Sunshine, blue skies and country roads there couldn’t be a better build-up to seeing the new Murco branding. Driving round a bend on the A30 in Stour, Dorset, and there it is, standing out in all its freshly-installed, star-spangled glory, attracting the attention of motorists surprised by the colourful transformation.
Riverside Garage is the first Murco site with the new livery, and you sense that its very congenial owner, Graham Hawtree, is pretty chuffed with it all.
"I love it, I’m really pleased," he enthuses. "There’s not anything that I don’t like. It’s a huge improvement, especially the Star logo which is very striking. If the reaction from customers is anything to go by, they like it too a week in and it’s already added footfall. We’re very excited to be the first one."
Selection for this honour was very straightforward. Graham’s contract was up for renewal and Murco reps were keen to re-sign him.
"We had a meeting about six months ago," says Graham. "And as the negotiations drew to a close they asked me how I’d feel about being the guinea pig for the new imagery. They showed me the design and I thought it looked good. I was delighted to be the first site.
"Our polesign was probably 10 years old it didn’t look that bad, but every so often you need to throw everything up in the air and bring it down differently. Apart from anything else, Joe Public’s always very curious about what’s going on. I jumped at the idea and it was installed in mid-July."
Graham is a loyal Murco dealer, and is pleased at the current drive to develop the brand by its owner MFG.
He acquired Riverside Garage in November 1988. He had worked in finance for 20 years but wanted to do something different and be his own boss. His experience in finance, coupled with a practical nous and some work experience on a forecourt as a youngster led him to the fuel retailing sector.
He liked Riverside Garage because it was a big open site on which people could move around easily. Apart from the forecourt shop, it has separate commercial units including car sales and a café which he currently rents out. The deal with the bank manager to buy the site was done over three cups of coffee on the site: "He made the decision there and then as he could see the potential of the site," confirms Graham. "The surrounding area may look like lots of fields, but when you live here you know how many people are tucked away in corners. Some come in from across the fields to get their papers and milk."
Over the years he has doubled the size of the shop to about 1,000sq ft, moving and knocking down walls and gradually transforming the typical garage kiosk-type offer to a rounded Spar convenience format, with bake-off, and Tchibo coffee machine, building turnover to around £22,000 a week.
However he has been faithful to the traditional garage offer, still selling things like spark plugs, fuses and wiper blades. "If you want a wiper blade round here, you’ve got to go 20 miles in each direction to get one," he explains. "And we do a great trade in 20-litre Jerry cans. There’s a better margin on some of these items than many other things people try and persuade you to stock."
Fuel volume is around 2mlpa, with fuel initially supplied by Fina when Graham first took over.
"They were a great company to be with," he stresses. "Until they decided they were pulling out of the country in the late ’90s. It was unbelievable how everything changed almost overnight. It was as if someone had pulled the rug from under your feet. The company merged with Total and Elf, and then it all collapsed. I did panic when I realised what was happening around me. I phoned BWOC and I cannot speak more highly about the service I got. The company supplied me for maybe six months no contract or signage. In the meantime Murco came along in the form of Paul Almond who today works with MFG’s fuels director Jim Mulheran. He signed me up and I’ve been with Murco ever since.
"You don’t really appreciate how good something is until it changes. For me the old Murco, before it became part of MFG, was outstanding, especially when compared with the experiences of local retailers with major brands. I could pick up the phone to the site manager at the Westerly terminal in Bristol and explain we’d sold more than expected and were struggling, and he’d have a tanker here in no time. The organisation was second to none. The service was fantastic both the manager at the terminal and the drivers were absolutely superb."
But things changed in 2013 when Murco was sold to MFG.
"Certainly there were teething problems," confirms Graham. "At the initial changeover you weren’t talking to the same people anymore. They didn’t know you and you didn’t know them. There was no relationship of the sort we’d been used to which can colour your judgement.
"Murphy Oil had wanted to pull out of the UK for a very long time. There are all these things going on and you can’t have any influence on any of it, so you just put your head down and keep on going until something happens. It was very much along the lines of the Fina situation, except a little bit of experience helped.
"When I heard that MFG had bought Murco, and knowing that Jim and Jeremy Clarke had gone from Murco to MFG, I thought: these are good people, who I’ve dealt with before, and I had no reason to think that I shouldn’t be dealing with them again. We’d been Murco for such a long time, so the fact MFG held onto the Murco brand was a very big plus for me. In this area Murco is very strong, so to go somewhere else other than the big three, was not an option. You’re better off going with someone who has some sort of profile in the area.
"When I hear from retailers trying to deal with the major oil companies, I still feel lucky with Murco the fact you can speak to someone you can understand, and who understands your problems. It’s excellent. There’s also a big plus in the continuity of the MFG team, who are of course, the former Murco hierarchy."
With five sons, particularly the eldest two Tom and Paul getting increasingly involved in the business, Graham is beginning to take a step back. But development of the site will continue.
Plans for the future include replacing the outbuildings with an L-shaped development to change the layout and entrance onto the site; and incorporating a café area in the shop.
"I like the idea of an integral café because people could come into the shop without any intention of having coffee or bacon, but can end up going out with both, simply because they’ve smelt it and thought ’I’ve got to have it’," says Graham. He also believes using computer reporting to define what you sell and don’t sell can be too clinical: "Sometimes you have to be brave - for example I didn’t think we’d ever sell olives or the like; or Tchibo coffee which doesn’t seem even remotely brave now, but at the time, it did!"
He may be stepping back, but Graham still has a bit of entrepreneurial twinkle in his eye: "I still remember well enough, the nights when you were working on the till and just before 10 o’ clock there’ll be something that hadn’t sold all day, and somebody comes in and buys one, and you think ’yes’! That’s a great feeling."