner’s trophy. Just three years later Susie, who celebrates her 29th birthday this month, has achieved that goal, becoming one of our youngest ever winners and the first female solo entrant to pick up the petrol retailing industry’s top award, Forecourt Trader of the Year 2005.
It’s been a busy 12 months for Susie. Her award-winning site at Barnwood, Gloucester, underwent a complete knock-down rebuild, re-opening in May. There were ‘tears and dramas’ during the transformation, but all the hard work has been worth it: “I’m thrilled with what we’ve done at the site,” she smiles.
And the award is the icing on the cake: “It was my goal,” she says. “Throughout the development that has been what I wanted to achieve. We had a two-day induction for our staff and my opening remit to them was ‘we want you to be part of the Forecourt of the Year this year, that’s the task’. I still can’t believe we’ve done it.”
The Barnwood site is part of the Simon Smith Group, which operates six neighbourhood forecourts across Gloucestershire. The business was set up 32 years ago by Susie’s parents, Brian and Vicky Tew, after Brian left Shell. The couple started off as licensees on a small Shell-owned site in Cheltenham. Over the years they built up their business, buying and selling sites.
Inevitably, the young Susie was no stranger to the forecourt industry. “All through my school holidays since I was little I’ve been involved – stocking shelves, stock-checking, working on the till. I’ve grown up with it,” she says.
Susie became group manager of the forecourt business in 2000, and she and sister Julie – a professional three-day eventer who runs the farm and equestrian side of the business – were made partners last year.
However, although Susie always planned to become part of the family firm she felt it was important to strike out on her own first. So after completing a degree in economics and accounting at Bristol University, she went on to study for a Masters degree in business management in the food industry at the Royal Agricultural College. She then went to work in the City as an insurance broker for a year and then spent six months as a management consultant.
“I always wanted to go and do my own thing. I knew I’d come back to this, but didn’t know when,” Susie explains. “There would have been nothing worse than just coming straight out of university and into the business. I wanted to prove that I could do something on my own, not only for myself but for other people.”
“I enjoyed London and the lifestyle,” she adds. “But working in a big organisation and being a very small cog just wasn’t for me. I much prefer to make a decision and live by it.”
Susie actually came back earlier than she’d expected, when former group manager Trevor Dumbleton left to focus on his burgeoning dot com business. “When he resigned it was crunch time,” she says. “I’d always wanted to come back and this was the perfect opportunity to do so.”
So, still aged just 24, Susie returned to the family business and after an intensive training period with Trevor – or ‘a baptism of fire’ as she calls it – she took over the running of what was then seven sites.
Barnwood has been the Group’s first whole-site redevelopment, with the £1m budget covered by the sale of a forecourt in Bromsgrove, near Birmingham, for housing. Prior to the rebuild, the Total-branded site had only ever undergone minor ‘sticking plaster’ work.
“It’s a big plot, but was badly designed, mainly because it was in a residential planning area,” Susie explains. Luckily for the business, the area was re-assigned as mixed use when the local council reviewed its town plan a few years ago. This paved the way for the Group to start formulating its vision for the site, working with Alec Cornish-Trestrail from ACT Design.
Central to the development was the shop. The old 1,200sq ft unbranded shop had always performed well but had scope to do much more. “We were still doing about £20,000 in the shop,” says Susie. “Our fuel volume was about 70,000 litres, which seemed slightly disproportionate to the shop turnover. It wasn’t the volume that was driving the shop, it had potential on its own.”
The new Budgens-branded shop is 2,800sq ft and offers an extensive range of fresh and chilled foods, grocery, off-licence and hot food to go. Choosing Budgens was a last-minute decision, as they’d originally favoured Spar. “We looked closely at both, but in the end preferred the Budgens product range,” says Susie.
Just as important as the shop, however, was the forecourt. “I was very conscious that it shouldn’t be secondary to the shop but complement it,” Susie stresses. “We didn’t want to just do a fabulous shop and then have the outside let it down. Outside is our big design statement.”
And a design statement it certainly is. The forecourt has a clean, modern look, with an attractive curved canopy roof and bright red LED lighting. There is also a steel car wash building with blue-tinted glass, which gives the site an eye-catching futuristic look. “That was all part of us wanting to do something different,” says Susie.
The canopy is all one piece and linked to the shop, so when it’s raining customers can fill-up in the dry and walk to the shop without getting wet.
A five-pump starter gate layout lent itself well to the shape of the site and has already proved its worth.
“During the mini fuel crisis I was worried because we didn’t really have queues,” says Susie. “Because you can get every grade at every pump – and we’ve got five pumps – it pumps an incredible amount of fuel without looking busy. We did around 160,000 litres of fuel that week – and did run out – and yet it didn’t seem busy.”
