Winning Forecourt Trader of the Year was amazing," says Jay Gohil, managing director of the Gohil family business, centred in Cosford, Albrighton, Wolverhampton. "It opened a lot of doors for us. The fact we won the award meant people like the Lakeside Group asked us to join. That changed a lot of what we did Subway came along which enabled us to open more stores. Where we are today, (a growing business employing 80 staff, with the original two forecourts, plus one standalone Subway, two Spar stores, and another in development) can be tracked back to when we won the award."
Jay won the most prestigious award in the petrol retailing calendar with his parents and founders of the business, Bhupa and Lata in 2010, for their Esso/Budgens forecourt operation in Cosford. What was so impressive about the Gohils, was their high standards of operation and customer care, their dedicated hard work building up the business from nothing, as well as the mind-numbingly frustrating obstacles they’d had to overcome to get their winning site built.
Five years after their big night at the London Hilton Park Lane Hotel and Bhupa has retired; while Lata will retire by the end of the year. Jay is very much in the driving seat, and focused on the future development of all aspects of the business. The day-to-day running is in the hands of operations manager Mark Barnard, who spent 16 years with the Musgrave Group and joined Jay in 2012. Mark’s wife Lyn runs the office.
"One of the biggest things that’s happened since we won the award was the opening of Subway," says Jay. "We opened it at Cosford in September 2011. It did phenomenally well, going to the top five in the region within the first week, doing £7,500 to £8,000.
"We were doing bake-off, and had tried home-made baguettes and sandwiches in-house, but it was a lot of labour and not delivering much profit. But as soon as we put the Subway brand in the first Subway in a Budgens forecourt store it took off. It’s a good cash and margin generator and simple to operate which means we can take young staff, get them used to facing customers, and then move them around the business. Within a year it had generated enough money to invest in another one. Hence we opened our second Subway in 2013 on a standalone site in Lawley, Telford. We’ve been waiting to open a third for two years but locations are key.
"My number one goal when Mark joined was to grow the business, and I didn’t have time to do it myself. I needed time to look at various projects. A year after he joined we opened the Subway together. Another year passed and we had wanted to open more Budgens stores, but nothing was happening. We had the finance to do it, so it was really frustrating. Because of the company’s results we knew they would not be able to support us in any new developments. That’s when the Spar wholesaler Blakemore came around and were keen to help us."
It turned out that Blakemore owned a store just a quarter of a mile up the road in Albrighton high street, that they were prepared to sell to Jay. He was also offered another site at Wheaton Aston, which was halfway between their Brocton and Cosford forecourts. "We bought both in January on the same day, and have an agreement to keep them as Spar for five years. We have also bought disused retail premises next door to the Albrighton store which we plan to knock through and extend to a 3,000 sq ft store. More good news is we’ve been granted the Post Office branch for the village," adds Jay.
Cosford has also been redeveloped with further plans in the pipeline. The store changed to Spar in October 2014. "We were initially reluctant because of the perception of the brand in this area," explains Jay. "We had been with Musgrave since 2009 and were the Budgens flagship at one point. But there were more opportunities for us with Blakemore." In May the store was increased to 3,500 sq ft by extending into the stock room and taking out the toilets. Removing cladding and lowering the height of the shelving to 1250mm, accentuated the greater size of the store and enables customers to see their shopping journey. The range has been increased: "We’re working harder to maintain a wider range of products 5-6,000 skus" says Mark. "We’re able to bring in niche products like meringues and sauces, via Blakemore’s premium/local catalogue, a range of about 3,000 items to pick and choose from, a one-stop-shop which makes it very easy."
A tempting looking local butcher’s offer takes pride of place at the entrance. "It works very well for us," says Mark. "If there’s a sudden rush on the meat, say if it’s BBQ weather, we just ring up and he’ll have an order back to us within a couple of hours. It’s his name, so he does a very good job of servicing the store."
The meat solution prompts people to buy from the rest of the shop, explains Jay: "Most people eat meat and veg for their dinner. If they don’t buy the meat here, they’re unlikely to buy the rest of their dinner here, so we make meat the most important thing by putting it by the front door."
Tasteful touches around the store add a classy edge and feel, distinguishing it from other forecourts with good lighting; wooden trestles with local produce; specialised cooking ingredients/components; and a Cookshop offer which attracts people from some distance.
The store also features a Post Office Local which does 95% of Post Office services, but because the site is not restricted by normal Post Office hours it has become the first 24-hour Post Office in the UK.
There are plans to build new units along the back of the site an ’Eco Pavilion’ housing a timber-built, glazed single-storey structure, with two 800sq ft units for a pharmacy; a proper sit-down coffee shop offer; plus new toilet facilities. The Gohil team is also considering setting up its own flower service; and is also looking at a doughnut and ice cream offer. The thinking is that all these services create a hub, the site becomes a destination and customers will find other things when they get there.
"The forecourt business is ever more difficult in terms of margins, and you still need to progress in terms of attracting new people onto the site to keep driving up volume," says Jay. Fuel volumes at Cosford have remained steady, 4.5mlpa retail with bunkering growing to 1.5mlpa.
"Brocton is our success story at the moment. We were about to sell it in 2010. On a one acre site, it was doing 2mlpa and about £4,000 in the store. I decided to give it one last chance and put £50,000 into redoing the store and sales jumped to £7K. Last year we rebuilt the forecourt and created more parking, moved to Spar, and the site is in great growth adding one million litres on the volume there since 2011, it’s now up to 3.5mlpa; and doing £10,000 a week in store with further potential."
However Jay doesn’t have the same love of the forecourt business as his parents because of the day-to-day hassles such as drive-offs, and lack of development opportunities. But another forecourt? "I would never say never!"