Taking a daily mid-afternoon nap is not what you might think of as normal behaviour for a Top 50 independent with six flourishing forecourts to run. But Clive Gardner manages it - and believes it is good for business.
"I get some of my best ideas lying down," he smiles. But he is not joking. His self-professed laid-back attitude gives him the chance to think about his business in a way that wouldn’t be possible if he was tied up with the rigours of day-to-day management. He might be lying down, he laughingly protests, but he’s still thinking about work. "I had some great ideas the other day," he says, "and texted them to everyone while lying on my bed."
He believes his relaxed, but hands-on approach (his office at home is wired to every site), gives him the time to create ideas, evaluate them, and keep them as simple as possible - simplicity being another key facet of his approach to life and work.
If this all sounds rather idyllic, that’s because Clive has the luxury of something very special in his business - his daughter Emma. She is the very capable lady who, at the age of 22, enabled Clive and his family to ’retire’ for three years on the Costa Blanca. While he jollied himself with such things as boating, jet skiing, and enjoying his young family, she looked after the business. (In case you’re wondering, he did buy her a special car for her troubles...)
And now that he’s back - having brought the habit of a siesta with him - he is busy expanding his petrol retailing business, which is now called Gardner Garages Ltd. Before that he traded as a partnership - as the Lawrence Group (formed in 1990).
"We formed the new company in September 2006 to bring my daughter in as managing director," he explains. "She has a share of the business, running the day-to-day affairs of all the garages, and I’m the chairman. There is an entity still called the Lawrence Group, but it is owned by Gardner Garages and all new acquisitions will go under that name."
"It is my greatest asset to have my daughter working with me in the business. If she wasn’t here I would probably sell up. As it is I could sell up tomorrow and retire but don’t because I love it. Anyway I’ve done the retirement bit for three years. But you miss the contact, you miss the motivation of work and business, you miss a purpose and the challenge of turning tired sites around. If I acquire a site, I love the buzz in transforming that site and doing whatever I want with it. It’s exciting."
While Clive denies treating business like a hobby, he admits it’s in his blood. He describes his father as the original entrepreneur who was involved in a multitude of businesses - two petrol forecourts (one Esso, one Shell) hairdressers, cafés, taxis, restaurants, guest houses, hot dog vans, ice cream vans and catering.
Initially Clive had had no intention of going into his father’s petrol retailing business - even though he had been seeing in tankers from the age of 12. But at 16 (in 1971), following a family tragedy that had interrupted his schooling, he went on an Esso management course and his fate was sealed. Later on, he set up a Ford agency with his brother Keith. But the headstrong Clive left his father’s business in 1981 to escape family politics. He became a BP licensee, and sold secondhand cars on a site just outside Gloucester on the A40.
In the mid-80s he gave it all up following a divorce, and started again with his new wife, Stella, taking on a BP licensee site in Cheltenham. He also rented a Mobil site (which he gave up in 1994) and in 1990 bought his first dealer site - also branded Mobil - called General Garage, on the A40 in Huntley, Gloucester.
"I had some good times as a licensee but then BP started moving the goalposts, and became rather dictatorial, so I gave up the licensee site," explains Clive.
In 1996 he acquired a leasehold site - Chambers Service Station in Gloucester - signing up with Texaco, and also converted the Huntley site (which had become BP following its merger with Mobil) to the same brand.
In 1999 he bought a freehold site in Worcester - Northwick Service Station - again branded Texaco. That same year he also acquired the leasehold of London Road Garage in the centre of Gloucester, which featured a big shop with a broad fast food offer - Country Fried Chicken, and Dunkin’ Donuts.
Then in 2000 came the move to Spain: "I had two young children, and didn’t want to work and work and then retire at 65 to go jet-skiing in Spain and be too old to enjoy it.
"I felt Emma could look after all the businesses, and I came back once a month just to make sure she was okay. And with the help of emails, mobile phones and Easyjet it wasn’t too bad. We stayed there until the children reached senior school age and returned to England in 2003.
"It was great to come back and see the green grass of home - which may sound corny, but it was good to see my son play football on grass. My daughter Emma matured immensely in terms of running the business, which afforded me to be out there and financed the whole trip."
In 2004 Clive sold the lease of London Road Garage and acquired a site in Cheltenham the following year. Then came Bathway Services - on the A36 in Beckington, Somerset - which he took over in March 2006, acquired on a 15-year lease. This month he completes on what he describes as the busiest site in Gloucester - a long-standing Esso-branded site that he is now transferring to BP. With his other five sites branded Texaco, and Clive a proactive member of Texaco’s National Advisory Council, this was a deliberate switch of allegiances.
"I’ve always worked well with Texaco and enjoyed the company’s personal approach to business," stresses Clive. "Texaco’s offering has been good for me, and I’ve got good volumes out of my sites. However, the Esso site does a high volume - 7.8mlpa - and I felt BP had the stronger brand. I’m pretty certain the volume will go to 9mlpa."
Clive also has three Bargain Booze off licences - two attached to forecourts, each turning over £1.2m a year; and one as a standalone. He has Spar stores on two sites - a third is in the offing - and a Keystore, or Smile-branded store on the others.
Expansion of the Gardner network is likely to continue. But with fuel volumes ranging from 2.75mlpa on the smallest up to 10mlpa on the largest site, Clive’s concern is not about volume and numbers of sites, it’s about profitability. "There’s obviously a lot of activity in the marketplace at the moment, and we are currently being offered sites," he says. "I believe there will be two more sites added before the end of the year. I am in a position to do this because I have the systems, structure and management team in place, which I have established over a period of time."
Talking about the staff in his business sets Clive issuing forth on another element close to his heart and one, he believes, that’s fundamental to the company’s success: "The retailer featured in February’s edition of Forecourt Trader (Steve Parks) took the words right out of my mouth - the most important thing without doubt, in the business is the staff. I’ve always paid above what I think is the average wage, and I always reward and empower the staff. I treat them how I want them to treat me. I respect them and appreciate that they have to come to work and should enjoy being at work and feel respected and wanted."
With his staff motivated in this way, it makes for a happy and successful team, proven by the fact the company has been successful in the Texaco mystery motorist GAPbuster awards for the past four years on the trot, during which time staff on six sites have won foreign holidays as prizes.
"I’ve also started an incentive scheme this year which means if a site comes in the top 10% in the mystery motorist report, staff can potentially earn £6,000 between them in bonuses." One of Clive’s sites also won the Cheltenham Bloom in 2006 because of the palms and ferns - his Spanish influence? - decorating the forecourt. "I want my sites to stand out and be a good experience for the motorist," he stresses. "We have clean toilets, a pleasant environment, happy staff - which all makes for good customer service. Our sites should be a nice place to work and to shop
"If the environment is right and the staff and customers are happy - the bottom line will take care of itself."