The knock-on effect of this was that because people weren’t waiting for a long time the shop sales weren’t hit as badly as they might have been.
The forecourt facilities are top-notch, which is why the site also picked up our Best Forecourt Facilities award (along with Best Crisps & Snacks Outlet and Best Use of Retail Technology).
As well as the car wash, there are two jet washes, a car mat cleaning machine and a Washtec quad unit with screenwash, air, vacuum and smellies all in one.
“Customer reaction was brilliant from day one,” says Susie. “I think there was a lot of interest locally because of the structure and they’d seen it all going up.”
In its first week shop sales were up to £24,000, with the fuel volume at 80,000 litres and it’s been growing since. The site now averages around 120,000 litres of fuel a week and about £40,000 in the shop.
“We’re about where I thought we’d be and now I just want to push it that bit more because I think we can do it,” says Susie.
The project has been a total labour of love for Susie, who visited the site almost every day during the rebuild. She has a complete photographic record of the redevelopment from start to finish. “I’m ready to do my next one now,” she laughs.
The next big project will be at the Group’s Monmouth site, scheduled for early next year.
“It won’t be a complete knock-down re-build and hopefully it won’t really shut because the sales building there is huge, there is a lot of space,” says Susie. “We’ll do it in bits, we’ll move the car wash out and put in a big wash centre. We’ll also do some pipework changes.”
The Group’s Cheltenham site has also just undergone a minor re-vamp, with the shop being re-branded to Budgens.
Ever-enthusiastic, Susie believes there’s plenty of opportunity for the independent dealer in today’s market.
“I think it’s a very exciting time for us,” she says. “Because I didn’t grow up with big fuel margins I don’t expect them. Fuel to me will never make me rich but it’s a fabulous footfall driver and helps cover your costs.
“With there being fewer sites out there and because we’re lucky with the sites we’ve got being in good locations, their future is secure and hopefully it can only get better.”
Susie says the Group is always on the lookout for new sites, but only the right ones: “I don’t want to get too big – I would say up to10 sites would be the limit for me,” she asserts. “We want really good quality sites, which do take a lot of running, but that’s what I enjoy the most.”
It was no doubt Susie’s enthusiasm and drive that brought her to the attention of The Lakeside Group, a pro-active bunch of independent retailers who meet regularly to share best practice.
Susie was thrilled when she was asked to join two years ago: “It seems a bit like representing your country to me, being asked to join the elite,” she says. “It’s a point of contact with people who are really passionate about their businesses. It can be a very insular industry, so it’s nice to get reassurance and support from other people in the trade.”
And it was through the group that Susie came to enter – and win – the NACS Global Scholarship competition, where she saw off rival retailers from America and Australia.
With her continued success Susie’s profile within the industry has only grown and she now feels she is a player in her own right: “I’m now my own person – I definitely started out as Brian Tew’s daughter,” she says.
However, Susie is the first to acknowledge the role her parents have played in her success. “They’re my inspiration. I couldn’t have done it without them.’ She says. “They’re thrilled and outside of business they’re just great parents.”
Husband Marcus, who works in commercial surveying, is also a great support. “His role in the business is to keep me sane,” she laughs.
And whereas things may become fraught in some family firms, Susie says she and her dad have a great working relationship. “Sometimes it can be difficult for parents to give control or to trust, but we have a brilliant relationship. We’ll debate things – we’re both quite strong characters – and give our own opinions, but we listen to each other. Ultimately he set this business up from nothing and I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for that. He’s providing me now with the ammunition to drive it forward again.”
And with one of her top goals now achieved what are Susie’s aspirations for the future? “I would like to win again next year – with another site.”
- The Simon Smith Group was set up by Susie’s parents 32 years ago when dad, Brian Tew, left Shell.
- Their first site was a Shell co-owned site in Cheltenham called Waghornes, where Brian was licensee.
- It is now a family partnership – Susie and sister Julie became partners in 2004. Susie operates the forecourt business while Julie runs the farm and equestrian businesses.
- The Group currently runs six sites.
- Two freehold and two long leasehold sites are supplied by Total: Barnwood, Gloucester; Red Apple in Cheltenham; Dudbridge in Stroud; and Lower Lane in Coleford, Forest of Dean.
- Two newest sites acquired August 2004. Freeholds on Platts deal with BP: Over Monnow in Monmouth and Abbotswood in Cinderford, Forest of Dean.
- The Group’s total fuel volume is 28.5 million litres.
- Shop sales are £7m.