For a small family business, the Garner Group has made a big impact on the fuel retailing sector not just with the long years of hard work, community spirit and jolly demeanor, but by creating the most amazing sites out of the most awkward of spaces. Back in 2014 Mike and Tim Garner were the winners of the Forecourt Trader Awards, having overseen an amazing transformation of Portsbridge Service Station, a small, traditional garage on a restricted irregular-shaped plot.
This year they have achieved a similar feat with the grand re-opening in March of Woolmer Service Station in Hampshire, following a six-month closure, during which time the old site originally built by the Garners as a new-to-industry site in 1984 was totally demolished, rebuilt and restructured from the underground-up. The Shell-branded site features a 2,000sq ft Nisa store, two Costa Express machines, Cook freezers, a Country Choice food-to-go station, freshly-made sandwiches, Amazon lockers and PayPoint facilities. The Garner family are clearly excited with their new venture, with Tim’s son Andy, and Mike’s daughter Dani helping to run the business, along with Tim’s wife Elspeth also playing a key role in running the store.
However, the Garner’s flagship Portsbridge site is no longer part of the group. It was sacrificed to help fund the new development, a process which was partly triggered back in 2017, when their long-standing finance director and friend Dave Augur decided to retire. They accepted a rental offer from Rontec for a 20-year lease; then sold the freehold to a major local authority. "Dave was part of the family and his departure caused Tim and I to re-evaluate the business. We had to buy his shares and the best thing we had to sell was Portsbridge," explains Mike. "But while all this was going on, we knew Woolmer Service Station needed a complete knock-down-rebuild."
Their local district of Bordon and Whitehill is undergoing massive infrastructure development, with new housing, schools, sports facilities and shopping centre being created, providing a great opportunity for the family business, which has two other sites one, Bordon Service Station, is just 200m up the road: "It’s a good place to be we’re right in the middle of the local population. It will be the biggest town in East Hampshire," says Tim. "And if you produce a site that has everything to offer, as well as great customer service always key for us you’re going to pull people in."
The new site is a more ’upgraded’ version of the Portsbridge design, with generous office and storage space upstairs; the latest technology and many eco considerations underpinning the efficient running of the site. Mike and Tim are very hands on, and project-managed the redevelopment themselves, as they did with Portsbridge. "We were able to make tweaks where necessary as we went along," says Tim, adding that it was vital to keep the overall floor area to 499sq m to avoid a fresh set of regulations incurred at 500sq m. A key consideration was parking the site has 23 spaces; and to maximise manoeuvrability around the pump islands, which have a 9m span to enable cars to pass by each other. There are also electrical charge points in place, ready for action with Instavolt, although getting the electricity supply has not been straightforward.
"It’s a reasonable size of site half an acre, but as usual for us, a funny shape," explains Mike. "We tried unsuccessfully to buy other bits of land, so we had to give up the car washing although we now point customers to our Bordon site where we are about to upgrade the valeting facilities."
They also gave up the HGV and bunkering business to focus on their key customers. But one of the hardest things Mike and Tim gave up was the Jet brand in 2018. "It was very painful because we’d been Jet dealers all our working lives," says Tim. "It was purely a business decision, encouraged by Andy and Dani, who were more objective and less emotional about it than us."
As to the future, it’s onwards and upwards, but as always, in a very controlled way, says Tim: "We have aspirations, but we are a small family business. We like what we do and working with family is very important."