Size matters when it comes to the approach Philip and Lesley Tout have towards their business. Their Esso-branded site in Nailsea, Bristol was the overall winner at the Forecourt Trader of the Year awards ceremony at the London Hilton Hotel, Park Lane, in September. The judges comments included the words ’big, bold and beautiful’, and when meeting the Touts for this post-awards interview, Philip agrees they don’t do things by halves: "The bigger the better," he confirms. "It’s easier being bigger. We’ve had small garages in the past, but now we’re only interested in something that’s really good. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t keep it. After all it’s as hard to run a small site as it is to run a big one - you still have the same things to do, but the rewards are less."
As everyone will tell you, the key to a good forecourt business is location. But having the knack to know a good location and be in the right place at the right time to buy it - and then do the right things with it once you’ve got it - is what separates the men (and women) in the business, from the boys. The Touts - who bought their first forecourt 30 years ago - are clearly in the former league. They appear to have an instinct for success - and the courage to pursue it - even when, at times, their plans have contradicted the recommendations of ’industry experts’.
They made a bold move, for example, when they bought a site in Langford, Somerset because of its potential, but had to wait 10 years before they could get their hands on it as it was subject to a lease. But eventually in 2000, they redeveloped the former garage and workshop and initially installed a 2,000sq ft store - which they later extended to 3,000sq ft - against all advice. It was deemed far too large,
"People all around us - oil company executives and other people in the industry - kept questioning us as to whether we were doing the right thing," explains Philip. "But there were no other shops or supermarkets in the area to speak of, and we had a gut feeling about it. And it’s now one hell of a business doing £90,000 a week in the shop, and six million litres a year on the forecourt. I just wish we had room to expand it further."
It was through the Langford site that the Touts first became involved with Budgens, the partnership that is now prompting plaudits for the Nailsea site.
"When we were rebuilding the Langord site, by coincidence Martin Hyson, chief executive of Budgens, was driving by on his way to the company’s store at Cheddar. He stopped to inquire about the plans for the site when the builders and architects were there and asked to talk to the owners. The company had just started thinking about independent retailers, and we were looking for a superstore image - and the supply and distribution to match. At that time Spar admitted it didn’t have enough to fill a 2,000sq ft store. We hit it off with Martin and became the first independent forecourt retailers with a Budgens store - we were the guinea pigs. Budgens was just what we needed - an organisation with the back-up and expertise to support a large store."
Budgens was therefore the obvious choice for their next project - the site in Nailsea, a town housing between 18-20,000 people on the outskirts of Bristol. As locals, the Touts had had their eyes on the site for some time, but the owner wasn’t keen to sell.
"There used to be four or five small garages in Nailsea, but they have closed down over the past 10-15 years. Then a Tesco supermarket site with forecourt arrived and the business went down - the owner then approached us," explains Lesley. "We had always had a vision for the site and snapped it up in April ’05. So now it’s just us and Tesco!"
"We liked the location - it had always been a good business, particularly with car washing, but we knew it could be better. And so it has proved. The shop is already doing £55,000 a week, from less than £30,000 previously, and that is within a year following redevelopment."
But it’s not just the figures that are impressive, the 4,000sq ft store on the smart Esso-branded 5mlpa site is stunning, and a huge leap away from the traditional forecourt store, with its high ceilings and light-filled ambience, designed by Alex Cornish-Trestrail of ACT Design. The endless shelving carries somewhere in the region of 7-8,500 lines, to cater for the needs of its 15,000 customers a week. It also features a large food-to-go area, a big alcohol offer, local and organic foods, and a total of six tills for those busy times, including two supermarket-style checkouts.
But it needs a driving force to make it all pull together, and Philip and Lesley Tout, with their complementary skills, clearly have a passion for the business. So much so that they bought Budgens’ Cheddar store - "it’s a lovely store which would be a cracker with pumps" - and more recently another standalone Budgens in Poundbury, Dorchester.
They have led by example and developed a great team behind them, including manager of the Nailsea store, Matt Venn, and operations manager Darren Hamilton. There are also more Touts coming into the business - eldest daughter Buffy runs a hair salon at the Langford site, second daughter Abi runs the Poundbury store, and son Jonathan also works in the business when he is not at university.
They are also modest: "We’re very thrilled to be nominated for Forecourt Trader of the Year. When we saw the competition - particularly some of the Irish stores - we didn’t think we stood a chance of getting the big prize."
And despite investing in the standalone stores, the Touts prefer forecourts. "It’s what we know," says Philip. "Plus you’re not so vulnerable because you’ve got the three bits to the business - the washing, the petrol and the shop. If one part is down, you’ve always got something else.
"Besides, petrol is much stronger now than it has been for years. There are less forecourts but more cars on the road. The combination of the shop and the forecourt go together well."
=== Winner of best forecourt facilities ===
Apart from winning the overall Forecourt Trader of the Year award, the Touts also won the Best Forecourt Facilities category. With the benefit of redeveloping the site from scratch, the Touts have created a very inviting, well-maintained forecourt with bright airy canopy linking to the shop to protect customers from the elements. The shiny Gilbarco Veeder-Root pumps are all fitted with vapour recovery systems.
The forecourt also boasts comprehensive car wash and valeting facilities, parking for 17 cars - including clearly marked disabled spaces - and cashpoint facility.
There are two rollover car wash machines and one jet wash, all with facilities for paying on the spot, so motorists don’t have to drag themselves into the store to get the relevant tokens, which can be a frustration and cause congestion on the forecourt. A bonus for the business is the bore hole which was already established but means the water is free.
"The car washing and valeting is constantly busy, particularly at weekends," says Philip.
"Car washing is a key part of the business. It’s relatively early days, but I believe this site has the potential to generate £150,000. But it also brings a lot of people onto the site - and they come into the store and buy other things while they’re here."