Being a Fraser must feel a bit like being something of a celebrity in the forecourt industry. The family name is associated with one of the most successful independents in the business, and most major retailers and suppliers will have heard of it.
As well as winning numerous awards, the Thames Valley-based Fraser Group is actively involved in raising the bar on standards in the industry through the Lakeside Group.
The Frasers’ mini empire includes five BP forecourts all with Spar convenience stores and advanced car wash and jet wash facilities in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire. And it’s still expanding.
But while brothers Hugh and Robert could sit back and bask in the limelight, they believe the secret of their success lies at getting stuck in at grass-roots level.
"Hugh and I have been involved in every aspect of the business," says Robert. "From cleaning the loos to mopping the floors and manning the till - we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty, and we’ve done it all. It means we understand how it all works.
"Even now I can sometimes be found on the forecourt washing cars! I like to talk to the customers and see what we’re doing right and what could be improved.
"I can’t see us ever walking away from the business. I don’t think we’ll ever really retire, we’ve got too much passion for what we do."
Robert and Hugh have certainly put in the hours over the years, but they’ve seen their efforts rewarded.
And the outstanding quality of their sites led to them being named Forecourt Trader of the Year at our awards ceremony in London in September for their Brize Norton site in Oxfordshire.
The Frasers should be patting each other on the back, especially as it is the first time any retailer has won the prestigious prize more than once.
Both brothers have been individual winners before, Robert in 1997 and Hugh in 1998.
Brize Norton also won a string of other awards, including Best Car Care and Best Impulse Ice Cream outlets.Meanwhile, their BP Georgetown site in Didcot, Oxfordshire, received the accolade for Best Customer Service.
The Frasers are well used to winning awards. Since the Forecourt Trader awards started in 1996, the group - which also includes Lower Earley Service Station in Reading, Pippin Service Station in Calne, Wiltshire, and Cannon Pool Service Station in Witney, Oxfordshire - has managed to get several category wins under its belt.
It was also Highly Commended in 2004 for being an "all-round inspiration to other retailers".
The brothers were thrilled to beat the competition this year in the Forecourt Trader awards but say it is their staff who really deserve praise.
Robert says: "All we can do is put the building blocks in place, we need our staff to do the rest. All our managers do a fantastic job on a consistently high performance level.
"Over the past 12-18 months we’ve worked on raising the overall offer to customers. And if the managers and staff didn’t buy into that philosophy, we wouldn’t be able to do that.
"It’s lovely to win this award. But the biggest prize is that we have raised the bar through our managers."
Robert and Hugh pride themselves on running a company which has kept its family values.
Robert’s son Nick is heavily involved in developing future strategy and works as the shop development manager for the group.
The 29-year-old joined the company after learning his skills through the M&S management training programme. Robert breaks out in a huge grin at the mention of his name, adding: "I could not be more proud of Nick. He is doing far better than I was at that stage of my life. He’s achieved everything that I’ve wanted for him, and more. To have him in the business is just wonderful."
Operations manager Mark Wilson has been with the company for 10 years and is described as being "absolutely instrumental" in the success of the business.
"Mark shares our passion, enthusiasm and vision and, together with Nick, has allowed us both to stand back and view the business from outside the box," adds Robert.
Meanwhile, Pam Lambert, manager at Brize Norton, also gets special praise for being brilliant with the site’s staff.
Robert says their excellent partnerships with suppliers is also vital - especially Spar. Torex too has been immensely important with the point-of-sale and back-office systems.
"We also have a wonderful relationship with Alec Cornish-Trestrail, our project manager, who has helped us create all our sites," says Robert. "We would not be where we are today without his passion, experience and knowledge of our business. Alec has now been involved with the construction of six of the Forecourt Trader winners. It’s absolutely amazing!"
== family firm ==
The Fraser Group started off as a family business about 50 years ago.
Robert and Hugh’s father Bob worked for Shell and in the mid-1950s took over one of their sites at Rowstock, between Oxford and Newbury.
Back then the business did everything for the car, including sales and repairs. "Now we do everything for the motorist," says Robert. "But we’ve still got the same values and standards."
