It’s a busy time for the Simon Smith Group with the imminent knockdown rebuild of two of its seven filling stations. The new sites include shops with a combined floor space of 5,000sq ft, which will add impetus to the firm’s retailing business. Plans are also in place to introduce a Post Office to one, further strengthening community interaction.

Director Susie Hawkins is confident that with the support of her father, Brian Tew, their suppliers and their loyal staff, their significant seven-figure investment will be very worthwhile.

"The planning of our new sites from a blank piece of paper has been very hard work but also immense fun," she says. "Our biggest surprise was the escalation in costs. We have undertaken a few full redevelopments over the years and estimate that it’s now around 50% more expensive to redevelop a site than a decade ago. That means even greater scrutiny of every aspect of the work in fine detail before we commit to builders and suppliers. As a small operator, it’s not easy to run the day-to-day operation and micro manage such a major investment without something falling through the cracks."

Susie says she’s also aware that once the build is completed, there will be no time for either euphoria or exhaustion: "We have to re-energise ourselves immediately to recruit up to 20 people, train them to successfully manage the business and then ensure that the launch is well planned and properly executed. That said, I have a great team of people to support me, most of whom have been with us for at least five years, some over 20! Emma Dee is a good example; she joined as a cashier 14 years ago and now helps manage our day-to-day activities."

The knockdown rebuilds follow closely on the heels of a 10% boost in volume on two of their Gloucestershire forecourts thanks to a rebrand from Total to Gulf earlier this year. This means that today the Simon Smith Group pumps 30 million litres annually with shop turnover of £8.5m. Fuel volumes across its seven sites range from 3.5m litres to 7.5m and the company recognises the importance of working alongside strong brands and trusted suppliers to achieve its goals. So Certas Energy and Shell are its preferred fuel suppliers with Budgens, Londis and Spar, its c-store partners of choice.

Right partner

Susie uses the example of their Cirencester filling station to emphasise the importance of selecting the right convenience partner. "The rural mix of customers at New Quarry respond well to Budgens’ high quality and the variety of fresh produce. The site manages to sell 75,000 litres of fuel and has a shop turnover of £40,000 each week even though it is off the beaten track, has limited transient traffic and is within walking distance of a Tesco Superstore."

But she admits they have to work very hard to attract custom, develop a rapport and deliver the service that will bring people back. "We make sure that we are involved in the community by supporting local events, local charities and local suppliers. Alongside a range of strong promotional offers, our store is always well stocked with plenty of fresh meat and veg. We have customers who rave about our 100% British meats and will never buy their Sunday joint anywhere else."

Susie believes that the key to trading success is to identify the customers who will provide the most benefit from a long- term relationship. "We’ve learnt over the years that there is little point in going for the cheap fuel chasers. We could waste so much energy and margin doing so without receiving any loyalty in return."

But that doesn’t mean that the company isn’t price conscious. It recently introduced a price watch comparison on one site, matching its local superstore’s fuel price. The result was not only an increase in business but a boost to customer confidence, with shoppers reassured that the site is committed to deliver on price as well as service.

Susie acknowledges the growth of fuel brand-free forecourts and while monitoring the trend closely, she has no current plans to take this route.

"I fully understand why some independents might be persuaded to look to a convenience brand for their pole and forecourt livery but fortunately we still see great value in working with big fuel brands such as Gulf and Shell."