With eight Texaco branded service stations and convenience stores, 14 workshops, a major wholesale tyre business, a rental property business, emus, deer, cattle and around 800 new-born lambs to contend with, it’s not surprising that Richard Whittemore is up before dawn most mornings. While Richard’s main focus is his automotive businesses, he represents many modern forecourt retailers who have diversified their business portfolio to ensure success, with their forecourts being just one string to their business bow.
Petrol stations and the automotive industry are in Richard’s blood. He grew up on a Regent-branded petrol station in High Wycombe that had a small workshop attached and was run by his parents. The emus and deer on Richard’s 800-acre West Sussex farm are very much a later addition to his business portfolio. All Richard’s businesses are run as separate entities, but there are a number of obvious synergies between them.
"We have one head office, but there are lots of cross-overs between our businesses," explains Richard. "Our petrol stations are a shop window for our workshops, and our workshops service the 35 distribution vans we use for our wholesale tyre business."
Employing over 240 staff and expecting turnover to reach £48m this year, Richard puts success down to the team around each area of the business, stating: "It wouldn’t all be possible without strong leaders in each business. The key is that they all get on well and are going in the same direction."
Today, under the Elite Garages name, Richard owns eight Texaco-branded service stations four with garage workshops across the south of England, including sites in Mannings Heath, Haywards Heath and Pulborough, in West Sussex. Fuel volumes range from 2.5mlpa to 4.5mlpa. Some of the sites have been with the company for 30 years or so, but the most recent site acquisition was three years ago in Truro, Cornwall rather a long way from the company’s traditional hunting ground. "We want to expand our forecourt portfolio, and we’ve looked at everything in the South East, but prices are so high we couldn’t find anything suitable," explains Richard. "There’s not much available, what with the super-groups seemingly wanting to buy everything and pushing the prices up.
"It’s a seller’s market, but we’re not interested in selling up because we enjoy what we do.
"We therefore decided to look to the West Country for opportunities to grow. We’re currently looking at the potential purchase of a site which will hopefully come off in the very near future."
The Elite Garages forecourts feature a variety of shops, the biggest being the 2,000sq ft store at Mannings Heath; and there is an ongoing programme of development and refurbishment, and "maximising the money we’re making per square foot".
The current shop formula is Mace stores offering Costa Coffee and an off licence. In the past six months Post Offices have been added on three sites.
"They’re doing really well and have increased footfall dramatically," says Richard. "The Post Office fits perfectly with our forecourt operation. Staff had to undergo training, but it offers us a big return for a few extra hours of work, because it’s bringing us new customers who then buy a range of items from our shops."
Elite Garages has a long history with the Texaco brand formerly known as Regent stretching right back to the company’s formation in 1960. Apart from a few years in the ’90s when problems with the Texaco management of the time forced it to move its sites to a mixture of Esso and BP it has always been happy with the service. Following a good offer, it came as no surprise that at the end of 2016 Elite Garages renewed all sites with Valero, to continue sporting the Texaco brand for the next five years.
Richard claims a key reason behind the renewal was the company’s relationship with regional manager, Keith Evans what he calls the ’Keith factor’.
"Keith and his team are an ace card to Valero," says Richard. "Any issues are quickly resolved and we have a mutual understanding of how each other’s business works, which is so important in reaching the end goal. If they’ve got your interests at heart for the long term, that’s what works."