Robert and Hugh have brought different skills to the business. Robert was able to use his background in accounts to help with the company’s book-keeping and he also worked as a computer shift manager before coming on board full-time in 1983.
By that time Hugh was already running a Shell licensee garage down the road from Georgetown. Hugh had joined the company 10 years earlier after completing a research and development apprenticeship at Pressed Steel Fisher in Oxford.
Back then, the Fraser name was relatively unknown. But the brothers were eager to push it forward.
"I remember seeing a site that had won an award in a Shell magazine shortly before I joined the company full-time and I said to my brother, ’That’s the way to get noticed,’" says Robert.
"So we started to enter the Shell Shine competitions. This was very important for us in the early days as it helped us get recognition and this encouraged Shell to offer us further licensed forecourts.
"It also helped improve our standards - we had to visit other people’s sites and this helped us get ideas for improving our own."
And the strategy was a success. Eight years out of 10, one of the Fraser sites came in the top four. They never actually won Shell Shine but managed to walk away with numerous Southern region awards.
This sharing of ideas is something the brothers still feel is important for the future of independents.
They believe it is one way to stay competitive with the supermarket giants. And it helped spur them into starting the Lakeside Group, a group of independents who get together to talk about issues in the industry.
"Lakeside is all about best practice," says Robert, who is chairman. "The days of trying to survive on our own initiative are over. That doesn’t give any of us the advantage we need to thrive in the environment we are in today.
"When you have the knowledge and the passion that the Lakeside Group members have... well, it’s just been absolutely invaluable in helping us to get where we are today."
Robert cites the improvements to the company’s epos system as one example. This has helped enormously with suppliers.
He says working together is essential to survival and keeping standards high. "I feel there should be more Lakesides around the country. Getting together and going through ideas and experiences has been absolutely vital to us."
The Frasers say being in Lakeside helps them stay innovative.
To stay ahead of the game they invest in staff and use all kinds of incentive schemes, new technology and training.
One example is that they encourage customers to sign up for their club, which keeps them up-to-date with details about special offers on the car wash, shop and off licence, as well as with the latest developments at the group.
The company has invested £3m in improving the business during the past three years, and has relaunched all of its five sites. The most recent revamp was at the rural Cannon Pool site, which has been owned by the family for more than 30 years.
Robert and Hugh had to make an important decision on the future of the site five years ago. The garage could have been sold for housing but instead the company decided to buy the house next door to use the extra piece of land for car parking.
They invested £750,000 in the site in two separate developments, including the Spar store being extended to 140sq m and an updated forecourt with new fuel storage tanks, pipework, canopy and pumps. The site also got a new state-of-the-art car wash and an extra jet wash.
But all this is just the beginning. The company is about to embark on one of its most ambitious projects yet.
One of their properties in Brize Norton is a dormant site. But there are redevelopment plans for the former car dealership and public house to the side of it.
The plan is to develop the area with a new service station, stand-alone shop and 50 new flats. The site is in a prime location, with two new industrial parks and new housing nearby. The brothers hope to have the store open by the end of 2010.
They would also like to expand their empire to 10 sites within the next three to four years. But that’s where it will stop. Ten’s the limit, according to Robert. And that’s because they still want to concentrate on quality rather than quantity.
All this seems ambitious, not least considering that Robert only lives in the UK for about two thirds of the year!
The other months he spends at his house in Cape Town.But while he may not be in the UK to oversee the business physically, he is still a major presence.
"I work remotely, I’m always online, checking out the figures or keeping an eye on things through the cameras at the sites," he says.
He adds: "It’s all about standards. If we let those go, then what have we got left?"
=== Brize Norton Service Station - the winning site ===
? Opened in 1987
? Size of store: 2,400sq ft
? Forecourt and store is open 24 hours a day - closed Christmas Day. Car wash 8am-8pm
? The business includes the Spar convenience store, off licence, Costa Coffee plus Country Choice standalone coffee machine. Food-to-go offering - freshly prepared baguettes, baps, wraps and salads in the chillers, plus hot pies and freshly-baked bread. Car wash, two ’buy time’ jet washes, car vacuum, newspapers/magazines, Nationwide cash machine, motoring supplies, National Lottery, Calor bottled gas/solid fuel and top-up cards.