The UK’s biggest independent fuel retailers were out in force last month at The Belfry Hotel in Sutton Coldfield at the official dinner to launch the publication of Forecourt Trader’s latest listing of the UK’s biggest independent dealers. Highlights from the listing were revealed by managing director of Forecourt Trader, Lorraine Hendle and editor Merril Boulton, showing that the Top 50 Indies has continued its trend as a dynamic and buoyant sector. This is despite certain oil companies now targeting the same type of forecourt operations that the Top Indies themselves have set their sights on such as Phillips 66 which recently announced its intention to expand its co-owned network to 50-100 sites.

However, oil companies will have to take their place in the queue alongside such giants as the number one Top 50 Indie MFG which, despite having more than 900 sites, is still acquisitive. (Or is it? Recent newspaper headlines suggested it may be putting the feelers out for a sale.)Hence we have said goodbye this year to previous Forecourt Trader of the Year winners Symonds Forecourts and Simon Smith Retail, their operations absorbed into the MFG network.

Elsewhere another Top 50 stalwart, the Cornwall Garage Group, has been acquired by up-and-coming Ascona Group Holdings which has big ambitions. It has expanded rapidly in recent times, entering the listing at 26 last year and now ranking in the top 10

However, as we lose these long-standing operators from the industry, and wish them well, there seems to be no shortage of interest from others following in their place. And this is despite the degree of uncertainty created by the transition to alternative fuels, and the fact that the Road to Zero became somewhat shorter recently following the government’s announcement that it plans to bring forward the ban on the sale of petrol and diesel-powered vehicles as well as hybrids by five years to 2035 and perhaps even earlier.

This year the criteria we have used to compile the order of the list primarily, the all-important number of sites owned or operated has been adjusted so that the company’s primary business must be operating forecourts. So three companies have gone from the Top 50 Harvest Energy, Highland Fuels and Pricewatch Ltd.

Overall the number of sites in the Top 50 now numbers 2,360 forecourts, meaning one in every four forecourts in the UK is part of the Top 50. Overall there are six new entries to the listing, filling in the gaps left by those mentioned above being acquired, and our re-categorisation.

With these departures it is not surprising that the majority of companies 28 of them have moved up since last year, with 12 occupying the same position and just four moving down. There has been no change at the very top of the listing, with MFG in the number one spot, having more than double the number of UK forecourts of its nearest competitor, EG Group, which has been focusing on building its overseas business with around 5,600-plus sites globally.

In third place, Rontec has achieved a net increase of 16 sites since last year’s listing, but is still more than 100 behind EG Group, and fourth-ranked Applegreen is the only other Top 50 Indie with more than 100 sites.

Below the big four, other companies in the Top 10 have put on impressive growth, with Penny Petroleum and SGN adding 10 and 13 sites respectively, and Ascona achieving the greatest increase in the Top 50, adding 34 sites. Outside the Top 10, notable growth was achieved by Karan Retail, which added five sites, NTS increased its estate by four sites, and AK Fuel moved up from the ’bubbling under’ section and was a new entry at 30, after adding four sites.

With no let-up in the intense competition for sites, more companies have been developing new-to-industry (NTI) sites, or redeveloping former forecourts or car showrooms, as a means of growing their businesses. Euro Garages is the biggest exponent of this with a dedicated team working on a reputed bank of up to 50 sites in the pipeline. Kay Group was one of the trail blazers for the new-to-industry trend, and the two it opened in 2019 took its total to seven in five years. This year MFG will be getting involved, and is planning to open three new-to-industry schemes it acquired in its takeover of Symonds Forecourts.

With growth constrained by the limited opportunities to add sites, most Top 50 Indies are also investing in their existing shops and forecourts in order to boost turnover. For some this can mean signing up with a symbol group, a refit for the store or introducing new facilities to the forecourt, but for many it means a full knock-down re-build, replacing the existing store with a much larger state-of-the-art outlet.

Food to go has been a growing area among the Top 50 for many years but as consumer tastes develop, companies are becoming more ambitious with their offers.

Other opportunities include car washing. A crackdown by the authorities is encouraging companies to take a renewed interest in the sector. MFG, Park Garage Group, Kay Group, Highway Stops and Falcon Sharma are just some of the Top 50 Indies making this area a priority and investing in new modern equipment.