Regular readers of Forecourt Trader will be familiar with the long-running saga of Tollgate Services, a Shell site just off the A2 at Gravesend. They will also therefore be familiar with the determination of its owner, Simon Privett, to defy plans by BP to build a service station and drive-thru McDonald’s just 50m from his site, which could ruin his business.
He has just completed a £1.3m investment in his site, which has involved extensive redevelopment work, including extending his Spar store to just under 5,000 sq ft and adding a new franchise, Favourite Chicken. The store looks amazing with its long rows of modern chillers and freezers, extensive convenience range, fresh veg and bakery offers, comprehensive off licence, plus a coffee area with three Costa machines and food-to-go offers that include a Subway, plus some internal seating.
In the past 18 months he has also invested £130,000 moving across to the Shell brand from BP, and installing new pumps, lines and re-lining tanks to offer the full range of standard and premium fuels.
To recap, Simon acquired the site for around £500k in November 1998 as a somewhat dilapidated service station, but in a great location at the side of the A2, not far from the M25. Within a month he discovered there was an imminent road change that hadn’t come up in the searches quite why is a question he subsequently put to his solicitor. But that’s another story!
The Highways Agency was considering a scheme to build a new, wider road that would bypass his forecourt. A number of options were on the table, but the final plan for the new road was the worst of all the options for him: not only was his site cut off from the A2, but he was excluded from being compulsorily purchased and receiving compensation which would have enabled him to move on. Over the subsequent years, he spent more than £100k fighting the Highways Agency, producing arguments and putting different schemes forward but to no avail.
"They chose the most expensive option, which meant leaving my forecourt intact but cut off from direct access from the main road," says Simon. "I felt cheated and like they’d gone out of their way to hurt me. It felt really personal."
But being in his own words a "stubborn so and so", who seems to have suffered a lot of setbacks and disappointments in his forecourt life, he continued to work hard at building up the business.
His big plan had been to become a millionaire and retire young. He originally intended to be a hotel operator but couldn’t get into it. However, since the age of 19 he has worked in the forecourt industry, first as a manager for a private company, then a commission operator and Texaco retail operator. Despite various complications, he managed to buy his first forecourt Baberbridge Service Station near Hounslow in 1996, taking the business as far as he could and selling it in 2003.
It had been his hope to have a number of sites, but circumstances worked against him. However, he wanted to have at least one decent site, and so he "begged, borrowed and stole" to get the money to buy Tollgate Service Station. Hence, when his excitement was crushed within a month of the purchase, he wasn’t going to give up without a fight. He developed the site (he has done six store refits since 1999) and managed to pay off the mortgage by 2005, so that whatever happened, he wouldn’t be in debt to anyone. Within a year of buying the site he had pushed the volume up to 150,000 litres a week from 80,000. Over the next five-to-six years volume grew to 250,000 litres and £45-£50K in the shop.
Come June 2008 and the old road closed, and he lost 50% of his trade. Another fight with the Highways Agency resulted in dedicated signage from the A2, and the business built up again.
Then in 2013 came another blow BP had applied for planning permission to build a service station on the new A2 directly in front of him. Each time he fought to get the planning overturned, BP came back with a revised application. In 2015 Simon managed to get his supply deal with BP terminated and switched to Shell, which he says has been brilliant.
But while he has successfully fought off BP’s plans so far and elements of the story give him an uncomfortable feeling of a conspiracy he feels BP will ultimately succeed. "It’s like a time bomb hanging over me. But as long as I have something to sell as a business, I’m prepared for the future. I’ve invested in the shop so that it can stand on its own. It’s my pension." And his ambition to make a million?
"I’ve just spent it"
Age 19: Manager of 20 tenanted sites a mixture of Elf and Texaco, for a private company in North London, Sinclair Carriage
Mid-80s: Commission operator and Texaco retail operator. Then had three Total sites but given notice in 1995 of non-renewal of leases. Was in process of buying Baberbridge Service Station, completed in October 1996. Built volume to 150,000 litres a week from 80,000, sold site in 2003
1999: Bought Tollgate Service Station in Gravesend on the A2 near the M25, for £500K. Within a month discovered there were plans for a new road which would bypass the site. Despite many challenges the Highways Agency left his site out in the cold with no compensation.
2008: Built business up to 250,000 litres a week, and shop to £45-50K a week. New A2 opened, business halved. Another battle resulted in good signage from the A2 and business began to recover
2013: Another blow BP applied for planning to build a forecourt 50m in front of Tollgate Service Station on A2
2015: Got out of BP contract and over to Shell
2017: Still working hard in the business, still fighting BP’s plans